One man is a cop and the other is a doctor. The scene: a tangled, ramshackle, pressed down Manhattan brownstone circa 1950, standing unsteady beneath memories and slated for demolition. The men are brothers reconnecting for the first time in several years. They’ve agreed to meet with Gregory Solomon, a slightly sleazy 89-year old furniture appraiser, and clear the apartment of their dead dad’s debt-heavy belongings.
There’s an Archie Bunker-like overstuffed armchair centre stage surrounded by mountains of books, an armoire or two, a tall secretary, glass-front bookcases, bedstands, rolled up rugs and an old wind-up Victrola.
Arthur Miller gave these brothers, Victor and Walter Franz, a chance to speak with each other and with us in his 1968 play The Price. Victor, a uniformed cop, arrives first on the scene. He looks at his watch, writes Miller, “waiting for time to pass.” And then what he does before the others arrive is drop a 78 onto the Victrola and play a Laughing Record, popular recordings from the 1930s. Two men try unsuccessfully to get out a whole sentence through their wild hysteria.
When I was a little girl my father told me about a woman widowed decades earlier. As the story went, this woman’s husband lent his laughter to I Love Lucy soundtracks, just in case the studio audience wasn’t loud enough. When the woman was particularly lonely, said my dad–as if he knew!–she’d turn on the telly and watch reruns.
I loved the line in Miller’s play about passing time. I also loved the next one where he said Victor’s gaze was “held by memory.” While the brothers stood amid the rubble of their childhood home negotiating with the dealer, truths and lies and laughter seemed trapped inside aging upholstery, softly sifting down as dust from chandeliers. For some reason, my mind instantly flashed back onto the photograph introducing today’s blog posting.
The picture was taken in New York on 5th February 1959, a few months before I was born. I first saw this photograph thirty years ago in a biography by Carson McCullers. Arthur Miller is the only man in the picture and he is so, so incidental to the women. Danish author Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is the elegantly scarved elder at the table. She travelled to America heated with a longing to share a table and a bottle of champagne with her two idols: Carson McCullers and Marilyn Munroe. Miller was Marilyn’s date and her sometime husband.
There are lives and conversations frozen in this image. It reminds me to slow down whenever I’m similarly enjoying company at my table, the flow of words and ease of gesture. The movement of someone’s hand gently holding the slim stem of a wine glass, tipping the taste toward their lips. Swallowing to enjoy the grape and then to enjoy more words, more wine.
Everyone in the photograph is now deceased. Hard to believe, somehow.
In Miller’s play the two brothers suffer and their reconciliation in this crowded attic is laboured indeed, but I’m hoping it all ends well. Tonight, after I swallow my own sweet wine at a Christmas fete up the street I’ll curl up in bed, water bottle warming my feet, and I’ll finish the play.
For those of you in Toronto: Soulpepper theatre will be performing The Price in their upcoming season.