This year, the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth and the 10th anniversary of his death, has seen a host of revivals of the playwright’s work: two versions of A View from the Bridge, including Ivo van Hove’s award-winning production, and Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Death of a Salesman, now in London’s West End.
And now there is a new play. Yes, an unseen Miller, which will receive its world premiere at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre next week. Called The Hook, its title evokes Brooklyn’s Red Hook dockyards where, like A View from the Bridge, it is set, but also the vicious hooks used by longshoremen — such as Miller’s hero Marty Ferrera — to unload a ship’s cargo. The work was written — for cinema — at the height of the playwright’s powers in 1950 and just as Miller began to square up to the forces that plunged America into an era of anti-communist witch-hunts.
Ferrera, like many of Miller’s characters, is a man who struggles to live a life of integrity. With rising anger, he sees corrupt union bosses and employers treating him and fellow dockyard workers like animals. At great risk to himself and his family, he attempts to change his world.
In Royal & Derngate’s rehearsal room, Ferrera’s feelings are vented in full Brooklyn brogue by Scottish actor Jamie Sives, a hook gripped in his gloved fist. The room’s walls are plastered with photographs showing hunched men gathering for the daily “shape-up”, the humiliating ritual in which a union delegate decides who works and who starves. Meanwhile, for director James Dacre and his cast, there is a sense of theatre history being made.
“This is the first time these words have been heard out loud,” says Dacre, who has spent six years tracking down as many drafts as he could find of Miller’s screenplay, most of them held in American libraries.
The typed scripts and Miller’s handwritten notes — all censored and forgotten — were then handed to Emmy Award-winning writer Ron Hutchinson, who began adapting the work — which Miller described as “a play for the screen” — for the stage.
“I don’t think I have ever worked on anything so intensively,” says Hutchinson. “It was extraordinary to be given a script where, on page 72, Miller had written, ‘big speech here, will write later, AM’. It was intimidating in a way, like touching the hand of Shakespeare.”
Hutchinson has joined us via Dacre’s laptop from Los Angeles, where he has lived for 30 years. Hutchinson’s LA is very different from the fearful Hollywood of the 1950s, where blacklists threatened those suspected of connections to communism, and where Miller arrived in 1951 with a screenplay full of social realism highlighting the plight of exploited workers.
With him was director Elia Kazan, whose production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman had been a hit. Also present was Marilyn Monroe, whom Kazan had conscripted as a sort of secretary.
“Legend has it that Miller, Kazan and Monroe turned up to a meeting with [Columbia Pictures boss] Harry Cohn and the FBI,” says Dacre. “Pressure was put [on Miller] to depict several of the characters as communists.”
Another meeting was with Roy Brewer, the much-feared head of Hollywood’s technicians’ union, who had links to organised crime, including the docks gangsters whom Miller’s screenplay sought to expose. “Brewer said to Miller, ‘If you make this movie like this, there isn’t one projectionist in America who will show it. I will pull them out’,” says Hutchinson.
Dacre adds: “Miller didn’t want Hollywood, the censors or the government to tell him what kind of work it should be. He was writing about a man who had too much integrity and couldn’t bite his lip. It is a piece about someone speaking truth to power.”
Miller spoke his truth by refusing to submit to pressure and ultimately withdrawing his script.
Yet Kazan was still determined to make a film about longshoremen and turned to Budd Schulberg for a screenplay. Before shooting the script, Kazan also testified before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, a decision that soured his relationship with Miller (and others) but which he defended in the film he made with Schulberg, who also testified.
That film was On the Waterfront, released in 1954. Its hero, played by Marlon Brando, is Terry Malloy, a hoodlum with a heart who testifies against fellow gangsters. Though set in New Jersey instead of Brooklyn, there were uncanny similarities to Miller’s screenplay. Miller never went so far as to accuse Schulberg of plagiarism but even so, a few months before he died in 2009 aged 95, Schulberg told me he deeply resented the insinuation that On the Waterfront owed a debt to The Hook.
“When I was working on On the Waterfront, I didn’t know about Arthur Miller,” he maintained. “They were absolutely two separate, if overlapping, projects.”
As Dacre puts it: “No one is in any doubt that On the Waterfront is a unique cinematic achievement.” But nor can there be much doubt that if Kazan had made The Hook, On the Waterfront would not have existed. This raises the question: which is the better script?
“Ah, the game of ‘what ifs’,” says Hutchinson. “Well, if Brando had played Marty Ferrera, hold on to your hat. It would have absolutely been as good as On the Waterfront.”
And compared with Miller’s other works? “I have come to believe it’s up there. We will be able to judge that we got it right if it is as good as Death of a Salesman.”
‘The Hook’, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, June 5-27, royalandderngate.co.uk
Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, July 1-25, everymanplayhouse.com
Photograph: Idil Sukan/ Draw HQ
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