No Villain is Arthur Miller’s little acknowledged first attempt at playwriting. It addresses themes of communism, equality, the typical American household and, most importantly, the father-son relationship, themes which Miller would continue to develop and which would soon grant him a divine status in the literary and theatrical worlds.
Essentially, No Villain is about the need for change. There is a sense of building urgency throughout the play, at first in the anticipation of the homecoming of Arnie, then in the riots which rage just metres outside the Simons’ family business. It is a play in search of something. It simultaneously builds up the future of American socialism and exposes the breakdown of the older generation. It shines a light upon a society – and family – on the brink of mass societal change. It is constantly questioning, ricocheting back and forth, but does not flinch from its centre: Arny.
Arnie, the younger son who returns home from college, finds himself stuck between the failing family business and his desire to be a writer. He is confused. He is torn. He is Miller.
Miller himself described No Villain as “the most autobiographical dramatic work I would ever write”. It is clear, then, that Arnie is this budding literary genius in his early stages, struggling with a concept which would later define the genius of his works; social responsibility and personal duty. The same concept John Proctor agonises over in The Crucible, which eventually leads him to his final outburst, declaring that “I must have my name”.
Although Arnie handles this moral dilemma, the action of the play is not driven by his presence onstage; rather, it is the ideals of social equality and personal duty he introduces which truly spurs the plot. In fact, the audience barely see Arnie, instead connecting far more with his father, Abe, and brother, Ben. Played by David Bromley and George Turvey respectively, the audience experiences a taste of Miller’s characteristic sharp dialogue in their heated disagreements. From the first scene, Bromley and Turvey share a close partnership as actors which is clear onstage. At times, Bromley slips into over-acting to convey Abe’s desperation and Turvey finds himself stuck in a rut of similarly delivered lines. Nevertheless, the pair are able to carry the play which is no mean feat, especially considering that Miller does not give them much to work with – only themselves.
It would be wrong to expect the same level of tension in A View from the Bridge or the same breath-taking catharsis of The Crucible in No Villain. But, despite the fact that Miller wrote it as a 19-year-old student, it is by no means a stereotypical student-written manuscript, drenched in Wetherspoons beer. Instead, expect a humorous domestic drama which bounces from one Miller-esque theme to the other, teetering on the edge of tapping into something far bigger and far greater. And, luckily, we only have to look to Miller’s later works to find it.
No Villain is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 23 July. For more information and tickets, see ATG tickets website.