Mark Lewis Jones
The first of Arthur Miller’s plays to receive a professional production, The Man Who Had All the Luck lasted only four performances on Broadway in 1944. It was ‘rediscovered’ much later, finally being premiered in the UK in 1980.
However, the play has always been regarded as an apprentice work, fascinating for its hints of what was to come in Miller’s masterpieces such as All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, but not a completely successful work of art in its own right. Sean Holmes’s stirring revival, featuring a strong ensemble cast, makes a good case for the play without being able to disguise its inherent flaws.
The eponymous hero is small-town mechanic David Beeves, an ordinary guy who experiences extraordinary luck: the father of the girl he loves who won’t let them marry is killed in a car accident; a stranger strolls into his garage and helps him fix the car that will make his career; a major highway is built near the gas station he has opened.
However, this run of good luck does not make David happy. He feels his good fortune is undeserved and feels guilty as those around him are so unfortunate. His younger brother Amos has never made it as a professional baseball player, despite his father’s obsessively rigorous training regime over many years; his boss Shory has been wheelchair bound since World War I; alcoholic friend J.B. Feller is mired in an unhappy, childless marriage; and good Samaritan Austrian Gustav Eberson fails in his own garage business. As time goes by, David increasingly yearns for some bad luck to prove that he is as ‘normal’ as everyone else.
Miller has had a great idea in showing an everyman who regards himself as cursed rather than blessed by good fortune. His hero is a decent man but his amazing series of lucky breaks is so unexpected that it unhinges his mind, like someone always calling heads or tails correctly, so that he begins to doubt if there is any meaning in this seemingly random universe. With the backgrounds of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism, Miller’s emphasizes the need for people to take moral responsibility for their own lives as far as possible: what matters is not whether you deserve to be lucky or unlucky, but how you respond to the cards you are dealt in life.
Miller subtitled the play ‘A Fable’, so that we are made aware from the start that there is an allegorical quality, but although Mathias handles the naturalistic drama with aplomb (helped by Paul Wills’s authentically detailed wooden-slatted design, with garage changing to ranch), the fairy-tale aspect is not totally convincing. This is probably because Miller himself redrafted the play many times (it was originally written as a novel), and even changed the ending decades later to become more tragic, so the work has an uneven tone.
Andrew Buchan makes an amiably modest David, uneasy with the unfairness of life, but he does not convey the force of the character’s later mental unbalance. Michelle Terry is impressive as his feisty wife Hester, frantically trying to get some of her own down-to-earth reality through to him. As Amos, Felix Scott has an almost Brando-like desperate rage at not being able to be a ‘contender’, while Nigel Cooke expresses the heartbreak of his over-anxious father Patterson who has unintentionally ruined his chances. There are also fine performances from Aidan Kelly as the disillusioned, cynical Shory, Mark Lewis Jones as the unhappy, self-destructive Feller and Shaun Dingwall as the comically good-natured Eberson.
The Man Who Had All the Luck may not be as vintage quality as the car its hero repairs, but it still shows one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights wrestling powerfully with big ideas that were more fully realized later in his career.