The Last Yankee by Arthur Miller
Directed by Cathal Cleary
Sept – Oct 2013
The Print Room
The Last Yankee began life as a twenty-minute piece about two men waiting in the visitors’ room of a large state mental hospital in a nice New England town. It featured in a one-act play festival at the New York Ensemble Theatre in 1991, and its good reception there prompted Arthur Miller to expand it to two acts for productions in New York and London in 1993. But perhaps Miller’s most significant early encouragement came from a reading he gave of the one-act play to what biographer Christopher Bigsby describes as an “enthusiastic audience . . . of the town meeting-house of Strafford, Vermont, the heart of Yankee territory”. The home crowd approved the veracity of the portrait.
In 1993 Wall Street Journal reviewer Melanie Kirkpatrick expressed a somewhat surprised approval for Miller having written a play which asserts that “the values on which this country was founded deserve to be cherished”. Words like “steadfastness” and “self-reliance” often come up in discussions of The Last Yankee as the values he has in mind to praise. Miller has stated that his character Leroy Hamilton is a “native New England carpenter and speaks like one . . . the kind of man swinging a hammer through a lifetime”. Miller’s townspeople are “bedrock, aspiring not to greatness” but to “decent children and a decent house and a decent car . . . and above all, of course, some financial security.” Yet Miller continues: “As the world goes I suppose they are its luckiest people, but some of them – a great many, in fact, have gotten sick with what would once have been called a sickness of the soul.” The relation between New England values and depressed patients in mental hospitals is one that The Last Yankee indeed asks us to ponder.
Repression is another attribute of traditional New Englanders. Miller speaks of “their tight yet often deeply felt culture”, modeled in part after that of Roxbury, Connecticut, where Miller lived in a farmhouse with photographer Inge Morath. The man whom Bigsby calls “a natural fixer of broken things” worked with his hands almost daily, even building its granite fireplace. In his and Morath’s In the Country, Miller actually quotes a town carpenter: “I know I’m pretty ignorant, but I don’t see how you can have a country if everybody is taught to honor the man who makes it with his mouth and look down his nose at the rest of us.”
Like his carpenter Leroy Hamilton, Miller also shows deep interest in the most prominent landmarks in New England towns. He writes of “the stark wooden churches . . . whose meaning is now read through the mists of nostalgia – a yearning for a vanished individualism – when they signify, in truth, the direct opposite. This pristine architecture celebrates not the loner freed of communal obligation, not man in a state of unacknowledged war with his fellows, but the ideal of mutuality and its suspicion of worldliness.”