In the 1950″s, New York was a diverse cultural “melting pot”; because it was a magnet for immigrants both legitimate and illegal. The myth of “The American Dream” and “The Land Of The Free” had spread all around the world. To the people of those countries hit hardest by the post war recession, such as Italy and Ireland, the stories about America and New York in particular as a place where, if one could only work hard, one would be rewarded with wealth beyond counting, were believed absolutely.
Of course, when the immigrants finally arrived at their destination, they often found that the reverse was true and most immigrant communities were extremely poor.
At the time within which the play is set, there were great social and cultural changes taking place across the whole of American society. Although World War 2 had ended with America amongst the victors, the Korean War and the threat of global communism made many Americans suspicious of the newest wave of immigrants and conversely, whilst the Americans were experiencing a post war boom, and a freedom to enjoy many luxuries and much more leisure time at this time Hollywood, at least, discovered the concept of “a teenager”, a previously unspecified age group; after the austerity of the pre war and war years, as a nation, the fear of communism, a political ideology that works in direct opposition to the capitalism upon which the American economy and therefore it”s wealth, is based which found expression in the witch hunts orchestrated by Senator Macarthy, also led to an upsurge in racism.
Racism institutional and otherwise, found it”s expression in the ruthless use of immigrant labour for all the worst paid and unprotected or dirtiest jobs going. It also ensured that the immigrants would be the last people who would be employed before the entire American born men and women.
It was into these circumstances that most newly arriving immigrants found themselves.
Another cause of potential conflict, between the emerging immigrant communities and the wider “America”, was the clash of value systems. The Immigrants often had old-fashioned ideas regarding e.g.: the role of women in society, and the importance of religion etc.
The playwright, Arthur Miller, worked in an inner city factory, close to the district of Redhook and it is there that he learned about the Longshoremen, their culture and values, the way they lived and the underlying codes by which they Italian immigrants brought with them from their country of origin, Italy, and more especially Sicily, an Italian Island situated in the Mediterranean, at the foot of Italy all abided.
It was here that Miller first heard the stories of the Italian code of honour, and what happens when that code is violated or broken, and he used this information as the basis for his play.
“A View from the Bridge” focuses on the plight of the Italian immigrants, living in the mainly Italian community of Redhook, and on one story, that of Eddie and his family.
Arthur Miller demonstrates the poverty of this particular Italian Immigrant family, at the beginning of Act 1, in his stage description of the apartment that Eddie, Beatrice and Catherine are living in. The apartment is described as having only three rooms: a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living area. All the drama takes place in the living area and the kitchen and bedroom are not seen. The living area is very bare with little in the way of furniture. The only item which does not fit in is a phonograph, probably the only luxury the family enjoys.
The playwright uses the structure of a Greek tragedy, such as those written by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Originally these plays were only one Act long and women, though sometimes integral to the plot, as a device to move the story along or to shock the audience, they were usually of no major importance. Miller expands the classical role of women, using them so as to include more themes; and also to introduce topical issues of the time, such as the changing status of women in general in the post war period.
The post war period found women working on a massive scale; in both industry and in other previously almost totally male preserves, such as banking and finance. The revolution in media technology, with the widespread adoption of television and the emergence of Hollywood as the main player with a global sphere of influence, also impact upon Millers concerns within the play. Miller was married to the actress Marilyn Monroe, a global icon, in 1956, just before writing the play A View from the Bridge. He was also, at this time, subpoenaed to appear before the House un-American Activity Committee, HUAC, the form through which McCarthyism prosecuted various prominent Americans for having in their view, communist sympathies.
In “A View From The Bridge”, Miller has Beatrice directly challenge Eddie on his sexual conduct:
Beatrice: “When am I gonna be a wife again, Eddie?”
This interchange shows us that whilst Beatrice is loosing status in the traditional, Italian/Sicilian culture, i.e.: failing to keep her man interested; she is gaining status in the modern era by standing up for herself against her husband, as a thinking feeling person in her own right, with her own needs.
Women”s changing role in society isn”t the only theme, which Miller enlarges upon. In the play, Eddie and Marco are the representatives of the old traditional way of thinking, and Catherine and Rodolpho represent the new, modernistic way of thinking and being. Young, dynamic, optimism as opposed to the “blinkered” conservatism of Senator Joe Macarthy and his compatriots of the HUAC.qoute
Eddie”s role as the “dinosaur” is further underlined in his attitude to homosexuality:
Eddie takes a breath and glances briefly over each shoulder: “The guy ain”t right, Mr Alfieri.
The action of glancing over his shoulder is proof that such unacceptable behaviour as homosexuality according to the old code or old world order cannot even be talked about openly, and yet in a Greek society, when the referred o tragedies were written, it was an acceptable, even welcomed way of life.
Of course, there is a reference here again to the witch-hunt of McCarthyism in that communists were also referred to as “pinko”s” which is another slang term for homosexuals.
The conflicts between Eddie, old world and Catherine, new, are further complicated by Eddie”s almost incestuous infatuation with his niece, e.g.:
Eddie: “I don”t see you no more. I come home you”re runnin” around someplace – ”
An infatuation that Beatrice picks up on e.g.:
Beatrice: Look he”ll say anythingâ€¦If it was a prince came here for you it would be no differentâ€¦but you”re a grown woman and you”re in the same house with grown manâ€¦I told him the same thing already.”
Here is the basis for the Greek tragedy theme, but it also underlines Millers determination to assert that not everything traditional is necessarily wrong, incest will always be a pre-cursor for tragedy, just as not everything in the new world is necessarily right, the break up of families due to separation, financial or cultural. This could be a plea for America itself to move forward from inward thinking reactions towards modernism and liberalism but not to take things too far and throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.
Marco another representative of the old world, but a straight and honest man, representing all that is good about the immigrant tradition in America is contrasted both with Eddie, the paranoid jealous, guilty rednecked American and with Rodolpho, the embodiment of the American dream, a liberal hard working, fun loving modern breath of fresh air i.e.:
Marco: “If we can stay here a few monthsâ€¦Because I could send them his family a little more..”
Rodolpho: “Me? Yes, forever! Me, I want to be an Americanâ€¦I will buy a motorcycle.”
Marco: “He dreams, he dreams”.
In some ways Rodolpho”s ambition is similar to Eddies ambitions for Catherine, for her to get a good job, a nice house a stable and prosperous life e.g.:
Eddie: “What job? She”s gonna finish school”.
But Eddie and Miller also realises that the myth “Everybody could be president” is unrealistic as shown in Arthur Millers play “Death Of A Salesman”
Rodolpho as well as the enthusiasm of the young and new also shows the lack of wisdom that experience can bring and Miller shows us this by having him spend all his wages on material things when he knows that his brother Marcos children are starving back in Italy. You can have too much of a good thing and Miller seems to be saying that all capitalism isn’t good, just as maybe all communism isn”t bad. This comparison could be one of the reasons that Miller was indighted by the HUAC, and eventually convicted of contempt of Congress, for refusing to name names, however this conviction was subsequently overturned by the U.S. court of appeals.
In his life Arthur Miller did not break the code of Omerta silence but he has Eddie break the code and shop his immigrant family to the authorities. The telephone box represents the device which breaks the code, another fairly modern piece of technology for the time and perhaps Miller is also saying that the relentless march of technology isn”t without it”s own problems. Today we could cite the controversy over G.M. foods or embryo research as pieces of scientific progress which some feel “are a bridge too far”.
Alfieri who features through the play as a sort of narrator , fulfilling the function of a Greek chorus, though an unreliable one because he is emotionally involved:
Alfieri: “..You won”t have a friend in the world. even the ones who feel the same will despise youâ€¦put it out of your mind!”
Eddies actions in going against not just his culture and his family or traditions but also in breaking mentally at least the unwritten sexual codes ultimately lead to his demise. Did Miller believe that he would die if he broke the code and named names or did he think that the HUAC would have him executed? There is a pervading sense of fear throughout the play, which perhaps reflects how Americans themselves felt at the height of the cold war. Will the world end tomorrow in a nuclear holocaust?
Finally, Eddie is damned. He has lost all status in his community, this is represented by Eddie”s preoccupation with loosing his name:
Eddie “Wipin” the neighbourhood with my name like a dirty rag!”
When Marco comes to get Eddie, he shouts his name three times Peter in the bible denies Jesus three times; when Miller was asked about this he said it “was a desperate attempt to cry out against non existence”. Could this be something to do with the pressure that Miller was under at the time. If the HUAC found him guilty he could be black listed and therefore forced into unemployment, his plays unread, unstaged; himself reduced to poverty, his whole “life” lost.
Eddie knows he will die but he wants his identity back before he goes. This is a constant theme of the play, the importance of ones status within society.
When Eddy is finally dying the setting is very like a Greek tragedy, from the position of the women actors and stage directions to the way all the protagonists are on the stage.
In conclusion, this play is about the driving forces behind the history of the period between the end of the World war 2 and the beginning of the new age of technology and the permissive sixties, such as the status of women, race, immigration, change and culture clash, fear of annihilation, fear of loss of public freedom; but there are also echoes throughout the play of Arthur Millers personal life.
The name of the play itself “A View From The Bridge” might be the bridge between the old and new cultures; the distance between the Russians and Americans in ideology; the, sometimes huge gulf between men and women, the struggle for the young to tear off the shackles of the old which bind them. The competition between a material physical reality and a more spiritual reality.