Self-sacrifice has stormed into New York City theaters this season. On one stage, a Viennese aristocrat hands over to a Jewish psychiatrist the pass that would have released him from Nazi detention. Elsewhere, a failing traveling salesman commits suicide in the hope that his family will receive a life-insurance settlement that would allow his son to get ahead at last; a Brooklyn longshoreman betrays his wife’s undocumented cousins to immigration authorities and provokes a fatal showdown with one of them; and a 17th-century New England farmer goes to the gibbet rather than relinquish a signed confession admitting that he’s consorted with the devil. All the men wracked by these storms permanently absent themselves from moral conundrums, in gestures at once self-aggrandizing and self-abnegating: What can one do when capitalism, racism, male honor, and mass hysteria seem to toss one against the limits of principled action?
We owe the larger-than-life presence of this quandary to the 2015 centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth. Along with some public readings, conferences, symposia, and publications, four of Miller’s major plays have been or are still being staged in New York as part of the ongoing festivities: Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), A View From the Bridge (1955), and Incident at Vichy (1964). Seeing them all in the space of five months (two of them in dazzling Broadway productions by the experimental Belgian director Ivo van Hove), I was struck not only by how Miller’s protagonists fatally escape a crisis when it comes to a head, but also by how often—in three of these four plays—the crisis is provoked by the hero’s illicit desire, which is to say, by a woman’s erotic power.
In Salesman, Biff discovers Willy Loman’s affair with a woman he’s met on the road, which is revealed toward the play’s end as the cause of the rift between father and son, as well as of Biff’s loss of ambition. In Bridge, Eddie Carbone upsets communal mores and calls the law in order to rid his home of the man loved by his 17-year-old niece, Catherine, a woman Eddie lusts after incestuously. In The Crucible, John Proctor is condemned—and several innocents of Salem hanged as witches—because he has adulterously “known” and then jilted his household servant, Abigail, also 17. Though these plays also have female characters that are grounded and less sexualized, I couldn’t help fixating on the function of women in Miller’s dramas as the agents of his heroes’ well-made comeuppance.
Van Hove’s volcanic versions of Bridge at the Lyceum Theater and The Crucible at the Walter Kerr Theater (until July 17) have made this point pop to the surface, in no small part because his Catherine (Phoebe Fox) and Abigail (Saoirse Ronan) are presented as women who are bewildered and enraged, respectively, by their lack of power within stifling patriarchies. Still, being thoroughly captivated, even thrilled, as I watched these masterfully constructed plays in the theater, and then riled up as I thought about them afterward, I realized that I was stuck in the same polarized ambivalence that dogged Miller’s long, illustrious career as one of the most lauded American playwrights—and one of the most vilified.