Arthur Miller's The Hook: A 60-year journey to the stage

Royal & Derngate artistic director James Dacre shares the story behind his hotly-anticipated production, which premieres tonight

'A culmination of all that marks Miller out as a great American playwright' - a scene from The Hook
'A culmination of all that marks Miller out as a great American playwright' – a scene from The Hook
© Manuel Harlan

The story behind Arthur Miller's The Hook deserves a screenplay of its own. Alongside America's great playwright it features legendary director Elia Kazan, Marilyn Monroe, studio mogul Harry Cohn, feared union boss Roy Brewer, Senator Joe McCarthy, the Mafia and the FBI.

In 1951 Miller arrived in Hollywood, where blacklists threatened those suspected of connections to communism, with a screenplay full of social realism and political passion highlighting the plight of exploited dock workers and written as a tribute to a man who had been murdered trying to stand up for them.

With him was The Hook's director Elia Kazan, whose production of Death of a Salesman had won Miller the Pulitzer Prize. Marilyn Monroe accompanied them masquerading as Kazan's secretary.

Columbia Studio's Harry Cohn called a meeting with the three of them and pressure was put on Miller to make radical changes to his script, including the depiction of several of the characters as communists. Fearing that the script could cause social unrest in New York's dockyards, the FBI had become involved and the head of the Hollywood unions, Roy Brewer, told Miller that if his movie were made, he'd pull every projectionist in America from showing it.

The Hook's protagonist was Marty Ferrara, a man who had too much integrity to be silenced, in a study of speaking truth to power. Refusing to adhere to this political censorship Miller withdrew the script from Columbia Pictures.

Soon after, Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and identified members of the Communist Party, a decision that wrecked his relationship with Miller. In 1956 Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the Committee, at the time of his marriage to Monroe. He refused to name names – "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him" – and was convicted of contempt of Congress. The conviction was overturned a year later and his courage was to change the way that America would perceive and grow to revere one of its greatest writers.

To appreciate why Miller would not compromise his work on The Hook or later betray his colleagues, one has to understand his motivations in writing the script in the first place.

The American theatre of the immediate post-war years was preoccupied with the individual and with depicting dilemmas within the home. Tennessee Williams and William Inge ruled.

In contrast Miller was interested in creating drama that combined both the psychological and the social, a moral theatre which argued a case as well as telling a story.

James Dacre
James Dacre
© Christine Allum

When Miller set out to write The Hook, he stated that the Greek plays "taught the western mind how to settle tribal conflicts without murdering each other." So it was ironical that a real-life homicide provided the inspiration for his script. This story first came to Miller's attention when he saw graffiti across the Brooklyn waterfront that asked "Where is Pete Panto?" referring to a brave young dockworker who had died daring to challenge the corrupt ILA dockers' union leadership.

In 1939, a young Arthur Miller had stood amongst a crowd of 1500 to hear Pietro "Pete" Panto protest about Mafia corruption in the longshoreman's union. Whilst nobody was ever prosecuted, it was well known that Panto's killing had been carried out by the Mafia's infamous "Murder Incorporated" squad of hit-men. The Hook was to be a tribute to Panto and a blow to waterfront gangsterism. Rather than writing it for the stage, Miller chose to script a "play for the screen" believing that through the medium of film he would achieve a greater political impact.

Miller wrote that The Hook's protagonist Marty Ferrara – like Peter Panto before him – is that, "strange mysterious and dangerous thing" that is a "genuinely moral man… it's though a hand had been laid upon him, making him the rebel, pressing him toward a collision with everything that is established and accepted." He is a man who cannot hold his tongue when it comes to matters of right and wrong. The men who attempted to censor The Hook clearly didn't see this same quality in Miller himself: instead they believed he would be seduced by Hollywood's allure. But when they asked him to sacrifice his integrity for the sake of success on the silver screen, Miller's response might well have echoed Chris Kellar's in All My Sons: "What are you made of, dollar bills? Don't you have a country? Don't you live in the world?"

Kazan, arguably more interested in dollars, was still determined to make a film about longshoremen and turned to Budd Schulberg for a screenplay. That become On the Waterfront, released in 1954 with its hero played by Marlon Brando.

But Miller wasn't made of dollar bills, for his motivation in writing The Hook was to achieve a certain kind of justice for Peter Panto and for all those who had suffered a similar fate to him. Whether a film like The Hook could be produced in Hollywood even today is uncertain. The theatre, however, has always been a crucible for debate and, I believe, a much better platform for Miller's writing.

Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954)
Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954)

In Miller's adaptation of Ibsen's Enemy of the People – written whilst he was preparing The Hook – he changes Stockmann's iconic final line of the play from "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone" to "You are fighting for the truth, and that's why you're alone. And that makes you strong. We're the strongest people in the world." The sentiment describes not just Stockmann's conviction and integrity but Arthur Miller's thoughts as he worked on The Hook.

Several years ago our designer Patrick Connellan shared a photocopy of Miller's script with me. Having read about Miller writing The Hook, Patrick had contacted the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre and asked them to send him a facsimile of the script they had on file. The script that Patrick shared with me was powerful and prescient. We became excited and moved by its energy and passion.

It was the story of a close-knit dockside community grappling with a world of corruption, exploitation and thuggery; a changing industry which excludes them and immigration from abroad which frightens them. It was a study about the cancerous power of corruption and the fragility of democracy and integrity as it charted one man's struggle to change society for the better. It seemed to be a story for our own age of growing unemployment, zero hour contracts, immigration, industrial change, the corruption at the top of major organisations and the growing wealth gap.

Over several years since, I have created a transcript of Arthur Miller's "play for the screen" by collating copies of his various different typewritten versions of the script and accompanying handwritten notes, working with a number of Miller's collaborators and scholars to make sense of it all.

We've scoured libraries, archives and collections across America and Britain to gain a better understanding of Miller's intentions in writing The Hook. Drawing upon all this work – and using only Miller's language and narrative structure – playwright Ron Hutchinson has adapted a play envisioned for the screen into an epic stage production that will be performed by a large ensemble cast. It is, I believe, a culmination of all that marks Miller out as a great American playwright, written during one of the richest and most politicised periods in his career.

You can see The Hook as a kind of theatrical descendent of Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty written with Odets' belief that "the time has come when things don't get better unless you make them better." Red Hook has changed much since Miller's childhood years there. The docks have moved downriver and the warehouses converted to gentrified apartments and America's first IKEA store. Yet the problems that Miller describes in The Hook have simply been moved elsewhere.

The Hook combines the overt political sensibility of one of Miller's epic "social plays" with the elusive moral dilemmas of his domestic dramas. Some of its qualities can be seen in the Red Hook located A View from the Bridge, and I'd also posit that many of the political ideas of The Hook and the subsequent anger that Miller felt over the death of his beloved project were channelled into The Crucible.

Disparate loyalties, mixed motives, codes of honour and allegiance, pride and prejudice are all themes running through the play and we are presented with people who suddenly find themselves in circumstances for which nothing has prepared them. Miller gives them a voice and a language which goes beyond the realistic rhythms of everyday speech, taking the colloquialisms and clichés of 1950s American dialect and creating a poetry that embeds metaphors and symbols throughout. Ron's adaptation has, I believe, crafted from these scenes a script which has all the qualities of great theatre without losing any of the spirit and ambition of Miller's cinematic vision.

Miller wrote, "I cannot quite believe there ever was a playwright who did not really know it when he had written a good play or a bad one. A work of art is not finished, it is abandoned."

Sixty years after it was first written, The Hook has not been abandoned. This week in Northampton, our audiences will be the judge of whether it is indeed "a good play".

The Hook premieres at the Royal & Derngate Theatre tonight (9 June 2015), running until 27 June before transferring to the Liverpool Everyman from 3 to 25 July