Charleston, S.C. — The Spoleto Festival here is dedicated to all the arts and tries to offer something new each year. On the second night of the fourth festival, Arthur Miller's "The American Clock" was given its official premiere at the Dock St. Theater -- a remarkable replica of the oldest theater in America.
Miller has not had an easy time of the past decade or so, but "American Clock" finds him in fine form again. Based on Studs Terkel's book "Hard Times," Miller has created a patchwork quilt of scenes that distills and actualizes the depression years and the individual dramas and tales of woe it engendered. He also captures the overall malaise that developed because Americans, for the first time, had profound reason to question what was happening to the American dream. And, in the course of the play, one senses eerie parallels to today's state of affairs in general and in particular.
Miller takes the Baum family -- father Moe, son Lee, and particularly wife Rose, the core of the play, as they move from affluence to near poverty. Rose moves from a comfortable diamond-clad life to one where she dreads every knock at the brooklyn apartment door for fear it will be the mortgage man. Around these characters are woven 50 more (played by a total of 16 actors) who fill out this "Mural for the Theater."
One can read about the depression in history books, see the breadlines in documentary films, but never have any sense of what it was reallym like. Miller has poignantly conjured that sense, sharing the wrenching impact of financial catastrophe on people in all walks of life, and the deep-rooted damage the impoverished years did to the American spirit.
Most vividly we note it in Rose, who sees everything she took for granted erode around her, regretting how careless she and all her kind had been, how demeaning poverty could be, how it would attempt to rob everyone of his or her basic dignity. She lashes out at her husband for being too weak and impassive (which he in fact is) to really hustle and get a job, and to ask his rich mother for money. His own inability to cope with having been a successful financier, and now being reduced to borrowing quarters from his son, is vividly put forth.
There is a remarkable scene, set in Iowa, in which farmers took the law into their own hand to prevent banks' foreclosure auctions from taking everything away from their friends. When the time for radical action finally passed, Miller notes, these same people sank back into their fundamental conservatism once again.
Against this conservation is also set the rise of communism in this country, and the convoluted ideals that spawned it. Miller captures the "optimism" the communists in this country felt and hoped to spread.And by giving some of that feeling to Rose's son, Lee, who looked for holes in Marxism and could find more, yet another aspect of the totality of the crash of '29 is clearly presented.
Relief lines, welfare offices, executive suites, card games -- all aspects of everybody's transformed lives fit into this "mural." Within the scenes, Miller sustains a gentle but impressive tension. As Rose moves into her own deep depression, as she finds it harder and harder to cope with the loss of all her values (and struggling, often futilely, to replace them), while attempting to keep her dignity, Miller is at his most affecting.
Miller never wallows in the despair, but rather, as expressed by Lee when he thouht about his mother, one ends up with a head full of life. One's dignity cannot be robbed, man strength, and his hopes.
The cast at Spoleto-Charleston was superb. John copeland's Rose hauntingly caught the fundamental inner conflicts, Peter Evan's unique mixture of maturity and youthful innocence made his transition from teen to late middle age convincing and compelling. George Ede, Louise Stubbs, John Randolph, Francine Beers, and Salem Ludwig all had splendid moments, as did the entire cast.
On Douglass W. Schmidt's sparse, girder-frame set, with simple projections of actual depression scenes in the background, Daniel Sullivan directed memorably. His particular gift less in ferretting out believable, utterly natural performances of his exceptional cast. He never once allowed a merely theatrical or empty moment to enter the entire span of Miller's brilliant drama.