Bringing The American Clock forward in time
Arthur Miller’s The American Clock had its very first performance on Broadway on 11 November 1980. By this point in his career, Miller was a highly successful and established playwright, but The American Clock wasn’t taken by audiences as he had intended, and closed just a few weeks later.
Miller, however, knew this wasn’t the end for the play, and he was right. Learning from this experience, he set about a rewrite and The American Clock was transformed into the play that we know today, one that has had many successful stagings.
Almost four decades on from its first performance, visionary director Rachel Chavkin will stage The American Clock at The Old Vic, when we find ourselves once again living through uncertain times. Chavkin presents Miller’s play through a 21st century lens, in a brand new way, reflecting our world back at us.
‘They won’t listen. Maybe they can’t afford to − The whole system is based on nothing but a limitless reasonless optimism.’
The play opens on the verge of the Wall Street Crash, 1929, when everyone thought the boom would last forever. There is an air of paranoia and soon a desperate panic sets in.
Justin Ellington’s pulsing soundtrack will combine contemporary music with 1920s swing and jazz, reflecting a time that Miller called ‘manic-depressive, the despair and the energy almost feeding each other’ (Austin Pendleton, New York Times, 1988). He had renamed the play a Vaudeville piece − its music, dance and huge cast bringing with it a liveliness that contrasted with the devastating period of The Great Depression.
Having grown up in a family that fell fast from prosperity during the crash, Miller reminds us how quickly things could change, and how it could happen to anyone. The American Clock’s enduring message is that systems are fragile, and that no one’s success and fortune is secure. There is a particularly poignant moment in the play where a black diner owner expresses his incredulity that white people are now experiencing what black people had always experienced in America – this wasn’t something that your class or race could save you from.
‘Mister, if I was to tell you the God’s honest truth, the main thing about the Depression is that it finally hit the white people. ’Cause us folks never had nothin’ else’
In Rachel Chavkin’s version, we see the face of the central Baum family change during the course of the play, performed by three families of different ethnicities who represent the evolution of the quintessential American household. Theirs are shared experiences, recognisable to all families, which remind us that loss, despair and humiliation are all universal human experiences.
And perhaps that is why, continually relevant in a world of recurring political and economic insecurity, The American Clock has stood the test of time.
‘What I was trying to do was to make people feel what it was like to live through that calamity… There is certainly a feeling now that the system is not under control and that anything can happen. There’s a terrific anxiety’ Arthur Miller in the New York Times, 1988