Western drama originates in the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, all of whom wrote in Athens in the 5th century B.C. Drama, theatre, actor and tragedy are all Greek words. In these plays the tragic hero or protagonist (=first or most important actor) commits an offence, often unknowingly. He must then learn his fault, suffer and perhaps die. In this way, the gods are vindicated and the moral order of the universe restored. (This is a gross simplification of an enormous subject.)
These plays, and those of Shakespeare two thousand years later, are about kings, dukes or great generals. Why? Because in their day, these individuals were thought to embody or represent the whole people. Nowadays, we do not see even kings in this way. When writers want to show a person who represents a nation or class, they typically invent a fictitious "ordinary" person, the Man in the Street or Joe Public. In Eddie Carbone, Miller creates just such a representative type. He is a very ordinary man, decent, hard-working and charitable, a man no-one could dislike. But, like the protagonist of the ancient drama, he has a flaw or weakness. This, in turn, causes him to act wrongly. The consequences, social and psychological, of his wrong action destroy him. The chorus figure, Alfieri, then explains why it is better to "be civilised" and "settle for half", thus restoring the normal moral order of the universe.
If Eddie is meant to represent everyman, does this mean that Miller believes all men love their nieces (those who have nieces)? Of course not. What Miller does suggest is that we have basic impulses, which civilisation has seen as harmful to society, and taught us to control. We have self-destructive urges, too, but normally we deny these. Eddie does not really understand his improper desire, and thus is unable to hide it from those around him or from the audience. In him we see the primitive impulse naked, as it were: this explains Alfieri's puzzling remark that Eddie "allowed himself to be perfectly known".
Clearly, Eddie is, in the classical Greek sense, the protagonist of the play. Alfieri tells us this at the end of his opening address: "This one's name was Eddie Carbone..." Eddie is the subject of Alfieri's narrative, and all other characters are seen in relation to him. We are shown at first a good man who seems perfectly happy: he has the dignity of a job he does well, he is liked in the close-knit community of Red Hook, he has the love of wife and foster-daughter/niece, and his doubts about Catherine's prospective job are not very serious.
Showing a happy domestic scene is a favourite device of Miller's. Next a catalyst is introduced, and we see, by steady and inexorable stages how the happiness is destroyed. A catalyst is literally something which speeds up a chemical reaction; in this play it refers metaphorically to Rodolpho, one of Beatrice's illegal immigrant cousins. Catherine's attraction to him brings Eddie's love for his niece into the open. This unlawful love first appears in Eddie's obsessive concern with Catherine's appearance and way of dressing: "I think it's too short," he says of a dress. He goes on: "Katie, you are walkin' wavy! I don't like the looks they're givin' you in the candy store. And with them new high heels on the sidewalk - clack, clack, clack. The heads are turnin' like windmills".
Later, as Catherine is attracted to Rodolpho, Eddie tries to discredit his rival: he first implies that Rodolpho is not serious, merely in search of American citizenship. When this fails he comes to believe that Rodolpho is a homosexual, and tries to show up his lack of manliness. The failure of this in turn causes him to betray Rodolpho and Marco, a futile gesture, as Rodolpho is allowed to stay. Indeed, his marriage to Catherine is brought forward to secure his staying in the country. Marco's accusation of Eddie leads him, in the latter stages of the play, to an impossible effort to recover his good name in the community. In his doomed attempt to force Marco to take back his accusation, Eddie dies.
This general outline of Eddie's declining fortune in the play can now be seen in more detail. When Eddie meets the brothers he is friendly to both, but he warms quickly to Marco, a man's man, and superficially like Eddie. When Marco "raises a hand to hush" Rodolpho we read that Eddie "is coming more and more to address Marco only". He is made uneasy by the talkative young man with his unusual blond hair.
Eddie will seek to discredit any rival. In Rodolpho's case, he quickly finds a "reason" for this. Rodolpho is slightly-built, blond, a good singer and dancer, and he can cook and make dresses. Moreover, Mike and Louis seem to share this view: "He comes around, everybody's laughin' ," says Mike. The stage directions indicate seven times that Mike and Louis laugh; finally, they "explode in laughter". After this, Eddie abuses his trust as a wise father-figure to persuade Catherine that Rodolpho is a "hit-and-run guy" and "only bowin' to his passport". She protests disbelief but is clearly shaken until Beatrice reassures her.
Eddie tells Alfieri of Rodolpho, that "he ain't right", and that "you could kiss him, he was so sweet", but Alfieri advises him that there is nothing he can do. In the conclusion to the first act, we see how Miller has choreographed the action.
* First, Rodolpho dances with Catherine, symbolically taking her from Eddie. Eddie's bitter response is three times to repeat the formula: "He sings, he cooks, he could make dresses...I can't cook, I can't sing, I can't make dresses, so I'm on the water front. But if I could cook, if I could sing, if I could make dresses, I wouldn't be on the water front". The stage direction tells us that Eddie has been "unconsciously twisting the newspaper" and that he senses "he is exposing the issue".
* In the second movement, Eddie tells Rodolpho about boxing matches and offers to teach him to box. After allowing Rodolpho to land some blows, Eddie strikes him harder: "It mildly staggers Rodolpho". The three onlookers all see what Eddie is trying to do, but his attempt to make Catherine think less of Rodolpho has failed.
* The third, and final movement comes from Marco, who invites Eddie to lift a chair by one of its legs. When Eddie fails, Marco lifts the chair, and raises it "like a weapon over Eddie's head". Once more, the other characters watch the action attentively.
The second act opens with an episode which relies equally on the stage action, as the drunken Eddie kisses both Catherine (to show her how a "real man" kisses) and Rodolpho (partly to show Catherine that he enjoys it, and that his failure to resist it is significant; partly, just to humiliate Rodolpho). The first kiss (which is near-incestuous) and the second (because a man kisses another) will repel the audience.
In 1955, when the play was first performed, the double kiss would have been utterly shocking. Eddie has lost the audience's sympathy, and loses it yet further when he calls the immigration authorities. At the time, we see how the phone-booth gradually lights up, symbolizing the triumph of Eddie's desperation over his conscience.
Earlier in the play, Eddie has told the story of Vinnie Bolzano, precisely to show us his belief in loyalty to family and community. There is also irony in Eddie's doing exactly the same thing of which he has spoken with such horror. Eddie has warned Catherine that "you can quicker get back a million dollars that was stole than a word that you gave away". Now he find this to be true: his feigned horror on finding the Liparis have relatives sharing with Marco and Rodolpho, and his suggestion that they are being tracked, coming just before the immigration officers arrive, is a giveaway. Eddie tries to outface Marco, but the accusation is believed. Lipari and his wife, Louis and Mike, the stage representatives of the wider community, one by one leave Eddie alone, symbolizing his isolation.
The climax of the play is like the "showdown" at the end of a western. Marco is coming to punish Eddie; Eddie in return will demand his "name" back. Marco believes it is dishonourable to let Eddie live, but has given his word not to kill him. Eddie's pulling a knife means that Marco can see justice done, while keeping his word. Again the action is symbolic of the play's deeper meaning. Eddie literally dies by his own hand, which holds the knife, and is killed by his own weapon; but Eddie also metaphorically destroys himself, over the whole course of the play. And this is what Alfieri introduces to at the play's opening: the sight of a man destroying himself, while those around him are as powerless as a theatre audience to prevent it.
We have considered Eddie in terms of what he does and says, but we should also consider how we are meant, finally, to see him.
Alfieri's speeches generally explain Eddie's actions and Alfieri's own inability to save him. But his last speech tries to explain the mystery of Eddie's character. Most of us, says Alfieri, are "civilized", "American" rather than Sicilian. Most of us "settle for half", and this has to be a good thing. (He has earlier told us with relief of the passing of the gangster era, and that he no longer keeps a loaded gun in his filing cabinet). But although Eddie's death was "useless", yet "something perversely pure calls to [Alfieri] from his memory - not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known". Most of us, says Alfieri, being more educated, more sophisticated, more in control, can either hide our feelings or, better, overcome them.
Eddie is a suitable subject for a modern tragedy because the potential for self-destruction, which is in all of us, in Eddie's case has destroyed him. And apart from this improper love, Eddie is a good man; and this love has its origin in the quite proper love of father for child, and Eddie's sense of duty to his family and community. This is shown in the early part of the play in the love and trust Catherine and Beatrice have for Eddie, and of what we learn of his hustling for work when Catherine was a baby. Eddie is a very ordinary man, a decent and well-liked man, and yet the one flaw in his character forces those around him and Alfieri to watch "powerless" (as does the audience) as the case runs "its bloody course".
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