‘Plain Girl’ by Arthur Miller ****

Whilst I am rather a big fan of Arthur Miller’s plays, Plain Girl, which I purchased from Books for Amnesty in Cambridge back in April, was the first of his prose works which I had read.  It seemed a fitting tome to read in the current climate; its blurb states that the novella (or, arguably, the extended short story) ‘is a beautifully crafted account of a quest for personal fulfilment against a backdrop of world crisis’.  Rather than the threat of Trump and the havoc which he is already wreaking, the threat in Plain Girl is Hitler; even in New York, ‘the Germans were rallying on the street corners to bait Jews and praise Hitler on summertime Saturday nights’.

Published in the United States in 1992, and in the United Kingdom in 1995, Plain Girl has been very highly praised; the Evening Standard calls it a ‘superb fiction’ which ‘deserves praising to the top of the highest skyscraper for its humanity, wit and depth’, and The Sunday Times deems it ‘a tiny jewel of a book.

Janice Sessions, the protagonist of the piece, is seen by all as a plain girl, despite being the daughter of a ‘stylish old-fashioned New York Jew’.  We first meet her as she lays beside her dead husband in bed; much of the novel then goes back to look at her past relationships.  When her beau, a ‘passionate communist’ named Sam, leaves for war, she begins to discover her own identity, falling in love once more, and feeling valued.  9780413694805

To anyone at all familiar with his plays, it will come as no surprise that Plain Girl is marvellously written.  The sense of both time and place is strong, and Miller demonstrates a wonderful insight.  From the first page, Janice has rather a startling psychological depth to her, and is not at all a stereotypical woman of her class and period.  She is rather a complex character: ‘She was and wanted to be a snob…  She wondered if she’d been drawn out of the womb and lengthened, or her mother startled by a giraffe…  She had a tonic charm and it was almost – although not quite, of course – enough, not since childhood…’.  So many of the themes which are explored here are of great importance now, from politics and grief, to family, war, sexual relations, and literature.

Plain Girl is a poignant and resonant novella.  At just 76 pages of rather large type, it is incredibly brief, a mere breath of a story.  Regardless, Miller packs in such depth.  The whole has been well ordered, and intelligently crafted.  Miller provides a quick but thought-provoking foray into the mind of a woman, and her struggle to find her own place in an unstable world.  Whilst Plain Girl did not take my breath away in quite the way that his plays have done, and did not feel quite as clever, it is certainly worth seeking out.

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Classics Club #21: ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller ****

I received the gorgeous little Penguin edition of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for my birthday.  Despite only having read two of his plays to date (rather predictably Death of a Salesman and The Crucible), I count Miller amongst my list of favourite playwrights.  The foreword in this volume was penned by the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman, and an introduction written by Miller himself has also been included.  Of A View from the Bridge, Nicholas Hynter, director of the Royal National Theatre, says: ‘[it] will always stand with the masterpieces of Ibsen, Shakespeare and Sophocles’.

Written in 1955, the play, which was based upon a tale Miller was once told, tells of Italian Eddie Carbone, and is a ‘tragic masterpiece of the inexorable unravelling of a man’.  Miller speaks the way in which A View from the Bridge was ‘generally regarded as rather cold’ at first, and failed to find a large audience upon its initial Broadway run.  The version of the play which is currently in print has been revised by its author, who writes, ‘I was tired of mere sympathy in the theater.  The spectacle of still another misunderstood victim left me impatient…  I wanted to write in a way that would call up the faculties of knowing as well as feeling’.

In his foreword, Hoffman writes engagingly of Miller’s work: ‘Here we find the true compassion and catharsis that are as essential to our society as water and fire and babies and air…  Miller awakened in me the taste for all that must be – the empathy and love for the least of us, out of which bursts a gratitude for the poetry of these characters and the greatness of their creator’.

In A View from the Bridge, immigrant Eddie Carbone is living in a tattered Brooklyn tenement in a rundown neighbourhood with his wife, Beatrice, and niece, Catherine.  In and around this location is where all of the action takes place.  Eddie is a longshoreman, ‘working the docks from Brooklyn Bridge to the breakwater where the open sea begins’.  Beatrice is thrilled when her Italian cousins make it off the boat in New York; Eddie less so.  Miller has captured Beatrice’s reaction perfectly: ‘I’m – I just – I can’t believe it!  I didn’t even buy a new tablecloth; I was gonna wash the walls -‘.  A nice subplot regarding Catherine’s intention to leave school early and take up a position as a stenographer has also been inwoven.  The play opens with a long monologue spoken by Alfieri, a lawyer.  He talks directly to the audience, giving the context of the scene which he is both a part of and separate from.  Alfieri is essentially used in place of a Greek chorus; he serves much the same function.

I very much admired the way in which Miller simply yet thoroughly set his scenes; his stage directions are precise, and immediately begin to build realistic pictures in the reader’s mind.  As with Death of a Salesman, the very notion of the American Dream and its failures are brought to prominence.  Thematically, A View from the Bridge is fascinating.  The dialogue between the more minor characters does tend to be a little repetitive at times, but the entire play is so measured and precise.

Miller’s main aim in translating the original story to the stage, and the way in which he interpreted the action, were for the following purpose: ‘by knowing more than the hero, the audience would rather automatically see his [Eddie Carbone’s] life through conceptualized feelings’.  Of his revision, he rather insightfully states that ‘Eddie is still not a man to weep over; the play does not attempt to swamp our audience in tears.  But it is more possible now to relate his actions to our own and thus to understand ourselves a little better not only as isolated psychological entities, but as we connect to our fellows and our long past together’.  For all of these reasons, and arguably for many more, A View from the Bridge is an incredibly powerful play, which I would highly recommend.

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Upcoming Plays

Studying A Streetcar Named Desire presently at college has rekindled both Kirsty and I’s passion for plays. Having recently discussed how much we both adore them and would love the opportunity to read more, I thought I would include a list of all the plays we hope to procure and (re)read over the next few months, alongside our monthly reads:

(Prone to expansion)

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard
“Amadeus” by Peter Schaffer
“The Crucible” and “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller
“The Misanthrope” by Molière
“The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov
“Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles