Arthur Miller’s 1980 drama is partially based on a documentary history by Studs Terkel recounting individuals’ experiences of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Miller creates a cavalcade of a play which attempts to show how the American Dream turned sour "even for white folks".
"A whole generation is withering", states one character, somewhat portentously, and this is both the strength and the main weakness of the play. In portraying such a wide cross-section of society (there are 35 named characters, played by a cast of 12) many of these characters appear merely as sterotypes, there simply to fill out the larger picture and conform to Miller’s political posturing.
One cannot help but wonder what kind of play he could have fashioned if he had not kept wandering off down Studs Terkel Lane and had instead concentrated more fully on his central Baum family, who lose everything in the Wall Street Crash and are forced to re-evaluate all the things they thought they stood for.
For indeed there are echoes here of Miller’s great plays, especially Death of a Salesman, but time and again we are treated to yet another victim of social upheaval with a sad story to tell - a farmer, a prostitute, a dentist forced to sell flowers on the subway - and creaking references to historical figures ("Hitler? He won’t last six months."). In aiming for historical accuracy, Miller has diluted the drama and squandered his remarkable gift for dissecting family relationships.
There is a bold design decision from Philip Lindley in setting the whole play within a private view of an exhibition of photography entitled 'The Crash and After'. It points up the contemporary resonances, but it creates an odd atmosphere for the family-based scenes in a run-down tenement in Brooklyn. The sleek black art gallery seating hardly suggests a family struggling to avoid the mortgage man.
There are strong performances from Issy van Randwyck as Rose Baum and Patrick Poletti as the Alfieri-style narrator (cf. A View from the Bridge), and beautifully lucid direction from Phil Wilmott but, fascinating as it is for Miller aficionados, The American Clock ultimately fails to engage as fully as it might.