By Paul M. Lewis
What is the real value of something? How much does it cost? These are the questions Arthur Miller is asking in his play, The Price, now in revival at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. The question is meant to be asked on every level: the monetary, the emotional, and what might be called the karmic.
Here, in brief, is a synopsis, for anyone unfamiliar with this mid-career work of Miller’s, albeit not one of his more famous. Two brothers come together in the attic of their long-dead father’s apartment building, itself slated for demolition. The space is filled with old furniture, some of which may or may not still be valuable. Estranged for many years, the brothers, along with the wife of one of them, must come to terms with a used furniture buyer, who is setting a price on the things, the physical objects that are in a sense all that is left of the family. Naturally, Miller being Miller, we soon come to know the heartache that is the relationship of the brothers with each other, and which typified their relationship with their father, a once wealthy businessman, who lost everything in the Great Depression. The younger son, Victor, had remained to take care of the old man, while his brother, Walter, went off to pursue his education, and ultimately to become a successful physician. The stay-at-home brother, instead of pursing his own schooling, gave it all up and became a policeman, those perennial guardians of law and order. And during the course of the play, we come to realize how great was the price of Victor’s devotion to his father. His wife, too, pays a price for her loyalty, as much as she resents it and wishes they had more to show for their lives. But Walter, the prodigal son, now wealthy and divorced, refuses to feel guilty for doing what he wanted. Yet, he too ultimately has his own debts to pay off. Meanwhile, Mr. Solomon, the old furniture dealer, bargains and haggles about how much all this family stuff is actually worth. “When it comes to used furniture,” he tells them, “you can’t be sentimental.”
Victor, who sacrificed all to keep his father alive during the Depression, clings to the notion that what he did was done out of fealty and love. They literally ate garbage in order to survive, and in the process he gave up his dreams of becoming a scientist. Feelings of resentment, of bitterness, of misplaced loyalties, are rife between the two brothers, and the once elegant, now out-of-fashion furniture, stacked to the ceiling in the dusty garret, and the other odds and ends of family life stuffed into armoires and chests of drawers, come to symbolize envy and jealousy, old hurts both conscious and unconscious, and the lost opportunities of life.
At a more fundamental level, Miller may also be suggesting that the ultimate question we have to deal with relates more to how we construct our lives. What responsibility does each of us have for the choices we make? Perhaps the hardest question of all to answer is, who is to blame, if our lives do not work in accordance with our dreams? Can we hold our parents accountable? And if so, why not they theirs, and their parents before them? How far back do we go? Though this is not to deny the fact that some have it easier than others. Those who come from warm and well-functioning families (unless the very idea of such thing is its own myth), those with roots in wealth, or whose parents have connections, those able to get an ivy league education have the advantage, do they not?
It’s axiomatic that not everyone starts out equal, either in terms of wealth, or health, or family experience, or even in regard to the security and stability of the country they were born in. Think, for example, of the children these days living in Ukraine, or Syria, or Iraq, to name only a few of the more obvious places. Background—where we come from—counts, there is no doubt. And yet, in spite of this, the existential question still remains for each of us: can we construct our own lives, or are we pawns, prisoners essentially, of our circumstances?
The play may be hinting at a corollary of the above, as well, another question of equal import: how do we go about creating our lives, and what is the price for doing so? Economists believe there is a cost-benefit ratio involved with any choice we make. And every individual must decide for him or herself if the price paid is worth the value of the thing desired. This works with buying a new car, as much as it does with getting an education, entering into a relationship, or deciding on a treatment for an illness. There is always a plus and a minus, a give and a take in any bargain we make.
This question of what it costs us to create our lives, in terms of time, of energy, of focus, of determination, of sheer willpower is, in one sense, western and very modernist in its conceptualization. It is all about the individual. It raises him or her to the top of the pyramid, putting that person at the pinnacle of importance. In societies where the group reigns supreme, where what is best is the good of the collective, the answers are in some sense simpler. You do what the family decides you ought to, following a traditional pattern, or at very least pursuing a career that brings wealth and prestige to the familial group. Personal and private predilections remain secondary.
But there are fewer and fewer such group cultures left in the modern world. Even in traditional places such as China or Japan, or other areas of Asia, children are more and more choosing their own future, irrespective of what mom and dad feel is best either for them or for the family. Western individualism has spread either like a virus, or like a cleansing wind, depending on your perspective. And it should be noted that Arthur Miller wrote The Price in 1968, itself a year of great tumult, when a new generation was rebelling against the strictures of the old.
Think for a moment what else happened that fateful year: the Vietnam War was raging, along with the anti-war movement; we witnessed the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia; street riots paralyzed France for a full month (I was there and participated in them); the police moved against demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention; thirty-two African nations boycotted the Summer Olympics in protest against apartheid South Africa’s participation in the games; draft cards were burned by the thousands; Nixon was elected president by a mere .07% of the popular vote; and Apollo 8 began the first US mission to orbit the moon.
There was a price to pay for all this. Because there always is, and not just personally in terms of what we do, how we create ourselves, or how that effects other people in the family. Our actions and our choices have far wider consequences. And it is this notion that I feel may be the real, underlying theme of the play my partner and I saw at the Taper. What we do in the world has repercussions, as surely as a pebble thrown into a still pond. Ripples inevitably appear, bigger or smaller, depending on the size and the purport of our actions.
As such, it behooves us to pay attention. The first rule is perhaps to know oneself. What do we want? What will we do to get it? And then, how will it affect other people and their lives? At the end of the play, the old used furniture salesman, the ancient of days, who symbolizes—what?—those tricksters greed and time, but also compassion and wisdom (his name, after all, is Solomon), and all that we both most want and fear in life, sits alone like a ghost in the chair of the long-dead father, laughing uproariously at all he sees before him. It’s up to each of us to decide if the price of what we do is worth it, for ourselves, for others, and for the world at large.