By Tai, Stefan
Contemporary Review , Vol. 264, No. 1538
ARTHUR Miller's latest play, The Last Yankee at the Duke of York in London, has been dubbed as his 'best play of the decade'. And that was no exaggeration. The Last Yankee is about the often ignored illness, depression. The setting is in a State mental institution where two men visit their depressive wives. Yet the play goes further. The Last Yankee exposes our ignorance about depression and opens up a new male perspective in our understanding of this crippling illness. Depression now is no longer only about bored middle-aged housewives. Depression can affect men too. And there should be no shame in that at all.
Helen Burns' performance as Karen, one of the depressed wives, is undoubtedly the highlight of the show. The audience gasps at her transformation as she appears in her costume which her husband, Frick, has brought. Is this the same Karen we saw a couple of minutes ago? The same bewildered, nervous and depressed Karen who needed to hold onto chairs, the ends of beds and anything solid like a hanky? Like Patricia and Leroy, we are delighted at her tap-dancing routine, especially that 'ready stance' Karen adopts before she begins. Karen really does have 'big possibilities'. But when Frick 'explodes', her self-esteem just whittles away. Karen wants confidence. She wants reassurance and approval. Frick just 'walks out' and tells her to continue practising. The agony on her face, her inability to cry and her depressed passivity shows how devastating depression can be, not only to the depressive but to the people around her.
Arthur Miller takes the trouble to explore how the individual characters struggle with depression. They are all struggling, trying to cope with this illness but in different ways -- from the totally 'useless' patient on the bed who has abdicated all responsibilities (and who merely exists), to the energetic self-exploratory nature of Patricia. Unlike Karen and Leroy, Patricia is willing to confront the realities of depression head on, to tackle them so that she could 'find herself'. Even if that may cause further pain to others like Leroy, her husband.
The most refreshing quality of Miller's play is the way in which a male perspective of depression is explored. Helen Burns did win a nomination for the best supporting actress. But credit must also go to Peter Davison's personal portrayal of the Last Yankee, Leroy Hamilton. It is this depressive who is the most significant (and impressive) in our understanding of this illness. In his college type clothes, Leroy walks around the stage with that tired and 'beaten' look, '. . . him refusing to amount to anything and then spending money on banjo lessons'. Leroy can just about cope. He works as a contented carpenter (he always undercharges for his work) and tries to avoid any high expectations from life. In this way, his constant 'denial' acts as a self defence mechanism. After all, it is Patricia who says: 'Raise his taxes, rob him blind, the Yankee'll just sit there all alone getting sadder and sadder'.
There are moments when we do see potential in his character, though. Leroy is witty and exceptionally perceptive and original. …