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Red Hook: The world of A View from the Bridge

Published 6 May 2016

The company of A View From The Bridge at The Young Vic

The company of A View From The Bridge at The Young Vic. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

When A View from the Bridge opens for NT Live Encore screenings, the first character on stage is Alfieri, a Brooklyn lawyer and the play’s narrator. He sets the scene by telling the audience that, ‘This is Red Hook, not Sicily. This is the slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge. This is the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world.’ Red Hook was a largely Italian-American neighbourhood of New York, which had grown over the century prior to the early 1950s when the play is set, and the dynamics of this community underlie the tensions of Miller’s masterpiece.

 

Miller and Red Hook

 

Prior to writing A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller had a direct interest, and involvement, in the Brooklyn waterfront where the play is set. He conducted extensive research into Red Hook, a dangerous and corrupt world where gangland crime was rife, investigating a young dockworker called Pete Panto who was murdered for challenging corrupt union leadership. The result of his research was a screenplay of 1950, The Hook – but Miller abandoned it after Hollywood producers demanded fundamental changes which, for Miller, compromised the integrity of the story.  

However, during this research, he heard a tale which directly informed the plot of A View from the Bridge:

‘a longshoreman who had ratted to the Immigration Bureau on two brothers, his own relatives, who were living illegally in his very home, in order to break an engagement between one of them and his niece… Some whispered that [the squealer] had been murdered by one of the brothers.’ Timebends

This was in 1947. Eight years later Miller would return to this story as the foundation for his play, where longshoreman Eddie Carbone, his wife Beatrice and niece Catherine take in Beatrice’s Italian relatives, brothers Marco and Rodolpho, who have entered the country illegally.

 

A new life in America

 

A View from the Bridge talks about a theme which I think resonates today, because it talks about immigrants.’
― Ivo van Hove, director

Emigration from Italy to America began in earnest in the 1870s, after Italian unification in 1861 caused economic conditions to worsen considerably for many in southern Italy and Sicily. At this time, the US was actively recruiting workers for manual labour from Italy and elsewhere to fill the shortage that existed in the years following the Civil War. From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the US.

By the 1950s, when A View from the Bridge is set, emigration from Italy had slowed, but poverty remained in the south of Italy and continued to drive Italians to seek a better life in the US. Miller visited the south of Italy, and saw towns just like the one that the brothers Marco and Rodolpho describe in the play as their home. American immigration laws were such that quotas were set for different nationalities, and the only option for many was to enter the country illegally, with those in the shipping trade profiting from their passage.

 

‘This is the United States government you’re playin’ with now.’

 

For Italian-Americans who had already established their lives in the US, the post-war period in which A View from the Bridge is set was a time of great social change. Eddie, who has worked all his life as a manual labourer, envisages a future for his niece Catherine where she will work as a secretary in a lawyer’s office, with what he calls ‘a different kind of people’. He wishes her to cross over the Brooklyn Bridge of the play’s title: a pathway between the opportunities of Manhattan and the poverty of Red Hook.

However, for those who had just arrived in the country, the looming presence of the Immigration Bureau was a constant threat – and the act of informing the authorities was seen as an unforgivable betrayal for the families of Red Hook. Early on in the play, Eddie tells Catherine a cautionary tale of a child who informs on his uncle and is consequently shunned by his family. The act of ‘naming names’ is also prevalent in Miller’s earlier play The Crucible, where the inhabitants of Salem report their neighbours as suspected witches. In fact, Miller himself experienced a similar pressure when asked in 1956 to name suspected Communist sympathisers to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

With the lives of the immigrants and their families at stake, the Red Hook that Miller creates on stage is one where loyalty and secrecy are paramount for survival. But ironically, the arrival of Marco and Rodolpho from Italy unwittingly unearths other secrets which the Carbones have been trying to suppress. Hiding the identity of the brothers from the authorities leads to the revelation of Eddie’s own emotions, both to his family and to himself.

 

NT Live Encore screenings of the Young Vic Theatre production of A View from the Bridge return to cinemas from Thursday 12 May. Find your nearest and book.

 

References

A View from the Bridge’ by Albert Wertheim, in The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller (ed. Christopher Bigsby, Cambridge University Press 2008).