Monday, January 18, 2016

Writing a Fictional Plot Based on a True Story: Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge

I recently read Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. I enjoyed the play, and was about to put the volume back on my bookshelf when I noticed that the author had written an introduction. I’m usually not much for introductions. Cut to the chase, skip the previews—I want to get to the plot as soon as possible. But Arthur Miller’s preface fascinated me.

Miller tells how he came upon the idea for A View from the Bridge, a tragedy about a longshoreman named Eddie Carbone that takes place in the working class neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn:

I had known the story of A View from the Bridge for a long time. A water-front worker who had known Eddie’s prototype told it to me. I had never thought to make a play of it because it was too complete, there was nothing I could add. And then a time came when its very completeness became appealing. It suddenly seemed to me that I ought to deliver it onto the stage as fact…

Miller describes how he tried in the original Broadway production to create exactly the story that the dockworker had told him—no frills, just the unfolding of the final calamity. 

Ben Shawn's poster for the 1965 revival of A View from the Bridge
I think most writers would respond similarly to hearing a great story, seemingly ready made. Why tamper with something so good, so perfect? In the first New York production of A View from the Bridge, Miller followed that logic. The stage was stripped of scenery, a minimal cast of actors wore little makeup. The result was not a success.

The play came into its own when it was revived a year later in London. Oddly, this happened despite, or maybe because, the naturalism possible in New York could not be achieved in the Shakespearean milieu of the U.K. stage. As Miller puts it, “the British actors could not reproduce the Brooklyn argot and had to create one that was never heard on heaven or earth.”

Removed from the roots of the original story, Miller had more freedom to elaborate on it, to develop the characters. He particularly fleshed out the role of Beatrice, Eddie Carbone’s wife. One of the most poignant aspects of the revised script is that Beatrice attempts in vain to deflect Eddie’s overly possessive behavior toward Catherine, his attractive, adopted niece. It is that tragic flaw in Eddie that leads to his downfall. With the new additions to the script, the London version was a hit, running for two years and going on to an extended run in Paris.

In the U.K. production, Miller did the first thing a writer has to do in transforming a true story—he falsified it. In writing fiction from real life, a writer has to mold it, to make it bend into a tale that works from standpoint of the audience/reader.

But Miller didn’t stop there. When a writer adapts a story that s/he hears, the temptation is lift it directly and not to meddle with it, like a fragile diorama. Miller recounts the moment when he decided to make this story into a play: “It existed apart from me and seemed not to express anything within me.” But that was the impulse that produced the failed version. Toward the end of the play’s run on Broadway, Miller realized his personal and emotional stake in the characters:

It was only during the latter part of its run in New York that, while watching a performance one afternoon, I saw my own involvement in this story. Quite suddenly the play seemed to be “mine” and not merely a story I had heard. The revisions subsequently made were in part the result of that new awareness.

Even though A View from the Bridge is about the family of an immigrant longshoreman Miller never knew, the playwright had to claim all the emotions of the story as his own before he could write them compellingly. There had to be some reason that he chose that particular tale, and he eventually discovered what it was. It’s like waking from a dream—once we realize that all the characters are all aspects of ourselves, the story starts to come into focus.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry