Arthur Miller and the Fallacy of Profundity

Incident at Vichy

by Arthur Miller
Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Center

Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller; drawing by David Levine

In his second play, Incident at Vichy, at the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center (still temporarily housed in Washington Square), Arthur Miller recovers somewhat, even if only to a limited extent, from the disaster of After the Fall, a piece so pretentious and defensive that virtually nothing good can be said about it. In an openly subjective or confessional mood, bringing his own life-behavior into question, Miller is more pitiable than ingratiating. In this new play, however, what is perceptible is not callow subjectivity but an overstrain of intellectual capacity. Still, its director, Harold Clurman, has very ably succeeded, in so far as it was at all within his power, in staving off some of the hazards of the author’s ideological ambition and the frequent sententiousness of his language.

The play is basically a discussion piece. The scene is a detention room at Vichy in the fall of 1942, where a number of “suspects” rounded up by the Nazis with the help of the French police, are awaiting an interrogation presided over by a Germany “professor” of racial science—an interrogation from which the Jews among the “suspects,” who are in the majority, are never to return. For the hour and a half that it lasts (there are no intermissions) it does generate an unquestionable dramatic tension not to be explained away by reference to the appalling historical experience it invokes. Recalling the gruesome suffering inflicted by the Nazis does not in itself create dramatic order and consequence—only the dramatist’s integrative hand can accomplish that. The part that is best conceived and that does provide a certain meager element of plot is that of the non-Nazi German major who enacts his revulsion at what his superiors are making him do at the same time that he accepts it as a decree of our modern historical fate; and the performances by Joseph Wiseman as a Jewish psychoanalyst, by David Wayne as a sensitive and humane Austrian prince caught in the dragnet, by Hal Holbrook as the tormented German major, and by David J. Stewart as an actor still full of consoling illusions of what the future holds for him, are not only credible but sometimes even better than that.

What au fond I find objectionable, in a dramaturgical as well as in a plain logical sense, is the surprise ending of the play (welcomed by not a few reviewers as giving it “a jolt it badly needs,” as one of them put it), in which at the very last moment the Austrian prince, a liberal of refined sensibilities, is released by the interrogators only to hand over his exit-permit to the doomed Jewish psychoanalyst. This Myshkin-like act of self-sacrifice seems to me to belie the entire portentous dialectic of guilt, responsibility, the horror of Nazism as the horror of human nature, etc., etc., which Miller develops throughout the production. It is an ending dramatically…

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