14 Mar 2019

Tick-Tock: New Relevance in Arthur Miller’s American Clock

Philip Shaw

Investec Chief Economist

At a special showing of The American Clock at The Old Vic in London, Investec Chief Economist Phil Shaw reflected on lessons we could have learnt from 1920s America.

 

Rachel Chavkin's interpretation of Arthur Miller's groundbreaking drama about hope, idealism and a nation's unwavering faith in capitalism covers themes which are especially relevant in today's climate - Shaw explains how.

As Brexit drags on, global trade wars rage and the Eurozone limps into its third decade, it’s easy to feel a bit pessimistic about the state of the world. Of course, it’s also easy to lose perspective. If ever there was a time for a reminder that things aren’t as bad as they look, it’s now – something I saw in The American Clock.

 

An epic vaudeville about America’s Great Depression, The American Clock’s themes – thwarted dreams, desperate poverty, naive optimism and good-old ‘we didn’t see the crisis coming’ – have a certain relevance at the moment.

 

Opening on the verge of 1929’s Wall Street crash, and covering the aftermath from multiple perspectives, it centres on the riches-to-rags Baum family and their personal struggles in the wider context of a country in crisis. The play encompasses the sweep of the beleaguered nation, from stock market floors to New York speakeasies to run-down Brooklyn tenements and breadlines.

 

Only a decade after Britain’s own recession experience, and with the Brexit clock ticking down, Miller’s themes are as timely and resonant as ever. But it also served as a timely reminder that there’s a world of difference between recession and depression.

 

The play shows just how quickly an economic slowdown can take hold, and how easy it is to be left unprepared for dramatic change – save a clever few who saw it coming. How political decisions can have a devastating impact on ordinary citizens from all walks of life, and that when an entire nation subscribes to an idea – or ideologies – it can be catastrophic.

 

The American Clock isn’t entirely pessimistic. The core characters find ways to survive while trying to make sense of it all, pursuing their ambitions and clinging to a hope that things will get better.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed Chavkin’s sprawling, three-hour, virtually plot-free song-and-dance affair. Staged in the round, the audience feels part of the action. Period songs and a live jazz band offer a counterpoint to the grim proceedings – another comment on balancing hope and despair.

 

Powerful performances include master of ceremonies Clarke Peters and Abdul Salis as a black cafe owner in the American South who gets one of the best and most telling lines of the show: “Mister, if I was to tell you the God’s honest truth, the main thing about the Depression is that it finally hit the white people. ’Cause us folks never had nothin’ else.”

 

“A country can’t just die,” exclaims Ewan Wardrop’s tap-dancing General Electric boss as Miller’s American clock ticks inexorably on, much like our own Brexit clock. Just like the play’s characters, I found myself asking; what's next?