Clarity, Perspective, and Tragedy in A View from the Bridge
Arthur Miller wrote A View from the Bridge, a work set in the late 1940s, as he became interested in the Italian immigration at the Brooklyn docks. Fascinated by the life of Pete Panto, a longshoreman who challenged the work of the Mafia, Miller wrote the play in the form of a Greek tragedy, of which Alfieri is the chorus. Annoyed by critics not capturing “the real and inner theme of the play,” Alfieri acts as an impartial, omniscient figure who helps us to fully understand the tragic demise of Eddie at the hands of the corrupt Italian-American society, “a bridge between the old and new worlds” (Stephen Marino).
Miller positions Alfieri as the chorus in this play, which adheres to Aristotle’s classic tragic structure. Under Aristotle’s scheme, that there should be a protagonist who suffers from a “tragic flaw” and hence falls from his earlier high status, a fall which “should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in the character”; in Miller’s case, Eddie falls due to his obsession with Catherine and with his own dignity. In terms of the chorus, Aristotle argues that “it should be an integral part of the whole,” contributing to the actual play, not simply providing “mere interludes.” And so Alfieri’s role here is crucial, for without him, Miller would not have succeeded in his aim of writing a traditional tragedy, and the play would, according to Aristotle, collapse; the internal occurrences and thoughts would be unknown to the audience. For example, Alfieri knew and told the audience that the narrative would “run its bloody course,” yet without him we would not know the end until we read it, undermining Miller’s desire: “the point is not what happens, but how it’s going to happen” (1987 interview). These internal occurrences and thoughts are crucial for understanding Eddie and granting him the pathos deserved by a tragic character. When Alfieri first meets Eddie, he says that his “eyes were like tunnels,” which suggests that the protagonist is tunnel-visioned. While one could believe that this is implicitly a negative connotation and infer an impending doom for Eddie’s character, it could more probably imply that Eddie isn’t thinking rationally, and is uncontrollably blinded by his unconscious desire for Catherine, and societal-driven desire for dignity: “Eddie may believe Rodolpho is gay but he’s compelled to, he has to, so he can distance his own issues” (1987 interview). Therefore, Miller enables Alfieri to act as the bridge between the world of the play and the audience, so that we can properly understand Eddie—“Eddie is more than a client – for Alfieri he represents something almost larger than life itself” (Stephen Marino).
Miller, however, wanted a modern take on the Greek tragedy, and wanted to realistically represent what was happening in Brooklyn. While traditionally the chorus would be suspended or on the side of the stage, Alfieri appears in both the interludes and encounters with other characters. In Act One, Alfieri begins in a usual interlude —“It was at this time that he first came to me”— but thereafter physically meets with Eddie to talk about his situation—“Eddie, I’m a lawyer”; the play almost becomes metafiction, with Alfieri’s omniscient apostrophes about the characters figuring prominently within the narrative. This is similar to tactics seen in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, as Fowles talks to his characters in one chapter—“What the devil am I going to do with you?”—but in the next inserts himself into the narrative—“the prophet-bearded man began.” Hence, Miller achieves exactly what Aristotle described: “the Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors.” Alfieri offers a crucial role in communicating with the other characters and listening to their thoughts and motives, and then in the interludes relays this information to the audience members so that they can listen, too.
Alfieri, in his monologues, deals with all issues concerning Eddie, either placing him as the instigator of his own tragic fall or a victim of society’s customs. Whenever Alfieri enters to provide introduction of a scene, the events are related through Eddie, a tactic which, certainly on an immediate reading of Eddie’s character, would lead to the conclusion that he is incestuous, homophobic, sexist, and blinded by a futile obsession. Alfieri says, “I saw it was only a passion that had moved into his body, like a stranger” and then just after Catherine and Rodolpho have perhaps had sex, Eddie “reaches out suddenly, draws [Catherine] to him, and as she strives to free herself he kisses her on the mouth.” Even Alfieri points out, “she can’t marry you, can she?” Equally, Eddie talks to Beatrice about Rodolpho, saying that “they’re callin’ him…Paper Doll…he’s a weird.” Then, Alfieri tells Eddie that “we all love somebody…but sometimes…there’s too much,” a statement which points towards Eddie’s role as a cruel protagonist. These elements of the text also, indeed, relate to established psychological theory. During research of “psychical impotence,” Sigmund Freud coined the phrase “Madonna-Whore,” which describes how men see women as either respected partners or degraded prostitutes. Hence, Eddie does “love…too much” and creates an unrealistic image of Catherine for her to live up to. And so, while Alfieri’s opening monologue juxtaposes themes of murder, betrayal, and redundant laws —“there were many here who were justly shot by unjust men” — with our introduction to Eddie —“This one’s name was Eddie Carbone”— Alfieri perhaps does not place him as a catalyst for the events unfolding, but as a victim.
While the audience can see Alfieri as omniscient, when he says that he “was so powerless to stop it…and so I — waited here,” we realize he is far from omnipotent. Though he repeatedly tells Eddie “you have no recourse in the law,” he is incapable of actually stopping him from calling the Immigration Bureau. In fact, when Alfieri forewarns us at the very beginning that he “sat there…powerless…and watched it run its bloody course,” he perhaps implies that if the social codes of the Sicilian-American society had not been present, and official laws more convincing, Eddie would not have died and Alfieri, a “man of the law,” could actually have prevented the tragic ending. After all, identity is formed by society. Perhaps Miller here wants the audience to strip away prejudices, just as Eddie fails to do, and to realize the horrors that street loyalty, violence, and identification create.
As a lawyer, Alfieri highlights the significance of justice and the law, although as he demonstrates, he is not confining himself to official law: moral, ethnic, social, traditional, Italian, American. At the beginning of Act One, Alfieri sets out law and justice as key themes —“I am a lawyer…and in Sicily…the law has not been a friendly idea since the Greeks were beaten.” The paradox here that “to meet a lawyer or a priest on the street is unlucky” positions a cultural specific custom based on self-preservation and self-action. Alfieri mentions Al Capone, “the greatest Carthaginian of all” and “Frankie Yale.” Both Brooklyn gangsters and friends, they were brought up on a Mafia code of justice, a code based on loyalty and revenge. For example, as part of The Chicago Outfit, the biggest criminal organization in the midwestern United States, they distributed illegal alcohol during Prohibition. At one time, the primary leader Big Jim Colosimo and his nephew Johnny Torrio had a falling out over Torrio’s insistence that they expand into smuggling over sea, a tactic with which Colosimo disagreed. In 1920, Colosimo was killed on Torrio’s order by Capone and Yale; for the Mafia, Colosimo had betrayed them and, as Miller explains, “there’s nothing more horrifying than betrayal”(1987 interview). Alfieri therefore grapples with the main issues of violence and betrayal right from the beginning and, by doing so, foreshadows the end before the audience has gotten there; we care less about the ending, and more about the tough situations in 1940s Brooklyn.
While the American custom is now to“settle for half,” when Alfieri enters the play in Act Two, he discovers that Marco is still fixed in a Sicilian idea of the law. As soon as Eddie calls Immigration on Marco and Rodolpho, Marco wants revenge —“He degraded…my blood”— but Marco does not “understand this country” because his custom is to fight for his own name —“In my country he would be dead by now,” Therefore, here Alfieri “is crucial in showing how civil law and its justice conflict with the morals operating in the Sicilian-American society”(Stephen Marino) and demonstrates the perversity of what we called justice. Alfieri highlights Marco’s ignorance of how society works and allows Miller to uncover the harsh social codes that guided the powerful Mafia leadership.
Arthur Miller thus offers a structurally sound play, with Alfieri positioned as the chorus to allow the audience to understand what it was like to grow up around the Brooklyn dockyards. By letting Alfieri suggest what the ending will be from the opening scene, Miller creates what he calls a “single arch narrative” whereby the audience can watch the characters encounter their dramatic end, having known what it would be two acts before. Alfieri deals with significant issues of violence, identity and betrayal to ask which law is absolute: Eddie’s American and moral, Marco’s Sicilian and social, or Alfieri’s traditional and official. Miller, however, leaves this question entirely unanswered, for even Alfieri, deemed the omniscient judge of character and rationale, leaves the play “with a certain…alarm.”
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Arthur Miller wrote A View from the Bridge, a work set in the late 1940s, as he became interested in the Italian immigration at the Brooklyn docks. Fascinated by the […]