Art

What Arthur Miller Told Me

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Arthur Miller has often described his discovery of the source of A View From the Bridge: how he heard the story on the streets of Brooklyn shortly after it happened, and how he refashioned it into a short version and then the longer one now playing to rave reviews at the Lyceum.

What very few people know is the story behind the story, the way the tragedy actually occurred and the reason behind its resonance not only on the docks of Red Hook, but in the villages of Sicily as well. Miller told me about it at his Connecticut home during the summer of 1977, and to this day I can recall how intense and animated he was as he leaned forward in his chair and described what really happened: first, the remarkable tale that Richard Castellano, best remembered as Peter Clemenza in The Godfather, learned when he wandered away from a Greenwich Village street rehearsal to chat with a mysterious onlooker; and then the observations of the great Raf Vallone about the tale’s resonance, its enduring and eerie resonance, in Sicily and Brooklyn. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation:

“When I moved to Brooklyn Heights it was a varied neighborhood — certainly a middle-class neighborhood. But even then, a good deal of it was unreconstructed. Closed-down businesses, empty houses, and so on. I suppose the precise location I had in mind was the Red Hook area, which was working-class Italian and had thousands of longshoremen living in it. I knew quite a few of them and used to go down there frequently. I recall there was a drive at one point to reorganize their union and it ended, as such drives typically did, with someone getting shot. So, yes, I knew quite a few of those types.

“The story itself was part of a local tradition and I tried to change it as little as possible. That’s how pure and self-contained it was. I tried to honor it, to give it the same type of vitality and credibility it had when it came to me. I didn’t know the guy personally but I had heard the tale shortly after it happened and was deeply affected. Also, I had been to Sicily and when I returned I saw Sicilians — because a lot of the waterfront people were Sicilian and Calabrian — and I could get a feeling for them. I could sense where they had come from and what terrible transformations they were enduring. In any event, I was very enthused about transforming the tale into a play. I was confident and enthusiastic right from the start.

“You know, one of the most fascinating things about A View From the Bridge didn’t pop up until long after it had been written and produced. Back in the early 1960s there was a fine production of the second version, the revised one, in Greenwich Village. I went down to it one night when it was in rehearsals and was struck by the way they were bringing it to life. Some of the actors were Italians, which helped, and the casual sort of stage they were using — a platform and some seats, with the audience just a few feet away — gave it this wonderful immediacy.

“Well, during rehearsals they noticed an old man who kept returning night after night, a man who had that modestly dressed appearance of an Italian laborer. What was odd about the business was that, although people like that would occasionally drop by during rehearsals, they would never haunt them the way he did. So one night, one of the actors who could speak Italian — a very good actor named Richard Castellano — went over and asked him, ‘How come you come back here every night?’ The old guy shrugged and was evasive. It was obvious he was wrought up about something.

“After a while, though, he said, ‘I lived through this story. This happened. It happened up in the Bronx and you’ve got it all the way it happened. I know, because I know the people very well.’ There was a pause, and then the guy said, ‘There is one change, though. The way you have it at the end, after Eddie has betrayed the boys, one of them comes back to fight him and Eddie gets stabbed. But the way it really happened was, after the betrayal, after it was all over, Eddie went upstairs to take a nap. And while he was sleeping, the niece came in with a knife. She followed him upstairs, and she killed him in his bed.’

“Isn’t that fantastic? That’s a great ending, too. And it was remarkable to me because I had no knowledge of that, well, last scene until years after the first two productions. I suppose I could revise it a third time, but I think I’ll leave it alone. There is something enduring about the way it is. It’s been frequently staged in Italy, often by Raf Vallone, who is a marvelous actor and who once told me he could play it for the rest of his life.

“He said the story has no end, it’s just like some primeval drama, which either the spectators live through or which they sense is somehow on the agenda. And what’s extraordinary is that Raf Vallone is speaking about his experiences in Italy and I was writing about a story I learned on the Brooklyn streets.”

Charlie Reilly is Professor Emeritus of English at Montgomery Community College in Pennsylvania. Arthur Miller’s comments will be included in Reilly’s forthcoming book, How They Wrote It, which will include similar tales from Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jennifer Egan, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Alice McDermott, Amiri Baraka, John Irving, Arthur Phillips, and others. A View From the Bridge runs through February 16 at the Lyceum Theatre.

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