Posted on March 5, 2019
Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, came to Broadway in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The author was 34 years old. In 1980, toward the end of a long, illustrious career, he wrote The American Clock, basing its loosely connected vignettes on his own life and those recounted in Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s monumental oral history of the Great Depression. Both plays, and much of Miller’s work in between, revolve, as he put it, around “the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.”
Given the subject’s relevance in these turbulent political times, it’s small wonder Miller’s plays are hot at the moment, with London productions snapping at each other’s heels. Unfazed by its ongoing renovations, the Old Vic has produced The American Clock, a theatrical curiosity to be followed by the much better known All My Sons. A reconstructed stage bridges the theatre from side to side, dividing the viewers who occupy the auditorium minus most of the stalls from those sitting upstage of the proscenium in banked seats.
To satisfy them all, the director Rachel Chavkin has set the action on the revolve, confronting every observer equally with the whirlwind of shock and confusion inflicted by the stock market crash of 1929. To expand Miller’s personal memories of his family, she has tripled the central roles, so trios of mothers, sons and fathers form the pivot of the national web of financial devastation that ensnared every citizen from banker to chauffeur, black and white.
Popular music of the period, played live on stage by a small ensemble and occasionally sung, links the independent scenes, and 18 inexhaustible actors take on dozens of roles like quick-change artists. Miller called the play “a vaudeville” after it acquired those songs, but the label only applies to the episodic format. It’s as hard for the public as for the characters to have a good time during this show.
Though his direct, earnest approach to issues that still concern us –“Whatever has become of all the money?” – consistently appeals to a vast audience, its explicit advance through the Depression became ponderous over the course of three hours. Written as walking mouthpieces, the mothers and sons never develop into unique individuals, and Ann Yee’s choreography simply underlines the text without adding much to it.
Relaxed foxtrots and a short Busby Berkeley routine to “We’re In the Money” signal the 1930s; a heavy, dirge-like march drags a hopeless crowd through the benefit office. A ruined industrialist taps desperately around his desk as if trying to outrace the loss of his job and social status. Otherwise, penniless fathers grip their temples in anguish and nervous housewives play cards slowly, in real time, and wait for the bailiff’s knock.
Admirably pertinent today, the production is also theatrically wearing and often confusing, yet Clarke Peters, the compelling narrator, Paul Bentall, Abdul Salis and the feisty Francesca Mills stand out from the busy throng. I recommend Tate Britain’s harrowing retrospective of Don McCullin’s wartime photographs. Homeless men sleeping while standing, Whitechapel, London will haunt you far longer than Yee’s marathon dancers, predictably posed in near collapse.
Pictured: The American Clock at the Old Vic. Photographs by Manuel Harlan.