As Dorothy Fields put it in Seesaw: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”
While Arthur Miller did not finish with Death of a Salesman (his final play was Finishing The Picture) he began is long and illustrious career with No Villain, a play he wrote while a University student in 1936. When he wrote it, the aim was not a Broadway production but prize money – his family were nearly broke and he needed the money for them and him. No Villain won the Avery Hopwood award (as did a later play, Honors at Dawn) but Miller himself did not regard it highly and apparently never tried to have it produced.
Now, nearly 80 years after it was written, and in the year of the centenary of Miller’s birth, No Villain is having its world premiere production at the Old Red Lion Theatre, thanks to the determination and persistence of Sean Turner, who also directs the production. It seems the Estate of Arthur Miller did not have a copy of the play and Turner discovered it in the archives of the University of Michigan and then set about getting permission to stage it.
At about 90 minutes, No Villain is one of Miller’s shorter plays but it certainly feels familiar. Even in his very first play, Miller’s later style and approach is evident: in some ways, this play may be an ugly duckling, but you are never in doubt there will be a swan.
The plot of No Villain reflects Miller’s actual life. He was one of three children; the Barnett family in No Villain has three children. Patriarch Abe works in women’s clothing; Miller’s father did likewise. The family business is under pressure again; Miller’s father lost nearly everything in the Great Wall Street crash of 1929. The youngest Barnett son, Arny, goes to University, wants to be a writer, must scrape by to simply exist; Miller’s life was similar, perhaps harder than Arny’s as he had to work many jobs to fund his higher education.
Of course, the central ideas here reverberate also in the later, far superior Miller work, Death of a Salesman: a salesman coping with bad luck and facing worse and lying about it; two sons, bonded by blood but different in outlook and destined to clash; external forces denying the father access to funds; a mother who love and worries; a surprise event causing one son to react violently and change the family dynamics forever.
But, although there are similarities, No Villain is a very different piece to Death of a Salesman. There are no overt memory sequences and there is not much sense of universality about the situation and characters. Nor is the overall effect depressing or seemingly hopeless. In many ways, this is a much more positive play. And a specific one.
The Barnett family awaits the return to the nest of younger son, Arny. Although tense in the waiting, all seems well in the house. Mother Esther is filled with anxieties; Father Abe seems preoccupied but not cantankerous. Ben, the elder brother, a huge mountain of a man, is quiet and sweet, attentive to his kid sister, aware of his parents’ separate needs and, with an impressive calmness and certitude, holds the family together through the sweat of his brow and the hard work of his hands. His eyes betray a mind that is agile and contemplative.
The central tensions come from outside the family but they reverberate inside. The economy is struggling to deal with the rise of unionised workforces and the fear of Communism is thick in the air. A strike is gripping New York. Strike lines can’t be crossed without fear of violence and if they can’t be crossed deliveries can’t be made and profits cannot flow. Without sales, Abe’s business might fail – again.
Ben wants Arny to help him cross the strike lines, ensure the sales are delivered so that the Bank can be reassured and Abe’s business loans extended. But Arny will not be a “scab”, will not cross the picket lines. Brother against brother. Son against father. Mother on the sidelines, watching and worrying. Mother and Father worry about their future and the legacy for their children.
These are the sorts of themes which occur again and again in Miller’s plays. The central narrative device here – what kind of compounding pressure can a single person endure – is one Miller hones and refines over the course of his output.
One of the things which is striking about No Villain is the lack of any sexual or sensual undertone. Others are Miller’s willingness to write about the communism/capitalism divide and dogma, Ben’s rejection of marriage to a rich Jewish girl he does not love, and the idea that an orthodox religion might be overthrown in favour of modern thinking.
The play is set in two distinct, very different locations: the cramped home in which the Barnetts live, together with the maternal Grandfather, sparsely furnished, slightly shabby, a deep sense of faded glory ever present; and the cramped industrial space where Abe stores his stock, sells his wares and conducts his business, with the help of Ben and hired hands. Somewhat miraculously, both spaces are superbly realised in the Old Red Lion Theatre space.
Designer Max Dorey has done a tremendous job. The notion of the period is clear as is the diminishing glory of the Barnett family. Everything from the new-fangled telephone to the single chair where adults must sleep because of space issues is acutely judged. In the factory premises, the banks of hanging coats gives verisimilitude to the notion of a once flourishing, now pressured business and the sounds of work activity add to the realism of the overall effect.
Jack Weir’s lighting is exceptional too: moody, insistent and faintly dream-like; the way he uses light to shape scenes is exemplary. The top of the play is bright but listless, the energy of the light strangely unsure while the family waits in the heat for Arny’s return. The work environment is perfectly evoked, with shadows of substance reflecting cross-beams or roof supports which mark out the area as one of work, not home, life. The light is denser, somehow, in the factory, reflecting the thick, uncompromising difficulty that Abe is experiencing there, and, somehow, it all looks like you are watching an old movie – the light is grainy and sinister. The final scene, funereal and climactic, is intense, naked candlelight adding to the texture of the ambient hues.
The jazzy but soulful sound from Richard Melkonian also sits perfectly with the tone and effect of Miller’s writing. There is a real meeting of minds in the design and execution of the physical setting and the realisation of Miller’s vision here.
George Turvey is intense and brooding as the eldest son, Ben, and he captures the multi-faceted nature of the character brilliantly. He is a physically impressive man, the kind who would have been a great success on the sports field and who is obviously unafraid of hard work. The sheer bulk of his frame falsely suggests, along with the treatment the family bestow upon the more bookish and slim Arny, that he is not as clever as Arny. In fact, the opposite is probably true. Turvey plays all of this very well and keeps the audience guessing about what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s a fine, intelligent performance.
As Arny, the suspected communist intellectual, Adam Hartley is perfectly cast. Slightly weedy, slightly afraid, but with a steel Barnett spine available when needed, Hartley’s Arny proves to be the active ingredient which sets off the family implosions and explosions. David Bromley and Nesba Crenshaw seemed slightly too melodramatic at times, as the Mother and Father Barnett, although Crenshaw, in particular, is given difficult lines by Miller, lines which stray more into impressionistic territory than realism. Indeed, this is true of both parents really – there is a heightened sense of drama and concern about their lines which cuts across or perhaps highlights the more down-to-Earth, but somewhat opposing, world outlooks of their children.
The most fascinating part of this production is that, despite a lack of resources, space and, in some cases, sufficiently experienced actors, the overall effect is rather mesmerising. Turner has successfully evoked the Barnett world, its silly and savage aspects. Many of Miller’s later, more well-known characters, can be seen in the shadows here – just waiting to burst forth from Miller’s writing in the correct context.