'What is the key word today? Disposable. The more you can throw it away the more it’s beautiful. The car, the furniture, the wife, the children—everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is—shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.'
Solomon, ‘The Price’
I recently saw an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, ‘The Price’ (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 27 April).
Two brothers meet for the first time in sixteen years to sell their family furniture, which has been stored in the attic of a New York brownstone. Back in the 1920s their parents had been wealthy, but they were impoverished by the Great Depression. Victor, the younger brother, missed out on his education to care for his father. He became a New York cop and is now nearing cash-strapped retirement. Walter, the older of the two, broke free from the family and embarked on a career as a successful surgeon.
‘The Price’ is a play about the corrosive effect of financial strife on family relationships; about a family at war with itself.
It draws on Miller’s own experiences of the Depression, which at its height saw one quarter of Americans out of work. Before the 1929 Crash his father owned a women’s clothing factory employing 400 people. He was wiped out and left traumatised, withdrawing into silent introspection.
In the play Victor observes of the brothers’ father:
‘Well, some men don’t bounce, you know.’
Running through the drama is a conversation with an elderly furniture dealer, Solomon, who is carrying out a valuation of the attic’s contents. We gradually realise that the whole play is in fact a valuation: of choices made, paths taken, compromises reached.
In an interview in 1969 Miller explained:
'The play is about people who make decisions in life and the price they pay for those decisions. In this case, the price of being a socially responsible individual and the price of being a successful one.'
Walter has sacrificed his family relationships in the pursuit of career and status. He endeavours to make recompense now with financial and employment offers to Victor. But he comes to appreciate that forgiveness cannot be bought.
Victor, in his turn, has sacrificed his education and career for his father. But he has also deceived himself in the narrative he tells about the past. He and his father were, in fact, complicit in their co-dependency.
‘We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know.’
I left ‘The Price’ reflecting on the fact that all the choices we make in life come with a price attached. When in business we opt for one course of action, we leave another unrealised. For every decisive action, there is a road not taken, an opportunity not fulfilled. We promote one candidate, we disappoint someone else. We prioritise one function, we relegate another. We invest in one initiative, we disinvest in others. Decisions carry costs.
This suggests some questions.
Do we consistently face up to the price we must pay for the choices we make? Do we truly own the consequences of our actions? Or do we, like the brothers, deceive ourselves, avoiding ‘the truths we know but dare not face’?
Sadly it’s never easy to revisit missed opportunities after the fact, to remedy past mistakes, to make up for lost time. As Victor’s wife Esther observes:
‘All these years we’ve been saying, once we get the pension we’re going to start to live… It’s like pushing against a door for twenty-five years and suddenly it opens… and we stand there.’
'When love breaks down,
The things you do
To stop the truth from hurting you.
When love breaks down,
The lies we tell
They only serve to fool ourselves.’