In this abridged version of an article written for the New York Times in 1999, playwright Arthur Miller explains why he wrote The Price.
The Past and Its Power: Why I Wrote ‘The Price’
“The sources of a play are both obvious and mysterious. The Price is first of all about a group of people recollected, as it were, in tranquility. The central figures, the New York cop Victor Franz and his elder brother, Walter, are not precise portraits of people I knew long, long ago, but close enough, and Gregory Solomon, the old furniture dealer, is as close as I could get to reproducing a dealer’s Russian-Yiddish accent that still tickles me whenever I hear it in memory.
“…everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself; he go to church, start a revolution, something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.” – Solomon
Behind the play — almost any play — are more or less secret responses to other works of the time, and these may emerge as disguised imitation or as outright rejection of the dominating forms of the hour. The Price was written in 1967, but the 60’s was a time when a play with recognizable characters, a beginning, middle and end was routinely condemned as ”well made” or ludicrously old-fashioned. (That plays with no characters, beginning or end were not called ”badly made” was inevitable when the detonation of despised rules in all things was a requisite for recognition as modern. That beginnings, middles and ends might not be mere rules but a replication of the rise and fall of human life did not frequently come up.)
Indeed, the very idea of an operating continuity between past and present in any human behavior was demode and close to a laughably old-fashioned irrelevancy. My impression, in fact, was that playwrights were either uninterested in or incapable of presenting antecedent material altogether. Like the movies, plays seemed to exist entirely in the now; characters had either no past or none that could somehow be directing present actions. It was as though the culture had decreed amnesia as the ultimate mark of reality.
The Price grew out of a need to reconfirm the power of the past, the seedbed of current reality, and the way to possibly reaffirm cause and effect in an insane world. It seemed to me that if, through the mists of denial, the bow of the ancient ship of reality could emerge, the spectacle might once again hold some beauty for an audience. The play speaks to a spirit of unearthing the real that seemed to have very nearly gone from our lives.
Which is not to deny that the primary force driving The Price was a tangle of memories of people. Still, these things move together, idea feeding characters and characters deepening idea.
Nineteen sixty-eight, when the play is set, was already nearly 40 years since the Great Crash, the onset of the transformed America of the Depression decade. It was then that the people in this play had made the choices whose consequences they had now to confront. The 30’s had been a time when we learned the fear of doom and had stopped being kids for a while; the time, in short, when, as I once noted about the era, the birds came home to roost and the past became present. And that Depression cataclysm, incidentally, seemed to teach that life indeed had beginnings, middles and a consequential end.”
– Arthur Miller, 1999
New York Times
The Price opens in Circa One on 10 August, and runs until 7 September. To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.