A radio blares jazz into a cramped room. A family sits in silence for an eerily long time, they are waiting for Arnie to return home after a long absence, but he is late. The conversation is often light and sweet, but it can easily switch to worrying and arguing. This is Depression-era New York, and these apprehensive moments are symptoms of the hard times.
No Villain is the first play Arthur Miller wrote, completed within a week in 1936, and by his own admission is his most autobiographical work. His family moved from a swanky Manhattan residence to downtown Brooklyn when he was young. On account of the family’s financial troubles, Miller wrote No Villain for a $250 prize, the University of Michigan’s playwright award, so that he could fund his education. You can see Miller developing the themes of his later works, borrowing from his personal strife to write. Although it is written more out of necessity than passion, he is on the verge of brilliance: No Villain is Death of a Salesman in embryo.
Money is a big concern in the play. Action flits between two settings: the family home and Abe’s garment business. Abe (David Bromley) is struggling to keep the business going. Creditors are digging their nails in, and orders are not coming in like they used to, even though the season is in full swing. Abe still has faith in the capitalist system, but it appears that his business is doomed to fail. Abe paces about his office, worrying about figures and deliveries, nervously taking telephone calls. Miller also explores the domestic side of financial concern. At one point there is a huge fuss between Arnie (Alex Forsyth) and Esther (Nesba Crenshaw) over using a dollar for a food shop. They try to stay cordial, through smiling and laughing, but the underlying worry is apparent.
There is a marked difference in the two sons: Arnie is more brain, Ben is more brawn. Abe has obvious contempt for the literate intelligentsia, half-expressing his conservative and old-fashioned views to Ben, who defends his brother to the hilt. George Turvey puts in a good performance as Ben: charismatic at points, conflicted when he argues with his father, distraught at the end with the death of his grandfather. There is a lot of pressure for Ben to hold the family together, perhaps more so than Abe, and certainly more than Arnie. There is hostility towards Arnie’s modern ideas, and this leads to an argument between Esther and Arnie; she fears for his future because of his Marxist sympathies. This scene is an explosive climax to the tension between the two: it is absolutely spellbinding in its raw energy.
In New York there is a loud mob on the streets, given to savagery and violence. The production has done well to create an atmosphere of anxiety: a sense that New York is on the brink of something unknown and sinister. Financial worries turn into friction of ideologies. There is some hope for family, if Ben agrees to marry for money, but he refuses, swamped by grief and anger. The play ends with the characters looking dismally to the future, uncertain of what is to come, but knowing that it surely will not be good.
- By Arthur Miller
- Director: Sean Turner
- Cast includes: David Bromley, Nesba Crenshaw, George Turvey, Helen Coles, Kenneth Jay, Alex Forsyth, Michael Lyle, Stephen Omer
- Trafalgar Studios, London
- Until 9th July 2016
- Review by Nicholas Potter
- 26 June 2016