This is in so many ways a remarkable and important play. It is after all a world premiere of a major play, staged to mark the centenary of Arthur Miller, one of the great playwrights of the last century. It is also Miller’s most directly political script from his early career.
Miller and Elia Kazan (two of the tyros of left wing American theatre) became interested in the matted politics of New York dockland in the late 1940s.
Fresh from the Broadway triumph of All My Sons, Miller produced the film script of The Hook and with Kazan they jointly pitched it to Columbia Studios.
But this was the time when America was freezing over into the right wing politics of the Cold War. Under pressure from the FBI, Columbia insisted that The Hook be rewritten as an anti-communist tract.
Miller refused to compromise his script and abandoned the project to develop some of the themes from The Hook into his masterpiece A View From the Bridge.
But at just this point Elia Kazan was following the money in the opposite direction. He become a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Committee, that was witch-hunting many of his former friends and comrades.
To cover his ignominy, Kazan revisited the idea of The Hook and, with fellow quisling Budd Schulberg, produced the movie On the Waterfront — where the Mob is beaten by an alliance between the Catholic church and the FBI, and where informing becomes an act of Christ-like heroism.
In contrast, Miller refused point blank to turn informer and The Hook is infused with just that sense of defiance. It was inspired by the tragic story of Peter Panto, a young rank and file dock worker who tried to challenge the Mob-infested waterfront union and who was murdered by the Mafia.
In The Hook, Panto becomes Marty Ferrarra who, in Miller’s words, “is that strange and dangerous thing…a genuinely moral man…as though a hand had been laid upon him making him a rebel”. Where On the Waterfront’s Terry Molloy is a fink, Marty Ferrara is a fighter.
And although the play was written and set in the early 1950s the themes of this play could hardly be more contemporary. One of the more twisted ironies of the Tory drive to take our class back to the 1930s is that cultural works which were until recently seen as hopelessly old fashioned now seem poignantly relevant again.
The Hook is about a world that seemed to have vanished forever but which is now back with a vengeance — a world of zero hour contracts, casual labour, tyrannical employers and corrupt and compliant union officials.
So this is an exciting play and it has been given a production that does it full justice. The large cast are all excellent and they manage the American accents unusually well; the direction is on-point fusing music and action with moments of almost ritual theatricality; and the set design is of award-winning standard.
But in truth, while I admired The Hook, I liked it much less than I wanted to. I think the problem is that Miller never actually finished the script (it has been pieced together by director James Dacre and writer Ron Hutchison). They have done their job with exemplary professionalism, but this is still essentially an incomplete first draft — and it shows.
The plot never quite hangs together. The character of Marty has none of the depth that Miller gave to Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge. Peter Panto fought the Mob because he was a socialist.
However, Miller chooses to make Marty’s militancy a matter of personality rather than politics. The result is that his lurch from submission to anger (and back again) seems more like petulance than any kind of rebellion.
I was also bemused by the character of Rocky. He is simultaneously a wealthy employer (he mentions paying “a hundred thousand dollars” for his company) yet is also eligible to stand in the union election. Clearly this muddies the political dynamics of The Hook, but even more it confuses the narrative. Who exactly is this guy?
More problematic still are the sexual politics. Miller would write some of the great female part of 1940s and 50s theatre, but in The Hook only one woman has a speaking part, Marty’s wife Theresa.
She is played with gusto by Susie Trayling but her role is simply to be the house mouse endlessly urging Marty to back down.
Finally the politics of the play’s ending are messy to say the least. [SPOILER ALERT] In the final line of the play Theresa will say that Marty has started a “revolution”.
Yet on stage Marty has just lost the union election by a massive majority when he is let down by his workmates. Only in the Happy Finish is Marty given a full-time union job by the Mafia boss Louis. Is that really a “revolution”? Not so much I think.
Many of these weaknesses would no doubt have been addressed in subsequent drafts and revisions, but they weren’t. So we are left with a lengthy sketch rather than a full strength Miller play, and the superb Northampton production cannot entirely mask that fact.
However, when The Hook transfers in July from the Royal and Derngate in Northampton to the Liverpool Everyman you really should see it if you can. With all its flaws I guarantee it is better than anything that is on TV that night.
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