'Give me your huddled masses': The meaning behind the title

'Give me your huddled masses': The meaning behind the title

Thursday, 26 March 2015

by Stephen Unwin

"Give me your huddled masses..." Director Stephen Unwin looks at the lie of the American Dream, the real meaning behind the title of A View From the Bridge, and why the play's theme of immigration is so relevant to audiences today in Britain.

 



The docks at Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York, circa 1950

The title of Arthur Miller’s great tragedy A View From the Bridge is sometimes misinterpreted, as if the play described a view of Brooklyn Bridge and the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan beyond. In fact it refers to ‘a view from the bridge’, down onto the docks, shipyards and grinding poverty of Red Hook, that bastard son of Long Island, which faces southwest across the bay and offers an occasional glimpse of the ocean beyond.

One of New York's poorest districts

Red Hook has always been one of the poorest districts in New York. In the 1920s, it could legitimately claim to be one of the biggest working ports in the world (servicing both the Atlantic and the Erie Canal), but by the 1930s it was the site of the largest ‘Hooverville’ in the country—flimsy shack cities for the homeless—and suffered appalling levels of poverty.

Crime was rampant and everyday life was dominated by the Mafia and criminal gangs. In 1990 Life Magazine named Red Hook one of the ‘worst’ neighbourhoods in the USA and, as late as 1997, its median household income was less than half that of the rest of the country ($16,675 and $35,788 respectively).

Arthur Miller himself worked on the docks in Red Hook in the 1940s and, in his award-winning autobiography Timebends (1987), describes how “at four-thirty on winter mornings, I stood around with longshoremen huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointed finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day.

“After distributing the checks to his favourites, who had quietly paid him off, the boss often found a couple left over, and in his generosity, tossed them in the air over the little crowd. In a frantic scramble, the men would tear at each other’s hands, sometime getting into bad fights. The cattle-like acceptance of this humiliating procedure struck me as an outrage, even more sinister than the procedure itself.”

On the waterfront

This is the world of A View From the Bridge (written in 1956). And this is the world of Eddie Carbone’s daily grind: a dangerous workplace, no union protection, punishingly low pay, no job security and back-breaking physical labour.

Eddie and his workmates live in desperately overcrowded, low-quality housing, and struggle to put food on the table and provide their children with a better future. Situated directly across the harbour from the French-made Statue of Liberty, with its open invitation to ‘Give me your tired, your poor / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, this is the opposite of the American Dream.

Red Hook has had a large Italian population for generations and, as Miller says, “the hiring systems on the waterfronts had been imported from the Sicilian countryside”. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Miller conceived and wrote the play, the south of Italy—the mezzogiorno—was the poorest region in Western Europe, with soaring unemployment, widespread corruption, minimal health care, rudimentary education, and almost medieval living conditions for the vast majority.

A 1954 survey reported that 49 percent of adults could not read or write, and classified 85 percent of households as ‘poverty stricken.’ Inevitably, young Italians set out across the Atlantic in search of a better life for themselves, and in the hope of being able to send money back to the families they’d left behind.

The other side of immigration

After decades of no regulation, the United States was cracking down on immigration. The reactionary Immigration Act of 1924 (not repealed until 1965) cut ‘legal’ immigration from Italy by 90 percent.

In a revealing interview, Miller explained the nature of the consequences:

“A lot of people had come over as long ago as the 30s from Italy, from Calabria, from Sicily and they had never properly entered the country. They had no papers, but the Organisation protected them in return for which they would give a piece of their pay to the Organisation, but at least they got into the country, instead of slowly starving in Italy […] They felt themselves separated from the vast majority of Americans by language, by background and, on the waterfront, by the kind of work they did.”

And it’s this theme of immigration, I believe, that makes A View From the Bridge seem so relevant today, almost sixty years after it was written. America is a nation of immigrants, and Rodolpho and Marco, the two illegal immigrants in the play, have almost as much claim to US citizenship as their cousins, who have lived in the country for a generation or two.

In Britain, too, opinion polls suggest that immigration is one of our biggest concerns, and the forthcoming general election will see it much discussed and used as a political football. With globalisation, the scale of modern migration is challenging, but most statistics demonstrate that the contribution made by immigrants far outweighs the costs.

What Arthur Miller shows, with a dramatic genius that few could muster, is that the two ‘submarines’ are positive figures who pose no threat to anyone: Rodolpho is remarkably attractive, full of life and energy, just as Marco is a man of integrity and depth. It’s the home community, above all Eddie Carbone, whose troubled heart poses the greatest challenge of all to the Italian-Americans who live and work on the docks of Red Hook.

A View From the Bridge is sometimes described as a Greek tragedy, in which the final catastrophe is the inevitable result of unseen Fate. Others see it as the tragedy of the ‘little man’, Miller’s working-class sequel to his breakthrough play about the ‘death of a salesman’ called Willy Loman. Still others read it in the light of the betrayal of American Communists in Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunts. And, certainly, the stature of the play allows for such a range of interpretations.

But, if the enduring life of a classic is tested by contemporary events, the current uproar over immigration—and the reaction that it provokes—illuminates Miller’s masterpiece afresh: for these times, and about these times.

A View from the Bridge opened at Theatre Royal, Nottingham, where it ran from 4 to 7 March 2015. It then toured to Cheltenham, Darlington, Wolverhampton, Bradford, Coventry and Edinburgh, where it concluded on 2 May.