This is an extract from the opening scene of Arthur Miller's play All My Sons, which is currently on at London's Apollo Theatre. Joe Keller, a 61-year-old wealthy businessman, is the play's main character, Frank his young, naïve neighbour.
Joe Keller: I don't read the news anymore. It's more interesting in the want ads.
Frank: Why, you trying to buy something?
Joe Keller: No, I'm just interested. To see what people want, y'know? For instance, here's a guy lookin' for two Newfoundland dogs. Now what's he want with two Newfoundland dogs? Here's another one. Wanted - old dictionaries. High prices paid. Now what's a man to do with an old dictionary?
Frank: Why not? Probably a book collector.Joe Keller: Well, that shows you; in my day there was no such thing. You look at a page like this you realise how ignorant you are.
Now, the great man didn't just knock off lines like this to pad out time till the real action happened, this was the real action. He wrote morality plays whose messages lurk just beneath the surface like one of those flat fish you see in David Attenborough documentaries.
This passage is no different, but put meaning and metaphor aside for a moment and then what strikes you about the exchange? Surly it's the expression "want ads"?
Occasionally American-English does that; serves up a word or phrase that is so direct, so baldly descriptive that at once it destroys the elegance of the language while adding admirable elemental clarity. "Want ads" is a good example of the form. It's a vulgar expression but, like a drunk on a train, beguiles more than repulses. I wrote it down.
And then I checked out the current state of "want ads" in British publications and found not much has changed in the 60-odd years since Miller wrote the play. "Want ads" have moved from newspapers to websites but the clamour for dogs and publications remain. Except now Newfoundlands are out and Shih Tzus are in and nobody appears to fancy an old dictionary anymore but DC/Marvel comics are greatly desired.
As are soiled pants, potato ovens, a pink smart Trike deluxe, a cappuccino baby monkey and a twin-axle four-berth caravan. I couldn't find anybody who wanted a first edition of Miller's All My Sons, which is a shame for irony hunters, but then again I didn't check out any American or literary sites, so there's still hope.
It is his most important play, not necessarily his best, but unquestionably his most important. His previous play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, had closed after just four days in 1944. Miller was on the verge of giving up. If All My Sons had failed he vowed to "find some other line of work".
And that would have been a pity because he was a good playwright. Some rank him as one of the "big four" alongside Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen. It is true that Miler's plays, as with all great works of art, have stood the test of time, and that, like Shakespeare, he created seemingly rounded characters undone by a fatal flaw such as the delusional Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
He also wrote the screenplay for The Misfits as a gift for his wife Marilyn Monroe (at least she was when he wrote it, but not when it was made, such is the way of these things). This was a marriage that turned the cerebral playwright into prime paparazzi fodder, they were certainly an odd couple.
Miller's skill was to write plays in which the characters were striking individuals while at the same time embodying Everyman. He nailed universal themes like Marilyn's previous husband, Joe DiMaggio, nailed home runs.
In All My Sons, Joe Keller appears to be a happy, successful, family man who, with little formal education, has lifted himself up, built a thriving business which his youngest son is now running. This now leaves Joe and his lovely wife to turn their beautiful home into a suburban nirvana for friends and family. He is the embodiment of the American Dream.
But as the short extract at the beginning of this post illustrates, he has lost touch with the wider world and society. He is no longer interested in news, just the advertisements. He doesn't care for anyone outside of his family, he serves not the greater community but his own pumped-up little enclave.
Accordingly he makes a duff and fateful decision, selling cracked cylinder-heads to the US air force during World War II, resulting in catastrophe. He figured that as long as it didn't harm his sons it would be OK.
Now swap Joe Keller for latter-day bankers, his dodgy cylinder-heads for their dodgy debt. It's impossible to tell if Arthur Miller and David Cameron would have got along, but on one thing they would have agreed and that's the idea of a big society, where the limit of a person's responsibility doesn't stop at the boundary of their own interests.
There have been several film and theatre productions recently dealing with the issues behind the financial crisis such as Enron, Wall Street 2 and even Robin Hood. None of them succeeds in exposing the universal truths of recent events with the same vivid revelation of Miller's 1947 play All My Sons.
Arthur Miller's brilliance did not rely on fancy theatrical pyrotechnics or special effects but on creating painfully real characters which he constructed by using the simplest words and phrases like "want ads". That's where the truth lay.