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The Price: Making Unreliable Narrators of Us All

The Price: Making Unreliable Narrators of Us All

By Ryan D. Paul

Hugh B. Brown once said, “Every man is a diary in which he writes one story while intending to write another. His humblest moment is when he compares the two.” In Arthur Miller’s play, The Price, produced this fall by the Utah Shakespeare Festival, we see that wrenching comparison played out. Throughout the play, memory serves as a vehicle to “twist or reveal the truth, making unreliable narrators of us all” (

The Price, set in a crumbling brownstone in New York City, centers around two brothers, Victor, a frustrated and disappointed policeman, and his older brother Walter, a successful surgeon. Both men have returned to their father’s home, sixteen years after his death to clear out the attic as the building is about to be demolished. Victor has brought his wife Esther and soon the appraiser, Solomon, will arrive to value the furniture. This environment, surround by the many reminders of their divergent paths, provides a very suitable setting for the many revelations that will soon follow.

Both Victor and Walter are at a crucial stage in their lives as The Price begins. Victor “lacks the courage to retire because this means that he will be forced to acknowledge his failure to create anything worthwhile. . . . Likewise he lacks the will to start again—to change a destiny which he has already rationalized away. . . . Walter is in a similar position. Although successful he can find no purpose or meaning behind his frenzied pursuit of wealth and fame. His personal life is in ruins, his professional integrity compromised” (C. W. E. Bigsby, “What Price Arthur Miller? An Analysis of The Price,” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 16, no. 1, 1970, p. 16, However, Walter, after a significant breakdown has awoken to new possibilities in life and struggles to explain this to Victor as the play progresses.

In The Price, “The two brothers represent profoundly different approaches to life—approaches which not only co- exist in the world but which constitute the basis of most individual lives. This is the significance of Walter's remark that ‘we're brothers. It was only two seemingly different roads out of the same trap. It's almost as though . . . we're like two halves of the same guy. As though we can't quite move ahead—alone” (Bigsby, 22). At first glance, Victor, who gave up a career in science to support his parents during the Great Depression of the 1930s, seems a model of heroic selflessness, while his brother Walter, who fled (escaped) from the clutches of a domineering father might represent complete self-interest. However, in true Miller fashion, “Victor is revealed as a weak and irresolute individual, unwilling to concede responsibility for his own life and consciously avoiding painful realities by retreating into illusion. Walter, on the other hand, is a man who has gradually come to recognize the inconsequence of wealth and success and who now tries to pass his insight onto others. He recognizes the need to acknowledge the reality of human weakness and to accept responsibility for one's own actions” (Bigsby, 22–23).

Walter’s willingness to “recognize the inconsequence of wealth and success” can seem a bit disingenuous. After all, it is easy to decry wealth and success when you already have enjoyed it. Esther, Victor’s wife, points out “"all these years we've been saying, once we get the pension we're going to start to live . . . It's like pushing against a door for twenty-five years and suddenly it opens . . . and we stand there . . . everything's always temporary with us. It's like we never were anything, we were always about-to-be" (Bigsby, 18). According to Director Kathleen F. Conlin “the cop’s wife sees their possibility of renewed vigor and chance for a successful middle-age solely dependent on the sale of the furniture. Money has come to matter. The appraiser is the non-family member whose ability to put a “price” on the furniture throws the entire evening into the explosion of recrimination. Whose memory is right? What stories have they told themselves? What is the truth? What is the price of success? Whose success? What is the value of the furniture? Its literal value? Its emotional value? In this pitched battle of family history, revelations emerge that cause characters and audience to ask “what price” and for how long do we live the fictions that we remain loyal to” (Director’s Notes, Utah Shakespeare Festival).

Conlin is no stranger to Utah Shakespeare Festival audiences or stages. She served for twenty-two seasons as the Festival associate artistic director and casting director, as well as directing numerous plays, including King Lear, The Boy Friend, The Lion in Winter, The Cherry Orchard, Born Yesterday, The Tempest, and Tuesdays with Morrie. She is a much-honored director, theatre professional, and university administrator and professor. She was recently honored as the Roe Green Guest Director for Kent State University with a production of You Can’t Take It with You (

While The Price covers many of Miller’s usual themes, “the roiling relationship of fathers and sons, the issues of guilt, the desire for release, the desperation of families, and the pain of everyday lives where early decisions entrap one’s future” (Director’s Notes), and is certainly worthy of a production on those merits, for Conlin, there is more, “Why produce the play fifty-one years after its Broadway premiere? Why do it at the Festival? Why bother? My take is that this play addresses audiences’ deep desire for stories—stories about ‘real’ people trying to make sense of life and the repercussions of their lifelong decisions. . . . Those of us in middle age who have reckoned with the tumultuous emotional ‘price’ we pay when ‘clearing out the attic of the family home’ know that the past is always with us. Miller helps us understand that when we try to honestly look back on our lives, we often scream as Victor does: “I don’t know what I knew” (emphasis by the author). Purging that guilt and that dishonesty of keeping a lie alive is the only way to reclaim both a piece and the peace of the future. And there are also our contemporaneous, divided selves who struggle valiantly to be honest with ourselves—our choices, our white lies, our eagerness to place blame, our difficulty in recognizing that we define our own victimhood and our own heroism. Sitting in those seats, we want to watch and find out how we humans recognize the past and forgive ourselves. That can be overwhelmingly cathartic and deeply comforting in the long run” (Director’s Notes).

In The Price, Miller teaches us that often, our failures in life cannot be traced to a hostile universe or a destructive society, but in our inability to recognize the absolute importance of honest and authentic human relationships and that means accepting imperfections and forgiving, including within ourselves. However, as in all things, there is a price to be paid for our moral instruction. According to Bigsby, “It means granting the death of innocence; it necessitates the acceptance of responsibility for one's actions. However, the price for ignoring the challenge is even greater. It involves the destruction of human relationships and the erosion of identity—a price paid by both Victor and Walter. At the end of the play, however, purged of all illusions and forced to face the reality of their lives they have at least a chance to recreate not only themselves but also the society which they in part represent” (Bigsby, 23).

The last time an Arthur Miller play was produced on a Utah Shakespeare Festival stage was 1991’s production of Death of a Salesman. In that production, William Leach, who played Willy Loman, acted alongside his real-life wife Susan Sweeny, who played Linda Loman. This production has become one of the most talked about in the history of the Festival. The Price was written twenty years after Death of a Salesman, and now Festival audiences will once again hear the words of Arthur Miller.