Miller’s The Man Who Had All the Luck opened in New York on November 23, 1944, and closed on the 26th, after four performances and uniformly negative reviews. The problem, Miller realized when he watched it, was one of tone: it had been played as straight realism, when in fact it shouldn’t have been. Miller later wrote, “Standing in the back of the house . . . I could blame nobody. [It was] like music played on the wrong instrument in a false scale.” Miller moved on to other ventures and rising success and this, his first play to make it on stage, disappeared from sight, not to surface again for more than forty years. Then in 1988, a staged reading of the play convinced him it deserved another shot at being performed. The next year, it was staged in London by the Old Vic. Miller, who could be sharply critical of his own works, felt it captured “the wonder and naiveté and purity of feeling of a kind of fairytale about the mystery of fate and destiny.“ It reached Broadway for the second time in 2002. Even the New York Times, which had dismissed it forty-eight years earlier, found it “compelling.” The reviewer asked how it could have been ignored half a century earlier.
The problem, let me say it again, was one of tone. Read the title: the last two words are “A Fable.” And that’s what the play is, a fable, a cautionary tale about a kind of reverse Job named David Beeves, to whom so many good things happen over a period of years that he becomes obsessed with the notion of payback, a presentiment of cosmic balance: an unseen deity will some day make him pay for the luck he’s had. Success begins to poison his life, his relations with his wife, with his infant son, eventually leads him to consider suicide. The play doesn’t end that way –it ends instead with David embracing life and a qualified optimism -a provisional acceptance of his good fortune and the realization that luck doesn’t negate his sense of agency. Lucky or not, it’s still his life.
At one point in the play, one of the characters, an immigrant mechanic, says that “[w]hat a man must have, what a man must believe. That on this earth he is the boss of his life. Not the leafs in the teacups, not the stars.” Christopher Bigsby posits in his exceptionally helpful introduction that Miller’s play is a kind of reverse version of Camus’s Caligula. Both plays describe a world with no visible moral/cosmic balance: in both, man must embrace his own agency for there is no other except chance. As far as the gods are concerned, or Fate, it’s like Gertrude Stein wrote of her home town of Oakland, California: “there’s no there there.”
Oh! In case you wonder whether I like this play or not, I do.