Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Those who think that the right to pursue happiness is the same as the right to be happy will wonder what David Beeves’s problem is. In Arthur Miller’s play — his first to be produced on Broadway, though for only four performances — the American dream is handed to Beeves on a plate. When his girlfriend’s father prevents Beeves from marrying her, the father dies; when his career as a mechanic depends on fixing a car he cannot fix, a stranger does it for him. Now they are going to build a highway right next to his filling station. But is he happy? Oh no. Unlike those who think good luck and happiness is a God–given right, Beeves thinks it is a thing to be earned. “If one way or another a man don’t receive according to what he deserves…well, it’s a madhouse.”
Miller’s play was first seen in 1944, a period when Hollywood was making movies about heroes with guardian angels. James Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life came out two years later and, in the title role in Sean Holmes’s solid, atmospheric revival of Miller’s play, Andrew Buchan’s Beeves has a lot of Stewart’s wholesome decency. In fact, Beeves is so decent he thinks he deserves less and that others deserve more, especially his brother, Amos (Felix Scott), who has been raised by their fool father Patterson (Nigel Cooke) to be a future baseball champ, though he ends up just a simpleton who can throw. While Beeves prospers, others strive without reward. Though failure does nothing to shake the belief of Austrian immigrant Gustav (Shaun Dingwall) in the American way.
The growing evidence for Beeves’s “madhouse” drives him crazy. As does the wait for his luck to run out, which climaxes as his wife Hester (Michelle Terry) gives birth. Like the ancient Greeks, 29-year-old Miller is asking whether we are own masters. His answer here is partly fatalistic — “a man is jellyfish”, declares the wheelchair-bound Shory, “the tide goes in and the tide goes out” — and partly a call to take responsibility for your own life, a theme to which he would regularly return. And for those who want it all handed to them on a plate, Miller’s lesson is a useful one — that happiness lies, at least in part, in the pursuit.
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