Miller’s Use of the Chorus in a Modern Tragedy
When we think of tragedy, we tend to think of Aristotle’s definitions of Greek Classical tragedy, set out in his Poetics. While many subsequent plays might be considered tragic in terms of their plot, when Arthur Miller wrote A View from the Bridge, he consciously modelled his play on the Classical Greek models. His tragic hero, however, is not a significant figure, but a lowly, ordinary working man. Eddie Carbone is a docker, ‘a husky, overweight longshoreman’, unloading ships in New York. In his ‘clean, sparse, homely’ apartment he enjoys a cosy, loving family life; the opening of the play’s action gives little indication of the tragedy to come.
However, the audience is already aware, because Miller uses a Chorus. The ancient Greek playwrights used a Chorus, a group of actors who danced and sang, interpreting the action, guiding the audience’s response, filling in parts of the story and reacting to events on stage. A View from the Bridge is not a musical – there is no group of singers and dancers. Instead, Miller opens the play with a monologue by a lawyer, Alfieri, who provides much the same function as the Greek Chorus. He gives the background and context, hints at violence and introduces Eddie in the past tense. He also comments that he was ‘powerless’ as he watched the story ‘run its bloody course.’ From the start, then, Miller creates that sense of inevitability which is a hallmark of tragedy.
The Powerlessness of the Chorus
The powerlessness to which Alfieri refers is an important part of the tradition of the Greek Chorus. Importantly, the Chorus was affected by the events of the play, but could never intervene or alter their course. Aeschylus daringly comes close to challenging this in his play Agamemnon, when the Chorus of rather ineffectual old men actually approaches the stage to challenge the regime of the queen, but Clytemnestra appears just before their ascent to send then scurrying back by the pure force of her scorn.
Alfieri is an updating of that idea. He is a character within the play as well as a commentator on it. In Alfieri’s opening monologue, Miller establishes that the play is a recreation of his memories; the events it portrays have already happened; the story is finished. That creates a modern interpretation of the inevitability of tragedy, as Alfieri cannot of course change the past.
Alfieri’s Interventions in the Plot
Alfieri’s legal expertise and position within the New York Italian immigrant community makes him a confidant for Eddie, and this allows Miller several occasions when Alfieri is part of the story. While he is used to fill in the gaps and provide explanations, his discussions with Eddie are crucial to the play’s development. He comments on Eddie’s eyes ‘like tunnels’ and on his ‘passion’ and it is his insistence on the legitimacy of the relationship between Eddie’s niece, Catherine, and the immigrant Rodolfo which goads Eddie to the revelation of his deep-seated anxieties about Rodolfo’s sexuality. It is also he who articulates that Eddie might have ‘too much love for the niece.’ An alert audience might have been picked up on the sexual undercurrents of the play, but Miller uses Alfieri to make them explicit.
He also makes his choric role explicit. Looking back, he admits that he ‘could see every step coming, step after step’. There was nothing he could do then, and certainly nothing he can do now to alter the tragic direction of the story. He asks himself why, as ‘an intelligent man’, he ‘was so powerless to stop it.’ This speech is towards the end of the first act of a two act play, so it also acts as a key foreshadowing device for the audience. This anticipation of further developments is another traditional feature of tragic dramatic construction. In Act Two, when Eddie moves to make his fatal phonecall of betrayal, Alfieri warns him ‘You won’t have a friend in the world, Eddie! …Put it out of your mind!’ But this is a tragedy, and Alfieri is a Chorus, who cannot intervene even if he wants to. Eddie makes the call.
Despite Alfieri’s attempts at peace-making, he is of course proved right and the dénouement is bloody. Miller gives his Chorus the last word and Alfieri makes a final pitch at positioning a flawed, violent dock worker as a tragic hero, a man ‘not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known’.
Watch this interview with Arthur Miller about the play: