Wednesday 3 April 2019

The American Clock

Old Vic, London
16th March, 2019

The main thing about The Depression is that it finally hit the white people

Arthur Miller’s plays seem to have eternal popularity. This year, productions of some of his major plays – All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Price – are being staged, the former of which is the Old Vic’s next production featuring a cast including Bill Pullman and Sally Field. The Old Vic has paired this with one of Miller’s lesser known plays, The American Clock. First staged in New York in 1980 (opening and closing in the same month), it’s not one of Miller’s finest. His sprawling view of Depression-era New York lacks potency, perhaps because of its lack of focus and (usually a Miller staple) plot, something not resolved in Rachel Chavkin’s production. Nevertheless, I was fully engaged by the production’s steady grip of the vaudeville style and atmosphere of the era.

Miller’s memoirs Timebends give an idea of the breadth and scope of Miller’s life. His depiction of growing up in New York surrounded by a large family is especially vivid. Miller himself, then, from living through that time and in that place brings authority to writing about the 1930s and the Crash’s effect on ordinary people. But Miller also draws on Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. There are occasional nods to this, most notably when characters address the audience with ‘This is what happened’-style asides. Perhaps this should give the play a flare of docudrama, perhaps to add to the authenticity, but it quickly loses conviction and can detract from the drama.

I keep reading this being described as a ‘kaleidoscopic social history’ play, but we only get a brief glimpse of the boom pre-1929. After that, Miller documents the breadth of the struggle: top floor hotel rooms being hired out for bankers to jump from, the average family having to pawn jewellery, the young aspirational having to put aside his dreams for something more practical. The realisation that there were a system which was now failing with widespread effect is reflected in this kaleidoscopic form. But rather than a panoramic view of America, it feels more localised to New York City. Yes, we see people threatened with lynching when trying to auction a farm, as well as someone’s trip to the South where they’d been experiencing the Depression all their lives. But most of the play seems to be split between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where peoples’ zeal for life is largely undeterred. Memorable characters include a Marxist cartoonist drawing Superman stripboards; and a wannabe Cole Porter, certain that he’s only one hit away from solving the family’s financial woes. It’s testament to Miller’s writing that this optimism still shines through, and that characters make an impression after only being in one or two scenes.

The anchor of the play though is the Baum family, the mother, father, son of whom are played here by trio of actors. The effect of this, I suppose, is to stress that their story is also the story of other families echoed across the cultural melting pot of New York City. But this decision lacks coherence. This is not because it’s unclear that they’re playing members of the same family because it is. But by adding to the multitude of voices and characters, maybe it dilutes the drama. But then again, some of the most memorable scenes are also the most fleeting. But when much of the play is sprawling, some of it perhaps superfluous, I was yearning for the classic Miller nuclear family.

But the production remains enjoyable: Justin Ellington’s score is brought to life by a jazz trio, and Chloe Lamford’s design, which also incorporates audience members at the back of the stage, emphasises the Vaudeville element, further helped by Ann Yee’s choreography. But just as the country actually belonged to the people in these times, this production belongs to its cast, all bringing a pep and zeal to the show that brings hope to hopeless times.

The American Clock played at the Old Vic until 30th March
the cast of The American Clock.
Credit: Manuel Harlan.

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