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On the Waterfront

Dark Harbor, Nathan Ward’s riveting book about the New York Waterfronts, got a good review in the New York Times over the weekend:

For a writer of history, there is always a risk in telling a story that’s been told before. In this case, the bar is especially high, because Ward presents a tale that has been told not just often but quite well, first by Johnson and then in the Oscar-winning movie.

To make his challenge even greater, Ward brings no huge trove of new information to his account, and he offers no novel grand view to reshape our thinking of this chapter in American history. But he does have a few weapons at his disposal — namely, meticulous reporting, a keen eye for detail and an elegant writing style — and he uses them to make the tale seem new again.

Check out the book and dig Ward’s blog.

[Photo Credit: E.O. Hoppe]

Dark Harbor

The new production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” was enthusiastically reviewed by Ben Brantley in the New York Times earlier this week:

Even more than with “Death of a Salesman,” Miller used “Bridge” to sell his theory that true tragic heroes may well emerge from the common run of contemporary lives. So eager was he to make the point that he even included a one-man Greek chorus, an Italian-born lawyer named Alfieri (here played by Michael Cristofer), who speaks loftily about the grandeur of the story’s “bloody course” of incestuous longings and fatal consequences.

Perhaps Miller felt that plays, like classical heroes, required tragic flaws, and thus provided one for “Bridge” in the form of the long-winded Alfieri. This drama needs no annotator or apologist if it’s acted with the naturalistic refinement — and accumulation of revelatory detail — found in this interpretation.

I had wondered if “Bridge” really needed another revival. New York saw a first-rate production only a dozen years ago, directed by Michael Mayer, with Anthony LaPaglia, Allison Janney and the young Brittany Murphy (who died at 32 last year). But this latest incarnation makes the case that certain plays, like certain operas, are rich enough to be revisited as often and as long as there are performers with strong, original voices and fresh insights.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Nathan Ward, whose book, “Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront,” will be published later this year, has an interesting column about the play’s orgins:

About a year after Miller’s death in February 2005, and a few months before Longhi passed away, I happened to interview the lawyer about the old waterfront. Unlike his “portly” stage likeness Alfieri, Longhi was, at 90, a tall, trim and elegant man. Sitting in his Manhattan law office on lower Broadway, he recalled how his friend Miller, who lived in picturesque Brooklyn Heights in the late ’40s, “often thought about that mysterious world of the Brooklyn Italian waterfront. . . . But he being an intellectual, who’s gonna talk to him? Nobody.” In his autobiography, “Timebends,” Miller remembered wondering, on his daily walks, about “the sinister waterfront world of gangster-ridden unions, assassinations, beatings, bodies thrown into the lovely bay at night.” But, he was forced to admit, “I could never penetrate the permanent reign of quiet terror on the waterfront hardly three blocks from my peaceful apartment.”

…Miller first heard the story that became “A View From the Bridge” while on a trip with Longhi to Sicily in 1948. “Longhi mentioned a story . . . of a longshoreman who had ratted to the Immigration Bureau on two brothers,” Miller wrote, “his own relatives, illegal immigrants who were living in his very home, in order to break an engagement between one of them and his niece.” Longhi told me, “it happened to my client . . . who turned to me and said, ‘I’m going to kill so-and-so,’ and then it turned out that I figured he must be in love with the kid. And I told this story to Miller and he said, ‘What an opera!’”

No one would mistake Red Hook or Columbia Street today for the place whose tough waterfront culture so shocked Miller in the late ’40s. But the last time I was down there, I saw a throwback to Eddie’s world, an aspect of New York dock life that never completely dies: Up on the Waterfront Commission building there was a new banner advertising a special crime-tips number that read: “HAD ENOUGH? Theft, corruption, and organized crime cost the port millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.” One side of the street may sell New Zealand meat pies and feature a French backyard bistro, but the ragged side of his old neighborhood Eddie Carbone would know at a glance.

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