Review: World Premiere Of Arthur Miller's First Play No Villain
As a 20-year-old student at Michigan University, Arthur Miller won a prize for writing his first play No Villain in 1936 but remarkably, it has never been staged until now. Miller turned down requests to produce the play as he considered it an apprentice work but his estate has given permission in the centenary year of his birth — a real coup for Old Red Lion Theatre and director Sean Turner.
No Villain is certainly no lost masterpiece but it’s fascinating to see the shape of things to come in a recognisably Milleresque, social realist play of under 90 minutes that features conflicts both between bosses and workers and between father and sons. This preoccupation with leftist politics and domestic drama would later be fully realised in great plays such as All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
It begins with the New York Jewish Simons family eagerly awaiting the return of younger son Arnold from university, but they are in the midst of a crisis. Already feeling the squeeze of the Great Depression, their garment factory is now in danger of closing as a shipping clerks’ strike prevents the delivery of clothes to retailers, losing them orders which in turn will prevent them from getting another bank loan to keep them in business. Father Abe makes promises he can’t keep while elder son Ben, though sympathetic to the workers’ cause, tries to break through the picket line.
No Villain is Miller’s most autobiographical play, reflecting how his father lost a fortune in the Wall Street Crash as well as his own youthful communist sympathies, which would be used against him when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the McCarthyist witch-hunt of the 1950s. It's interesting that although Miller’s alter ego Arnold is the more radical brother who refuses to be a scab, it is Ben who turns out to be the dramatic catalyst as he resists pressure to marry for money.
The play doesn’t have the depth of characterisation or linguistic richness of Miller’s mature work but the moral complexities and ethical dilemmas are already there. As the title suggests, there are no villains here, just flawed individuals who are all to some extent caught up in the wheels of a capitalist economic system whose competitive materialism acts against human community.
Turner keeps the drama taut within designer Max Dorey’s impressively detailed house parlour, with racks of fur coats arranged to suggest the switch to warehouse office. A sultry jazz score is counterpointed by Richard Melkonian’s sound of relentless factory machinery, though surprisingly no hints of the cordon of strikers outside.
No Villains shows Miller had already found his core subject, which he would go on to develop so successfully in subsequent decades.
No Villain is on until 9 January at Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, EC1V 4NJ. Tickets are £18/£16 and can be booked in advance online. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 13 December 2015