When I drive from central Liverpool towards Crosby in the North of the city, there’s a sight that never fails to snatch my breath. It isn’t the poignant wonder of Antony Gormley’s Another Place that causes me to intake sharply, or the majestic sentinels of the Burbo Bank wind farm as they salute relentlessly from their posting in Liverpool Bay. Rather, what always turns my head is the goose-stepping regiment of sky-blue cranes that line the dockside at Seaforth. As you begin your ascent of the A565 flyover, they seem to raise their necks high and stick out their chests with pride, a strutting reminder that in this part of the world the loading and unloading of ships is still very much an occupation that matters.
It matters in New York too, where the dockland community of Red Hook in Brooklyn – now dominated by a giant IKEA store – once churned with camaraderie and bitterness, with hope and despair, and where the playwright Arthur Miller worked shifts as a young graduate. It was an experience that marked him, and though many will be familiar with his Brooklyn play A View from the Bridge, he had already drawn inspiration from the streets of Red Hook in a different work just a few years earlier.
This forgotten artefact wasn’t a play but a film script. Called The Hook – a story of dockland corruption, unions and the mob – Miller developed the idea with his early collaborator, Elia Kazan, and wrote a screenplay that the pair expected would go into production in 1951. However, following a dramatic meeting in Hollywood (about which, more in a moment), the film was never produced. Now though, teams from Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatres and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse have made history by transforming the script into a stage play; it sails into the Everyman in July.
It promises to be one of the cultural highlights of recent times – let’s not forget this is a new Arthur Miller play we’re talking about – but between completion of the film script and the emergence of this stage production, 64 mysterious years have elapsed. Where has it been all this time? On a mission to find out more, I spoke to the play’s director, James Dacre, and its adaptor, Ron Hutchinson.
For Dacre, currently artistic director of the Royal & Derngate, the idea of a lost Arthur Miller script has been firing his imagination for some time.
“It’s been gathering dust in various forms in university libraries, archives and collections,” says Dacre. “Our designer, Patrick Connellan, had read about Miller writing The Hook and decided to contact the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas and ask them to send him a facsimile. He shared a photocopy of this ‘play for the screen’ with me. It was so powerful, we immediately became excited by its energy and passion.
“It was so clear that this script – which is the story of a close-knit dockside community grappling with a world of corruption, exploitation and thuggery – was a story for our own age. It’s about a changing industry which excludes people, and themes of immigration from abroad, the cancerous power of corruption, the fragility of democracy and integrity. I think in the years since, those themes have become even more pertinent.”
Although Miller is a legend of 20th century American theatre, his unrealised screenplay was far from being stage-ready fresh from the page, and the process of creating a living theatrical epic has been a long one.
“Ever since Patrick shared that photocopy, I’ve worked to create a transcript by collating several more different typewritten versions, and hundreds of pages of Arthur Miller’s accompanying handwritten notes,” says Dacre. “Working with a number of Miller’s collaborators and scholars to make sense of it all, I’ve scoured libraries, archives and collections across America and the UK to gain a better understanding of his intentions.”
As with most theatre, it’s been a collaborative process, with Dacre drawing on the skills of Emmy Award-winning stage and screen writer Ron Hutchinson – one-time resident at the RSC, author of modern stage classics like Rat in the Skull, and now living in the States. Understandably for a writer who has admired Miller since his teenage years, Hutchinson was honoured to take hold of the master’s pen.
“It’s just been extraordinary to work under the hood of a totally unproduced Arthur Miller work,” says Hutchinson with obvious relish. “It was very emotional when we read it for the first time. We got round a table in January and halfway through, I got goose-bumps. I thought, ‘no one has heard these words before, no actors have said them, Miller never got to hear them’. It’s been a remarkable journey for those of us involved with the project.”
So what does adapting a Miller script involve? Was Hutchinson expected to write Miller-esque speeches for instance?
“The Miller estate are, rightly, very protective of his work, and I said I didn’t want to write any new dialogue – who would be so presumptuous as to do that? So we took Miller’s dialogue, and maybe sometimes we had to move a couple of speeches here and there, but that was the basis on which I undertook to do it.
“What James and Patrick put together was probably the definitive script that might possibly have gone into production, but there were also extensive notes in Miller’s own handwriting that had to be deciphered and read and understood. Then the job was to turn what was basically a movie script into a play script.”
Although Miller described The Hook as a play for the screen, he was clearly working with the possibilities of cinema in mind.
“In the movie script that I was working with,” explains Hutchinson, “there were something like 80 characters, 50 scenes, car chases, shootings – almost like an episode of The Sopranos. The level of violence is extraordinary, and of course, violence on stage is a different thing to violence on film – but we had to go for it, we had to. There are scenes in which people menace each other with baseball bats and lead pipes and guns are pulled, and people are punched out and kicked, and we had to work out how to do that in a theatrical language and not make it look like fake sword fighting. And I think we’ve found a way to do that.”
So it seems that The Hook is far more than simply a collector’s piece for Miller completists. According to Hutchinson, it’s “as good as all the other plays from his early period,” and far from being of interest only to academics, “it’s a rollicking great night in the theatre”. It sounds as though Everyman audiences are in for a something very special, but if the piece is so strong, why was it never made into a film?
Before we answer that, we have to remember that The Hook was written during the early years of the Cold War when America’s anti-communist paranoia was manifesting itself in a vigorous pursuit of suspected subversion. It was also an era in which many of the big US labour unions, including the International Longshoremen’s Association who operated on the docks, had been infiltrated by organised crime. Dacre explains some of the background.
“In 1939 when Miller was doing shifts working on the docks in Red Hook, he came across a rally that was being led by a longshoreman called Peter Panto. Panto was addressing a crowd of 1,500 longshoremen and really speaking truth to power, exposing the corruption that was rife among the mobs, gangs and authorities who ruled over the docks.
“Shortly afterwards, Panto disappeared – history tells us he was murdered – and a protest movement emerged across Brooklyn in which graffiti was written across the walls of the docks that said ‘dov’è Peter Panto?’ – the Italian for ‘where is Peter Panto?'”
This experience stayed with Miller and by the late 1940s when he was the toast of Broadway following the success of All My Sons he felt that rather than addressing theatre audiences alone – the people who could afford Broadway ticket prices – he wanted to combine the intricate domestic dilemmas of his previous plays with drama that commented meaningfully on the state of the nation. And the way to do that was not on stage, but in a film.
Dacre explains: “As a setting he chose the Red Hook of his childhood, having clearly grown up infatuated with the energy and hustle and bustle of life within the dockland community, but he also chose to write the play as a tribute to Peter Panto and so many like him who had suffered at the hands of the corrupt authorities.”
But in 1951, with the film about to go into production by Columbia Pictures, Miller and Kazan were summoned to a meeting in Hollywood with the studio chief, Harry Cohn, along with Hollywood union representatives and the FBI. As Hutchinson puts it, “they ran into a buzzsaw,” with Cohn insisting that significant alterations be made to the script, including changing gang members into communists. It seemed the FBI was afraid that the film might provoke dockland unrest and, as Hutchinson comments, “you need to keep that dockyard humming, you need to keep those ships loaded and unloaded because that’s how business gets done”.
Given what we know about Miller’s subsequent career – his refusal to betray friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee and his implicit criticism of anti-communist witch-hunts in The Crucible – it’s no surprise that this request was beyond the pale.
Dacre comments: “We don’t know exactly what Miller said, but we can speculate about what was going through his mind. He was writing a piece about a man who had too much integrity, whose strength and weakness was that he couldn’t hold his tongue, and as such he couldn’t countenance making changes to a script that essentially added up to an act of political censorship, to align the politics of the play to the McCarthyist conservatism of that age.”
While Miller set the script in a specific neighbourhood of his youth, and his argument was a universal cry of defiance, it still feels as though Liverpool must surely be a natural home for this intriguing production.
“The collaboration with the Everyman and Playhouse arose very organically,” says Dacre, “in that Gemma Bodinetz and I have been talking for a long time about our venues working together on a project. And it does feel like this piece will speak to those close-knit industrial communities who are experiencing as much change in 2015 as they did in 1951. The way it captures the spirit of working life on the docks and depicts the energy of those communities with such compassion, humour, humanity and life – it feels incredibly prescient.”
For Hutchinson, the show is also about honouring the dignity of labour and defying those who would undermine that dignity for their own ends.
“It reminds us that there was a period when work wasn’t sitting behind a computer keyboard, work was actually lifting up something heavy and moving it. In the docks, people had to pick up very heavy things and move them somewhere else, that was what the world of work was and it’s one of the exhilarations of watching this play because we fill the stage with movement, with all the busy life of the pre-containerised docks.”
At which point I can’t help thinking again about those Port of Liverpool cranes at Seaforth. What they represent, apart from the continuing importance of the Liverpool docks, is the dominance of a certain cuboid metal box. The ubiquitous shipping container transformed the everyday activity of docklands all over the world, in Liverpool just like everywhere else, and the city industry that had grown outwards from the world’s first commercial wet dock – now sitting somewhere beneath Liverpool One – to occupy at least seven miles of the city’s waterfront today takes up a fraction of the space that it once did (in the physical world at least, if not in the city’s psyche).
And while those cranes never fail to impress as I trundle up the road towards the Gormley statues and the beach, they reveal the modern docks to be a sterile, containerised world where things are automatic, boxed in, and sealed up.
But The Hook promises to reveal that it was once all very different – in Liverpool as in London, in Bristol as in Belfast. And of course, in the docklands of New York.
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