Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

Both His Sons:
Arthur Miller's The Price and Jewish Assimilation

James A. Robinson

In 1902, writing about the typical son of recent Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Hutchins Hapgood observed,

He is aware, and rather ashamed, of the limitations of his parents. He feels that the trend and weight of things are against them, that they are in a minority; but yet in a real way the old people remain his conscience, the visible representatives of a moral and religious tradition by which the boy may regulate his inner life. ( Howe254)

Born in 1915, Arthur Miller was himself the son of a Polish Jewish immigrant, Isidore Miller, who emigrated to America at the age of eight around the turn of the century. Though a member of a minority Jewish-American subculture, Isidore did not find "the trend and weight of things" against him. After marrying a second-generation Jew, Augusta Barnett, he lived out the American dream as a young businessman, eventually moving his family out of the Jewish ghetto in lower Manhattan after becoming a wealthy coat manufacturer in the 1920s. His wealth, however, was wiped out by the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression; and his son Arthur's childhood experience of affluence, followed by loss, not only shaped his politics, but served also to produce several plays that focused on the relationship between economics and a son's disillusion with his father. In All My Sons ( 1946) and Death of A Salesman ( 1949), a businessman father morally betrays his sons, thereby forfeiting any claim to the patriarchal authority which might provide the boy with the "conscience" which was the paternal legacy of the immigrants' children, according to Hapgood's quotation above. But in The Price ( 1968), Miller sees the father in a more complicated fashion, a fashion which makes apparent Miller's Judaism and the ethical questions it raised in his mind about his assimilation into modern American capitalistic culture.

In the play, a long-deceased father--like Isidore Miller, a successful businessman who lost nearly everything in the Depression--survives in the minds of his two middle-aged sons, Victor and Walter. Though he was not himself a righteous man, the father's past behavior confronted (and continues to confront) his sons with ethical questions involving a child's obligation to honor his father: the Fifth Commandment of the Mosaic code, at the heart of

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