Play of the week: The American Clock

Clarke Peters
Businessman Arthur Robertson was played by Clarke Peters

The American Clock

By Arthur Miller
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
At the Old Vic until 30 March

Since the financial crisis of a decade ago, America has had one of the longest economic expansions and bull markets in history, but what will happen when the music stops? The American Clock, currently running at London’s Old Vic, is a revival of a lesser-known play by the American playwright Arthur Miller.

In it, Miller provides a series of vignettes showing how the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the subsequent Great Depression, upended American society. The cast collectively play a huge number of characters, but the main focus is on the businessman Arthur Robertson (Clarke Peters), one of the first to predict the crash, and the Baum family.

Broken by the crash

The play draws on Miller’s own experiences, so when it opens the Baum family is firmly in the upper-middle class, wealthy enough to employ a chauffeur, own an 11-room apartment in the middle of New York and play the market (just like nearly everyone else in the play).

After the crash, all this gradually starts to disappear. First, the jewellery is pawned and the chauffeur is given his marching orders. Then the family is forced to move to Brooklyn and move in with the in-laws. Although savvy enough to sell his stocks and move into gold, Robertson watches as his contemporaries commit suicide and drift into penury.

One of the big themes of the play is the extent to which the Depression forced people to abandon their dreams and curtail their ambitions. Moe Baum goes from thrusting businessman to broken salesman; his son Lee is forced to postpone college in order to support the family. Even when Lee finally graduates, the lack of jobs in his chosen field means he is forced to go on welfare, and undergo the humiliation of pretending to be estranged from his father in order to be eligible for a make-work government job. One of Lee’s friends is forced to marry his landlady’s daughter in order to prevent his family being thrown out on the street.

Miller takes some liberties with the historical record. The speculator Jesse Livermore appears in the play, for example, but in real life he made a fortune from the Wall Street crash, rather than losing it as in the play (though he eventually lost the fortune he made in those years). However, many of the most outrageous details, such as the people desperate enough to take part in endurance dance contests, or to think seriously about moving to the Soviet Union, are correct.

Perhaps the only major flaw is the sheer length of the play, which lasts for more than three hours (including the interval). The production would have benefited from some judicious pruning by the director, Rachel Chavkin. Nevertheless, it is still definitely worth seeing in its current form.