Is Arthur Miller really “America’s finest living playwright,” as the British like to tag him, or has he been conveniently drafted to serve that necessary function in the ecology of the English theatre? This country, after all, likes nothing better than lionizing American intellectuals and artist who have been either ignored or undervaluated at home. Only two years ago, Stephen Sondheim found himself telling an Oxford University audience that he was glad to have worked on Broadway lest the English, in their adoration, hold him hostage forever at the National. Miller, by contrast, unequivocally embraces the worshipful British. It’s a good thing too, since his new play, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, now receiving its world premiere production at Wyndham’s Theatre, is going to need al the good will that the British—or anyone else—can bring to it.
Miller has been working on this play for most of the past decade and claimed to have found the ideal collaborator for it last season when director Michael Blakemore staged the belated London premiere of After the Fall at the National. Add in a producer, Robert Fox, and a star, Tom Conti, who are among the West End’s savvier participants, and the ingredients couldn’t seem surer for success. The one thing no one apparently paused to asses was the fundamental illogic and wrongheadedness of the play itself.
Mt. Morgan takes place in an upstate New York hospital, and the curtain rises on a bedridden Conti, his torso and arm in a plaster cast, looking as waylaid as he did on Broadway in his star-making performance in Whose Life Is It, Anyway? But this play, unlike its predecessor, doesn’t keep Conti in bed for long. As Lyman Felt, the actor is soon rising to enact flashbacks and fantasy sequences that shift the time and place of the action and bring on such characters as Lyman’s lawyer friend-and-confidant and his shroud-bearing pickle-salesman father.
Badly injured after a car accident on a mountain, Lyman learns to his distress that his hospitalization has brought together for the first time in nine years of bigamy his two wives: the older Theo (Gemma Jones) and the 30-ish Leah (Clare Higgins). What ensues begins as a comedy of morality and quickly collapses into an agonized sermon. “I’m miserable, lost, condemned,” Lyman wails into the void, finally left with no one but the nurse (Marsha Hunt) for comfort. He cleverly leaves out the self-assessment which most audiences will all too happily make for him—Lyman Felt is an unabashed shit.
“I have to consent to Lyman and to condemn him,” Miller told interviewer Melvyn Bragg in a TV special aired shortly after the Oct. 31 opening. But the condemnation barely exists. To be sure, each of the wives gets a “you are monstrous” diartribe, but they are hard to take seriously coming from such outright types. Theo is the repressed minister’s daughter, the high-minded gentile acted by Jones on a sustained note of shrillnesss; Leah, the libidinous Jew, is appealing in Higgins’s capable hands though no less a cliche. It’s interesting to note that the casting fudges a potential source of odium: If, as the script indicates, there really is a two-decade age difference between Lyman and Leah, then the latter would be about the same age as his daughter by Theo, a parallel which makes his midlife lust seem particularly suspect. But Miller is far too interested in exonerating Lyman ever to put him on the rack.
Director Blakemore has repeatedly shown a sympathetic deftness with new scripts that eludes him here. Perhaps the problem is just that Mt. Morgan has its sympathies wrong from the start. You don’t have to love a play’s central character for a play to work, but if you’re going to make him so unpleasant, it’s best not to try and play the apologist, as well.
No one could ever accuse David Hare of apologizing for his characters. This is one playwright who loves figures of Good and Evil writ large, and it was the great achievement of The Secret Rapture in London to be that rare play to make Good the more dramatically provocative abstraction. Hare’s 1990 Racing Demon accomplished even more, using four South London clergymen as a prism through which to filter the most stirring state-of-the-nation piece Britain has seen in an age. Hare’s new play at the National, Murmuring Judges, continues the inquiry Racing Demon began—it’s the second in a planned trilogy about British institutions—but this time the debate restricts rather than opens out. Billed as a work about the clergy, Racing Demon was much more than that; Murmuring Judges, though, really is just what he blurb on it says: a play about the law, no more, no less.
Hare has certainly done his homework, and the work of his researchers (two receive credit in the program) is amply evident. Characters are forever spouting statistics they’d be unlikely to possess in real life, and declaiming position papers rather than holding conversations. By the end, one wonders whether the National bookstores should bother to stock the text or, instead, opt for a point-by-point agenda entitled Murmuring Judges: The Pamphlet. American theatregoers weary of the absence of politics in homegrown plays will have a field day here. In Hare’s legal world, all anyone does is opine; gone are the private lives that gave Racing Demon its troubling and heartbreaking pulse.
The plot centers on Irina Platt (Alphonsia Emmanuel), a black barrister—Antiguan by birth—defending a young Irishman wrongly imprisoned on a trumped-up bank-raid charge. Irina’s soulmate is a white policewoman (Lesley Sharp) who similarly learns that the system stinks. The play moves from London’s inns of court to the Royal Opera House, from a police station to a prison cell, and director Richard Eyre and designer Bob Crowley triumphantly orchestrate its cinematic sweep. The first act brings the disparate locales thunderingly together to the musical accompaniment of The Magic Flute—a staging coup of which both men should be proud.
The actors tend to be better the smaller (and therefore less sententious) their roles, and it’s disconcerting to hear one character poke fun at Sally Field-style heroics when those describe precisely the actions of the two main women. Hare being Hare, Murmuring Judges has its share of bite: There’s a great “what England does well” Hare-angue, yoking a national facility for cream teas to a penchant for sending people to jail. But it’s the production, not the play, that warrants attention as Eyre and Crowley steam confidently ahead long after the writing has run out of wind.
London-based critic Matt Wolf reports regularly on British theatre for this magazine.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!