A View From the Bridge premiered in its final, two-act form in 1956, the same year its author, Arthur Miller, refused to name names at a hearing held by the House Un-American Activities Committee—part of HUAC’s long and sordid effort to expose “the communist influence” on show business. The U.S. government had already been harassing Miller for a while by then, having, among other things, denied him a passport for a trip to see a Belgian production of The Crucible. During the hearing Miller was asked who was present at certain red gatherings he’d attended in New York a decade earlier. His reply earned him a contempt citation. “I could not use the name of another person,” he said, “and bring trouble on him.”
Which might as well be the epigraph for A View From the Bridge, running now at Goodman Theatre in an unforgettable production that originated with London’s Young Vic in 2014. (Oddly enough, the 1956 premiere took place in London too, under the direction of Peter Brook and after some contortions to get around the Lord Chamberlain, who’d banned it.)
Bridge is one of Miller’s great tragedies of the common man—like Death of a Salesman, only more so. It tells the tale of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman who shares an apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn (“the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world,” we’re told), with his wife, Beatrice, and their 17-year-old niece, Catherine, a member of the household since childhood. Eddie’s the epitome of the hard-working family man. He tries to stay employed even when there’s no tonnage getting swallowed at the wharf, comes straight home from the job, confines his drinking to a beer or two, saves his money, and pushes Catherine to better herself by taking stenography so she’ll work in an office and meet a better class of people. He disapproves when he notices her “walkin’ wavy”—i.e., with a sexy sway in her step.
One could say Eddie dotes on Catherine, if one wanted to put it delicately. No, he’s not an abuser, a pedophile, a rapist. But it’s no secret from anybody other than Eddie himself that he’s profoundly fixated. Not a secret, especially, in Ivo van Hove‘s staging, where the physical language between Catherine Combs’s Catherine and Ian Bedford’s heartbreaking Eddie is heightened to levels just this side of pawing. The first time we see them together, as Eddie’s walking in the door after work, Catherine gives him a bright hello and Miller’s stage direction says, “Eddie is pleased and therefore shy about it; he hangs up his cap and jacket.” By way of enormous contrast, van Hove has her punctuate her greeting by leaping up onto Eddie’s bearish torso, her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist in a sexually resonant gesture that’s repeated over and over again throughout the drama. Eddie isn’t just a middle-aged lunk with a yen; he’s Phèdre in a T-shirt.
Eddie’s unacknowledged passion reaches its crisis when two of Beatrice’s Italian cousins, brothers Marco and Rodolpho, arrive by ship as illegal immigrants—”submarines” in the play’s parlance—and board with the Carbones. Marco (Brandon Espinoza, as quiet as stone) is a focused sort, interested in nothing but working hard, staying out of trouble, and sending home the money that will keep his wife and kids from starvation. Rodolpho, though, is young and single and possessed of an ebullient sweetness (nicely embodied by Daniel Abeles). He sings, he likes to dance. It’s only natural that Catherine would find him attractive.
And inevitable that Eddie would find himself in a state of inchoate rage. He knows there’s an easy way to deal with Rodolpho, whom he’s demonized as a cunning homosexual manipulating Catherine into marrying him so he can stay in the country. The two brothers are illegals, after all. It would be over in a second if someone were to call Immigration on them. But as Miller suggested to HUAC and the unwritten moral code of Eddie’s neighborhood attests, it’s evil to “use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.”
No doubt Eddie Carbone’s moment of truth had particular meaning for English audiences at the Young Vic or for a Belgian like van Hove, all of whom have to formulate a response to their own influx of submarines. Here, the government’s cascade of nativist policies—build the wall, reject Muslim immigrants, penalize the sanctuary cities, return the Dreamers—gives a special urgency to this 60-year-old tragedy written by a man whose father and grandparents were immigrants and whose right to travel had been curtailed because of his politics. The back wall of Jan Versweyveld’s set is particularly evocative in this regard: it consists of a high wall, featureless except for a very narrow door. v