“Most plays don’t get a second chance; I’ve said that frequently. If they fail the first time, they dispirit and discourage all imitators…And it takes generations before somebody fresh with no preconceptions looks at the script and thinks that he understands what the author was about. And sometimes that’s true.” — Arthur Miller in conversation with James J. Martine, 1979.
At the end of opening night where Arthur Miller’s side-B The Creation of the World and Other Business made its début at the studio of the Irving Theatre of the GCTC, I was convinced that director Jonathan Harris imbued new life into a play long considered moribund. The choice to have an ensemble cast, with interchangeable roles, in the guise of travelling circus performers adds a forceful intimacy within the compact circular studio stage.
As the dialogue progresses, it is easy to see why the early reviews of the play in the 1970s panned it. With a comic gateway of the first act, leading to the heavy solemnity of the latter two segments, Creation makes for an unusual mix of pathos, sternness, and inanity. Harris acknowledges the prejudices that everyone brings to the first two chapters of Genesis, the Ur-text of our creation myth in his preliminary message. Clive Barnes, opining in The New York Times in 1972, complained: “But the whole thing has the air of a comic-strip version of Genesis.” A pejorative in The Grey Lady in that pre-Miller&Moore era.
Many are often familiar with Miller—who celebrates the centenary of his birth this year—through high-school readings of his play The Crucible. Miller’s foray into the Potemkin village of Communism, like many members of the intelligentsia of that time, was underwritten by the deficit presented by a cheap, shallow capitalistic materialism that did not salve the ache for justice and meaning.
The central question of justice, giving each thing its due, is what gives the play its animus. While Lucifer is no Miltonic charmer, Johhny Eaton and Robin Guy both alternate the fiendish logic of his entreaties with aplomb. God’s omniscience is dropped for a more thinking-as-I-go-along Deity who often seems to bait his creatures, both heavenly and terrestrial, on the borderlands where they inadvertently (Adam, Eve, and Cain) or inexorably (Lucifer) transgress. But, he is also a God who proclaims that humans are composed of both “dust and love” and thus irrevocably fated to discern that which is lovely, against that which is not.
I doubt that the urge to be entertained rather than being instructed is a novel one. We naturally resist pedants, especially ones trying to make uncomfortable distinctions. I recall the easy pooh-poohing recently of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission in a Québec literary publication. Excusing the didactic overtones, when we get to what Miller was trying to communicate, even in its ambivalent form, we grasp a world where a thing is not judged because a thing is not loved. A world that becomes “a cosmic comedy where good and evil are the same,” as David Plouffe, aptly playing God, intones. The tangle comes in Lucifer’s wish to hearken a guiltless innocence over and above moral choice; a seeming reversal of his initial seduction of Eve to the knowledge of good and evil, ergo moral choice.
All fascinating issues that will surely make good fodder in the post-show discussion sessions that 9th Hour has organized, with upcoming ones this Thursday, and Saturday as Creation plays through its final week. Catch it while you still can.
9th Hour’s production of The Creation of the World and Other Business runs until August 8, 2015 at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Hintonburg (1227 Wellington West). For showtimes and other info, click here. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online.