Materialistic Worldview Proves Costly in The Price
In a story as old as Cain and Abel, the new Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's 1967 play The Price, now running at the Royale Theatre, concerns the estrangement caused by the rivalry and repressed resentment between two brothers.
After 16 years of suffocating silence, circumstances force the men to face each other. They meet in a house soon to be demolished in order to dispense the family inheritance: an attic full of antique furniture stacked in ominous, towering piles — hoarded, wasted and left to rot. The oppressive effect of the impressive stage set symbolizes the heaped-up internal disorder that the brothers must, at long last, confront in this upper room.
The younger brother, Victor Franz, considered his widowed father, before his death, to be “a beaten dog,” a victim of the Great Crash of 1929. Victor sacrificed years of his own youth as well as crucial career opportunities to nurse his father through the Depression.
Meanwhile his older brother, Walter, looked upon his father as “a calculating liar, a miserable, cheap manipulator.” The play artfully leaves the audience wondering which perception — if either — is right. As Miller himself wrote in the author's production notes, “each [brother] has merely proved to the other what the other has known but dared not face. At the end, each is left touching the structure of his life.”
What, exactly, is the structure of their lives? Victor defines it when he declares, “There's just no respect for anything but money. ... Do anything, but just be sure you win. ... If you got [power] you got it all. You're even lovable!”
Walter echoes this when he asks, “Were we really brought up to believe in one another? We were brought up to succeed, weren't we?”
Victor's wife Esther, who accompanies them in the attic, sums it all up when she bellows, “I want money!”
This bankrupt but all-too-prevalent sentiment is the essence of the scourge we have come to call materialism. In his encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Pope John Paul II refers to materialism as the “clearest expression” of the resistance to the Holy Spirit experienced as struggle and rebellion within the human heart. The Holy Father points out in his 1986 encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life) that “materialism radically excludes the presence and action of God, who is spirit, in the world and above all in man” (No. 56).
This is poignantly portrayed in the play, as when Gregory Solomon, the 90-year-old Jewish furniture dealer whom Victor summons to the attic to buy the estate, dares Victor's worldview: “Nothing in the world you believe, nothing you respect — how can you live?”
When Victor protests that he wants out of the rat race, Solomon counters, “I mean it's already in the Bible, the rat race. The minute she laid her hand on the apple, that's it.”
Victor's reply is devastating: “I never read the Bible.”
In other words, the word of God is not a part of Victor's life. He has radically excluded the presence and action of God from his soul. And the rebellious struggle within his heart continues to rage. As Walter observes to Esther about his brother: “He is sacrificing his life to vengeance.”
Standing with his wife, Victor tries to stifle his conciliating brother: “We don't need to be saved, Walter!” However, the pitiful emptiness of his life suggests the contrary. What paralyzed Victor's life with his despondent father was that “there was no mercy. Anywhere.”
Although Victor is unwilling to admit it, his remark betrays just how much his battered heart is crying out to the power of mercy in order to find the fulfillment and happiness so absent from his life.
‘Vic, we were both running from the same thing.’
Power of the Past
In commenting recently upon his motivation for writing the play, Miller stated: “The Price grew out of a need to reconfirm the power of the past, the seedbed of current reality, and the way to possibly reaffirm cause and effect in an insane world.”
The character of Walter in the play connects with the power of his own past and comes to revealing conclusions about cause and effect in his turbulent world. For years he and his brother wrestled with the same demons.
As Walter asserts: “Vic, we were both running from the same thing.”
However, in Walter's case, the suffering caused by a nervous breakdown has blessed him with redemptive self-knowledge. As Walter puts it, “There's one virtue in going nuts — you get to see the terror — not the screaming kind, but the slow, daily fear you call ambition, and cautiousness, and piling up the money.”
He continues in a confessional mode to his brother, “I'm not afraid to risk believing in someone. We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know.”
Victor lays it on the line when he laments, “There's a price people pay.”
Too often, the price is one that prolongs the struggle and rebellion within the human heart that counts God out.
In the end, this play about accounting challenges us to ask: What is the structure of our life? Is our life about delusional self-invention or authentic self-sacrifice? A Christian reflection on this fine production serves to renew the believer's gratitude for the ultimate price whose payment was foretold in the upper room at the Last Supper.
How tragic it would be for brothers like these to leave the attic without reconciliation and renewed hope. It is pointless and pathetic to resist the Holy Spirit. The brothers’ encounter in the upper room is meant to be a kind of Pentecost. After climbing the seemingly endless stairway to the attic for the transaction, the ancient Gregory Solomon utters a line that is as prophetic as it is comical: “Another couple steps, you'll be in heaven.” The Price beckons us to take those steps.
Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, a Register senior writer, is an award-winning playwright.
The current production of The Price opened Nov. 15 at the Royale Theatre, New York. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.
- December 12-18, 1999