On “A View From The Bridge” at London’s Young Vic

Last night, my colleague Catherine Silverstone and I went to see Arthur Miller’s 1956 one-act play, A View From the Bridge, at the Young Vic, one of London’s hippest venues for innovative-yet-accessible work. I booked the tickets ages ago, for two reasons: in my research these days I’m interested in the wave of revivals of early social realist plays sweeping London right now, and I’m also interested in the work of director Ivo van Hove, General Director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Van Hove directing Miller at the Young Vic seemed to me like the eye of London’s social realist storm, and I wanted to stand in the middle of it and measure the weather.

A View From the Bridge is set amongst working class Italian immigrants in Red Hook, Brooklyn; it centres on the story of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman (dock worker), and his unhealthy obsession with his niece Catherine, who is on the verge of adulthood. Two cousins of Eddie’s wife, Marco and Rodolfo, arrive illegally (this is American in 1956: McCarthyism is barely behind us, and migration panic is all around us). They are put up in Eddie’s house, and things soon turn dangerous. Catherine falls for Rodolfo; Eddie (jealous, confused and flustered) insists she drop him. When Catherine finally presses her case with the force of a grown woman Eddie sabotages Marco and Rodolfo, betraying them to the immigration authorities. Marco is set to be deported; justifiably angry, he seeks revenge on Eddie. A bloodbath ensues.

Miller believed that the true story on which the play is based was a kind of modern-day Greek tragedy, and van Hove appears to have been inspired at least in part by this claim (repeated in the production’s program notes). The set, almost in the round, is virtually bare, with the actors shifting seamlessly from scene to scene in a white and black, sunken central square that reminded me of a boxing ring. Only one piece of furniture (a chair) ever appears; otherwise, the actors sit on and lie across the benches that line the ring, separating “us” from “them”. It’s an attractively eerie scenography, its imposing weight reinforced by the rectangular black lid above the ring, cantilevered to resemble a huge piece of dock equipment. A low rumble underscores the entire show, interrupted at different points by a requiem – just in case spectators need reminding that, as van Hove told Andrew Dickson in a recent interview, this is a car crash in the making.

In look and feel the production is unmistakably van Hove, but I liked it a great deal less than I have some of his other work, including the recent, acclaimed Roman Tragedies. Normally I wouldn’t spend time in this space writing about a show I don’t much like, but I’m interested in exploring A View because I didn’t just not like it; I actually found it offensive, and in its offence potentially dangerous. I want to think here about why.

I want to emphasise first and foremost that I have enormous respect for the exceptional work the actors do in this production, and in particular I’ll single out Mark Strong as Eddie, who gives a tour de force performance that is nuanced, physically striking, frightening, soothing, and funny all at once. Nothing below should be taken as a reproach of the performers’ visibly impressive labour, nor am I questioning the passion and commitment of anyone on the team toward the play or their audiences. Rather, I’m interested in how all of that passion, that work, may inadvertently have produced a piece of theatre that could actually work against the collective social good in Britain right now.

What upset me about this production? As a theatre scholar from a working-class immigrant background who grew up in North America, I could not help but feel that the production’s staging of “working class Brooklyn” was profoundly condescending. Of course, some of this trouble is attributable to Miller: A View is a piece of social realism, but it also veers dangerously toward class tourism (join acclaimed Broadway playwright Arthur Miller for an epic tale of poverty, struggle, and heartache in the depths of a forgotten community beneath Brooklyn Bridge!). Miller can (sort of) be forgiven, as he was writing in the 1950s about a “true” story, but I’m not willing to forgive van Hove in 2014 for allowing his characters essentially to begin in tired stereotype. Eddie, his wife and niece drawl in broad “Jersey shore” voices, and it doesn’t help that the accents (save Strong’s) keep slipping, occasionally giving away “received pronunciation” roots underneath. Without any physical detail on the stage to set these voices in a clear social and economic context, what we get is the accents and the gestures of the characters divorced of their material realities. The results sounded all too often to my ear like gentle mockery. Further, set in the bare sunken pit, the characters’ actions seemed to me almost museum-like, a display of “poor Brooklyn sods” on show for an appreciative, well-off, middle class London audience.

I was troubled even further by the ways in which the play’s casual racism and homophobia  are permitted to resonate uncritically on van Hove’s bare stage. Eddie claims to his lawyer that Rodolfo is a “punk” (code here for gay), and that he wants Catherine only for the immigration papers her citizenship will secure for him; his anxiety over Rodolfo’s sexuality is sincere and Strong’s performance of it is complex and compelling, but inevitably the cruelest of his digs get played for laughs. Worse still, from start to finish Miller’s narrative is wrapped in mob stereotype: the cousins arrive not just from Italy but from Sicily, and as soon as Eddie betrays Marco the assumption every character (rightly, of course) makes is that Marco will seek a mobster’s revenge. This is the 1950s, though: most of post-war Europe is shredded, much of it is starving, and Marco’s rage against Eddie is indeed contextualised in Miller’s script as the profound desperation of a man whose family WILL, he believes, die without his remittances. Here, however, the frame-up of his revenge as an epic battle-for-blood, staged gladiator-style in van Hove’s ring-cum-pit – complete with a literal (and spectacular) shower of stage blood from the ceiling at its climax – saps any hint of material context right out of the scene. “We” know what “they” are all like, right? Of course this story ends with the Italian immigrants clawing each other to death.

I know this critique may sound disproportionately harsh, like I’m belabouring the “identity politics” card, but I do not make the above claims lightly. Today in the UK, impoverished casual workers and especially casual immigrant workers are the target of excessive, unconsidered vitriol, spat from the pages of tabloids like the Sun and the Daily Mail, from the mouths of Ukip (UK Independence Party) leader Nigel Farage and his team, and reinforced by the policies of David Cameron’s coalition government – with its own gladiatorial division of the working poor into “strivers” who labour and “skivers” who live on benefits (never legitimately, of course). Class tourism is alive and well here, too, on TV programs like Channel Four’s controversial Benefits Street. While Eddie Carbone is proudly a “striver”, and himself accuses Rodolfo of being a “skiver”, the production never properly questions this division, nor does it encourage audiences to understand the urgency of the (very topical!) migration panic to which Marco and Rodolfo are subject as anything other than a romantic struggle against which they push their hardened bodies. Where we need to be pressing against the dangerous anti-immigrant, anti-underclass rhetoric that has gripped this country since 2008, van Hove’s production makes that rhetoric pretty, epic, “universal”. From my perspective, the choice to do so is a fundamentally irresponsible one.

I am aware that I am largely alone in my dislike of this production; the critics are raving about it. (See here, here, and here for three examples of the press reaction.) Catherine and I were surprised at how many spectators leapt to their feet at the curtain call last night; we had similar reactions to the show and were both extremely uncomfortable by the end. I came home to search out reviews online, hoping someone else shared our disquiet; instead, I found what I think is quite revealing praise. Here’s the notoriously cranky Charles Spencer writing in the Telegraph:

…in fact this staging of A View from the Bridge (1956) is one of the most powerful productions of a Miller play I have ever seen. It breaks the surly bonds of naturalism and the conventions of the well-made play to create a work of seething intensity and savage beauty that grips the audience throughout its interval-free two-hour playing time. By the end you feel both emotionally drained and unexpectedly elated – the classic hallmarks of a great tragic production.

Spencer is wrong: I felt neither drained nor elated. In fact, I think I felt angry, disappointed, and uncomfortable precisely because the production, as he notes, “breaks the surly bonds of naturalism” and favours instead the “seething,” the “savage,” class condescension and barely-concealed racism dressed up as “great” and universal tragedy. Many social realist plays are manifestly of their place and time; to revive them is always to ask, implicitly: what good can a staging of this play do for us right here, right nowA View From the Bridge has a lot to say to us in austerity-addled, migrant-panicked Britain today, but this production says none of it. Instead, it asks us to journey with it to a mythical Red Hook, where everyone is poor but fatally flawed, struggling and striving and sweating to get by. Social services won’t help you; blood feuds are inevitable; the whole thing is grim but looks simply beautiful. We stand up, applaud, hoot, and cheer; we ride home, pleasured and satisfied.

As for me: as I rode the tube home I opened my £3 program to find a feature gallery of photos under the heading “Red Hook Today” (taken by Phoebe Fox, who plays Catherine). Snapped in the dead of winter on a grey day, they make the neighbourhood look desolate, poor, lost. No hope here. Except, of course, that a quick google search reveals that Red Hook, like much of Brooklyn, is gentrifying rapidly; it’s the New NYC hipster frontier. If Eddie Carbone is still there today, his property values have recently shot through the roof; possibly, Girls will move in for a scene shoot next year, and then he won’t be able to afford to stay. That’s the “reality” of working class New York (and working class London) right now.

Sometimes a little naturalistic detail can go a long way.

Kim

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On Harry Ritchie’s fabulous “English for the Natives”*

*An Activist Classroom book review.

My job as a university scholar means I have to wear a lot of different hats on any given day – teacher, researcher, writer, administrator, good citizen of my discipline (theatre and performance studies), and, often, editor. Editing is one of the ways I regularly practice collaborative scholarship, and it’s one of the aspects of my job that gives me the most joy (more on that in a future post). Recently, I finished a three-year gig as the Book Review Editor for Theatre Surveyan academic journal linked to the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). That means I now no longer routinely panic, like clockwork, three times a year when issues are due at press; it also means I now get to go back to doing book reviews of my own, a task I quite enjoy.

To celebrate my return to the world of “ordinary” reviewers, I’d like to spend some time in this space reflecting on a terrific book I’ve just finished reading both for work and for pleasure.

9781848548374

Harry Ritchie’s English for the Natives: Discover the Grammar You Don’t Know You Know (John Murray, 2013) is one of the best “crossover” titles I’ve read in a long time. It is written engagingly and accessibly; it includes a fun, interest-holding combination of language history, social commentary, and helpful grammar reference; and its voice is personal, charming, and at times comic-relief-y enough that I’ve laughed out loud while reading it on public transport at least twice. (Imagine the sight of the woman seated across from you on the subway giggling from behind a book that features the words “English” and “grammar” prominently on its cover, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Who, you’re wondering, reads a grammar book on the subway? OK: so I’ve been reading this title both on the Tube and in bed partly because I’m an English teacher by training and a bit of a language geek, but also because it’s the kind of book that makes matters of style, syntax, and linguistic history seem not only absorbing but also totally relevant to my world right now. I do not think of myself as a language snob, but I DO care a lot about good writing, which includes good and clear sentence structure and effective syntax. Why? Because I believe that being able to write fluidly and effectively means being able to communicate precisely and emphatically, and for me good and clear communication is intimately linked to being able to have both a happy life and a politically engaged one.

I also, however, care about the politics of what we consider to be “good” or “proper” writing. That is, I’m interested in questions like: who decides what’s “correct” grammar, and what’s not? Why shouldn’t we split infinitives – who made that rule up, and why? (Ritchie will tell you, btw.) What grammar rules are connected to clarity, to ensuring that we all understand quickly and easily the point a writer is trying to make so that we can engage that writer in real debate? On the flip side, which grammar rules are arbitrary, and which ones are even motivated by social and racial snobbery? How might we put pressure on those rules to dissolve or change?

These are the kinds of questions Ritchie’s book takes up: in every chapter, from his opening discussion of the roots of English (ever heard of Proto-Indo-European? Neither had I, but I’m totally fascinated by it), to his later, longer, and pretty thorough chapter on English verbs (which made my head hurt occasionally, I’ll admit), Ritchie is consistently interested in thinking about the politics behind the rules and regulations he details. Here he is, for example, in his section on the conditional verb tense, discussing the question tag “innit?”, used primarily in non-standard dialects in urban south England:

It has elegance, ease and simplicity on its side, even simpler than French’s ‘n’est-ce pas’, and it seems to me to be a hugely appealing construction, but ‘innit?’ has been predictably lambasted as a sign of the decline of our once noble language/moral standards/western civilisation. Why the hostility? Because it’s a new form introduced by people who are non-white, working class and young. No other reason. It’s a prime example of a supposedly linguistic judgement being based entirely, entirely, on social prejudice. (174)

This terrific example of Ritchie’s thoughtful and straightforwardly sensible language politics illustrates quite clearly my favourite thing about English for the Natives: the way in which it insists, in its title on down, that all of us who speak English as a first language are experts in that language. In Ritchie’s appealing linguistic universe, we do not make mistakes and thus reveal ourselves inexpert, inept, or “unwashed”; our so-called “mistakes” are in fact the idiomatic practices of expert users operating in one or more dialects of a constantly-evolving language.

To put this more bluntly: when David Cameron speaks in the House of Commons in his idiomatic “old Etonian”, he only sounds like the country’s most expert language user. In fact, he just happens to be pretty darn expert in his particular idiom (and very good at performing it, in a slightly smarmy sort of way, as especially “correct”). When the late Bob Crow, former RMT Union General Secretary, spoke in his own, supposedly less sophisticated dialect, he was in fact demonstrating mastery of his own English – and arguably doing so for reasons no less political than David Cameron’s when the latter ups the Etonian ante in front of the House during PM’s questions. Neither of these men, Ritchie would argue, should figure as intellectually superior or inferior simply because one sounds “cultured” and the other sounds “Cockney”; that figuration is a social myth that powerful vested interests in the UK establishment class have encouraged for their own benefit for generations. But that’s all it is: a myth.

This does not, of course, mean that Ritchie encourages a grammatical free-for-all where once we were all tethered to The Rules; the bulk of the book is after all a really useful primer for anyone who would like to know more about English grammar, its history and its current practices. What’s exciting about the primer bits, though, is that they don’t simply focus on “correct” usage; Ritchie tells readers what “standard” English dialect says is the rule, and then he explores its variants in a number of non-standard forms, including rural and urban dialects from all over Britain (and some American, too). He thus gives the language traits of Bob Crow, of inner-city Glaswegian immigrants, and of your Cornish grandmother the status of the Queen’s (and David Cameron’s) fussy English, and he spends time, effort, and generosity of spirit on detailing the (sometimes complicated, sometimes blissfully not) rules that adhere to those dialects, in all of their own internal precision and correctness.

English for the Natives is a book that insists the messy and multiplicitous English language can be a site for both social politics and egalitarian practice, if we can just get over the hurdle of taking non-standard English “seriously” – which Ritchie does convincingly well. It’s also a book that has enormous sympathy for EFL (English-as-a-foreign-language) readers and learners, noting for “native” readers the many places where EFL speakers are likely to get hung up on what comes “naturally” to natives, and why. Learning how utterly foolish, yet totally natural-sounding, rules around the Gerund are was eye-opening to me: of course the people I meet in the course of my life who hail from Poland, or Pakistan, or Paraguay make these errors, and here’s precisely the reason the language trips them up. Ritchie encourages us to put ourselves in these learners’ shoes, to puzzle out the language as they do during the process of learning English, and to work out exactly where they go wrong – because of course we would do so too, if we hadn’t all been so fortunate as to be born native English “experts”. Humbling stuff, even for a teacher-geek like me.

In a country where “strivers” are imagined to speak like David Cameron (and deserve public subsidies for their large London mortgages to boot) while “skivers” are presumed to sound like Bob Crow (who was once chastised for behaviour far less corrupt than that of his Conservative political colleagues), and where immigrants from Romania are made into paper devils by the aw-shucks UKip leader Nigel Farage as he plays on the fears of voters who can’t understand why people new to Britain don’t just learn English already, Ritchie’s book isn’t just a light linguistic history, and it’s not just a great grammar primer. It’s a political book about the way we communicate in multicultural England, about who gate-keeps our language, and about what that gate-keeping has to do with the respect we each accord, or fail to accord, one another in the public sphere.

Plus, it includes the hilarious example: “The conman kissed the aardvark” (149, simple past tense… and plenty more where that came from).

All in all, a book I’d strongly encourage all y’all to read – and then pass on to the person sitting next to you on the bus.

Subjunctively,

Kim