Next week sees the premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Hook, a gripping evocation of Brooklyn dock life inspired by communist union leader Pietro Panto. PETER FROST reports.
THE YEAR is 1939, the location Red Hook on the Brooklyn waterfront in New York. Rank-and-file communist union leader Pietro ‘Pete’ Panto (below) is speaking at a 1,500-strong dock-gate protest about Mafia corruption in the longshoreman’s union.
In the crowd is a young Arthur Miller, who has just graduated. Working in the Brooklyn navy yards to make ends meet, he’s joined the Federal Theatre Project, part of the “new deal,” and is also writing radio plays.
Those dock-gate meetings will lead him to join the local Communist Party cell and, throughout his life, inspire his writings as one of the best-known left-wing playwrights in the US.
On July 14 1939 Panto was kidnapped and never seen again — he was 28. Eighteen months later his body was found in a New Jersey lime pit.
Nobody was ever prosecuted although everyone knew that the killing had been carried out by Mendy Weiss, Tony Romanello and James Ferraco of the Mafia’s infamous “Murder Incorporated.”
Miller became deeply involved in the campaign, first to find Panto and later to bring his murderers to justice. These events would inspire much of his later work.
Today Red Hook is much changed. The docks have moved downriver and the area is being gentrified, warehouses are becoming fashionable lofts and the first Ikea store in the US has arrived.
Miller’s previously well-to-do Jewish immigrant family had come to Brooklyn when their comfortable life and their large and profitable women’s clothing business was shattered by the 1929 Wall Street crash. The young Miller loved the colour, life and politics of his new home on the bustling working-class waterfront.
Throughout his life — he died in 2005, aged 89 — he kept up an impressive output although US critics dismissed many of his later plays and stories as of lesser worth than his earlier successes. Yet theatre audiences outside the US, perhaps less influenced by crude anti-communist prejudices, were far more appreciative.
Throughout his life Miller didn’t really care what the critics said, anyway. He became the most eloquent and perhaps best-known US communist. He married Hollywood superstar Marilyn Monroe, herself left-wing and far more of a progressive thinker than her screen persona might suggest.
Miller suffered huge persecution from Senator Eugene McCarthy and The House of Un-American Activities (Huac) during the red-baiting witch-hunts that haunted the US post-war and the blacklists that not only ruined lives but did so much to distort its cultural life on stage and screen.
Throughout his life, memories of Panto’s campaigning and murder inspired many works in Miller’s extensive theatre and cinema output.
The celebrated director Elia Kazan — himself a one-time communist and long-time friend and collaborator of Miller — asked him to write a screenplay for a film for Columbia Pictures. It was to be called The Hook and was to be an expose of the corruption in the docks of Red Hook.
Miller wrote it but never handed over the screenplay. Huac and Senator Joe McCarthy pressured Columbia Pictures to turn evil Mafia bosses into evil communists. Miller would have none of it. Kazan found another less principled ex-communist Budd Schulberg to write the screenplay. The film became the famous On the Waterfront and made Marlon Brando a star and Kazan and Schulberg a fortune.
This didn’t stop Huac causing a lot more trouble for Miller. He was called before the committee and asked to name fellow communists. Miller refused but Kazan was called too and he did name names. This caused a major falling out between the two men, who also battled for the affections of Marilyn Monroe. They didn’t work together again for many years. Miller and Kazan’s political and ethical differences about loyalty to comrades and ideals are, in many ways, the subject and themes of both Miller’s play A View from the Bridge and Kazan and Schulberg’s On the Waterfront.
In Miller’s play the protagonist, Eddie, chooses to inform immigration authorities on his wife’s illegal cousins. He’s reviled for this naming of names — a clear attack on Kazan’s testimony to the House cºommittee. In On the Waterfront Marlon Brando’s character ends up whistle-blowing on the corruption. When he names names he’s viewed as a hero. Miller (below) also looks at the whole question of witch-hunts in perhaps his best known play The Crucible in which his recreation of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s is a metaphor for cold-war anti-communist paranoia.
Now, at last, this Miller’s original version of The Hook will have its world premiere at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate theatre.Writer Ron Hutchinson and the theatre’s artistic director James Dacre have adapted a stage version which will run from June 5-27 before transferring to the Liverpool Everyman.
Dacre (below) describes the play as a unique look at the culture of work and the melting-pot community of the Brooklyn waterfront.
He began researching and collating copies of The Hook six years ago and says that “every word in the play is Miller’s.” The protagonist Marty Ferrara is a longshoreman who challenges the gangsters and corrupt officials who control Brooklyn’s waterfront and he’s clearly based on Miller’s old comrade and hero Panto.
Ferrara is “one of Miller’s great men,” says Dace and it’ll certainly be great to see him come alive on the Northampton stage next month — even if it has taken much more than half a century for him to have made the journey there from Red Hook.
- The Hook runs at the Royal and Derngate theatre, Northampton from June 5-June 27, box office: royalandderngate.co.uk and the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool from July 1-25, box office: everymanplayhouse.com
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 30 May 2015