The Last Yankee (1991)
by Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller did not mean for The Last Yankee to be taken as a literal unfolding of a story on stage, he was aiming for something deeper, metaphorically deeper. Not surprisingly, one of America’s greatest playwrights was attempting something more profound than Americans struggling with common dysfunctional behaviors but instead an attempt to reveal his own insights into the deeper origins of that universal suffering.
He reveals, albeit indirectly, the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power as the primary source of the growing physical, mental and spiritual sickness, plaguing our society. “As the world goes by I suppose they [Americans] are the luckiest people, but some, a great many, in fact—have grown ill with what would once have been called a sickness of the soul.”
Miller is at least intuitively aware of the three energy centers of the false-self survival strategy. “Hence the repeated references to ambition, to success and failure, to wealth and poverty, to economic survival, to the kind of car one drives and the suit one wears.” And he also wants the audience to have more than just an intellectual understanding of the play’s message. “I have tried to make things seem in their social context and simultaneously felt as intimate testimony, and that requires a style, but one that draws as little attention to itself as possible, for I would wish a play to be absorbed rather than merely observed.”
Release the need to know why.
The Last Yankee is about an encounter between two husbands visiting their two wives in a psychiatric clinic somewhere in New England. “I have called this play a comedy about a tragedy and I am frankly not sure why. Possibly it is due to the absurdity of people constantly comparing themselves to others—something we all do to one degree or another, but in Patricia’s case to the point of illness.” Patricia, the carpenter’s wife has the disease that Brugh Joy is referring to often called “keeping up with the Joneses.”
We are trained from childhood to compare ourselves to others, it is part of our culture, a part of the identity which is determined by the story that is our context. Arthur Miller had this same insight. “I suppose the form itself of The Last Yankee is as astringently direct and uncluttered as it is because these people are supremely the prey of the culture, if only because it is never far from the center of their minds—the latest film or TV show, the economy’s ups and downs and above all the endless advertising-encouraged self-comparisons with others who are more or less successful than they. This ritualistic preoccupation is at the play’s dramatic core and, I felt ought not to be unclear or misted over, for it is from its grip they must be freed if they are ever to be free at all.”
Are we making too much of the behaviors that Brugh Joy’s formula refers to? Is envy, competition, projection, and the pursuit of power, pleasure and materialism actually making people ill? “But while Patricia Hamilton, the carpenter’s wife, is seen as an individual sufferer, the context of her illness is equally important because, for one thing, she knows, as do many such patients, that more Americans (and West Europeans) are in hospitals for depression than for any other ailment.”
Like most of us Patricia is in the grip of her past conditioning, a worldview and its resultant identity that she “chose” unconsciously but has been unable to alter or escape. Her husband Leroy has chosen to be less “brainwashed” by his P-B dominated culture and is therefore capable of a more wholesome relationship with his environment including the people within it. In short he has a greater awareness of where he is and who he is and this results in his being compassionate and able to resist the values of the old narrative. “And opposing it, quite simply, is her husband Leroy’s incredibly enduring love for her, for nature and the world.”
And finally, Arthur Miller reveals that he has the same goal with his plays that we have in the Simple Reality Project and our essays. “But if the pun can be pardoned, man lives not by head alone and the balance between the two modes, one aimed at the mind and one at the flesh, as it were, is what will interpret life more fully, rather than headline it with conceptualizations. After all, at least part of the aim of a modern play must be to show what life now feels like.”
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.