Hero image

Amid the political tensions of 1950s America, Arthur Miller’s The Hook was suppressed by the FBI for fear that it could cause unrest in New York’s dockyards. Now, to mark the centenary of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s birth, the Everyman & Playhouse and Royal & Derngate co-produce the world premiere of Miller’s “play for the screen”, adapted for the stage by Emmy Award-winning Ron Hutchinson. Designer Patrick Connellan explains why Liverpool is the perfect home for the play.

If you go down to Red Hook, the hook of land that forms part of Brooklyn and juts out into New York’s East River, you may be in for a surprise. Gone are the homes and communities of the 30,000 longshoremen and their families who once lived and worked here in the 1950s. Since bulldozing the neighbourhood that became America’s crack capital in the 1990s, a large Ikea now stands. But if you walk down to the old waterfront you will find relics of the once thriving busiest port in America. A large, curved, rusting steel frame stands by a rotten and collapsed pier that was one of the many entrances to the Stevedore’s piers. If you look closely you can make out the faded letters across the entrance that read “Cunard White Star”, the famous shipping company that sailed between New York and Liverpool.

The journey of The Hook begins with meandering and thoughtful walks taken by Arthur Miller along the waterfront soon after the success of All My Sons in 1947. Miller came across graffiti on walls saying: “Where is Pete Panto?” Miller found the answer to this mysterious question. Panto was a young longshoreman who had attempted to lead a rank-and-file revolt against the leadership of president Joseph Ryan and his colleagues, many of them allegedly Mafiosi, who ran the International Longshoremen’s Association.

Miller refused to be censored and withdrew the film

Panto was found dead in a ditch in 1939, killed by the Red Hook mob led by the Anastasia brothers, one of whom was president of the Red Hook Local (ILA branch). Miller tried to find out more about this “young man defying evil and ending up in a cement block at the bottom of the river”, but not surprisingly, no one wanted to talk at first. Former Manhattan assistant district attorney William Keating wrote in 1956: “Waterfront murders were the most hopeless of cases… The murderers were usually well known, but arrests and convictions were unheard of… To talk was to rat, and to rat was to stand exposed and unprotected”. Red Hook was home to Murder Incorporated. It was where Al Capone got his famous scar. No wonder no one would talk to Miller. Eventually two men came to see him with the true story of the plight of the Red Hook longshoremen. They were Mitch Berenson, a rank-and-file leader of longshoremen who was carrying on Panto’s opposition to the corrupt leadership of the ILA, and Vincent Longhi, a local lawyer with political ambitions. Thus began Miller’s attempts to write a screenplay that would expose the rotten system of employment, the racketeering union leaders and the heroism of the longshoremen battling to reform it.

In 1951 Miller, travelling with The Hook’s director Elia Kazan and Marilyn Monroe, masquerading as Kazan’s secretary, arrived in Hollywood with his screenplay. The president of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohen, called a meeting to discuss the script. Cohen attempted to put pressure on Miller to make the corrupt union leaders in the script communists. Further, the FBI got involved along with the head of the Hollywood unions, Roy Brewer, who told Miller that if the film was ever made he’d pull every projectionist in America from showing it. Miller refused to be censored and withdrew the film from Columbia Pictures. The film was never made.

Subsequently, Kazan testified before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and identified members of the American Communist Party, a decision that ended his relationship with Miller. In 1956, Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the committee. He refused to name names and was convicted of contempt of Congress. His conviction, with potential imprisonment, was overturned a year later.

Kazan went on to make On The Waterfront with screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who also named names, despite being named himself as a member of the Communist Party. Kazan always maintained that On The Waterfront was an original piece of work, despite its obvious similarities to The Hook.

I felt compelled to find the script of The Hook about 15 years ago after reading about its incredible background in Miller’s autobiography Timebends. Also, I have been for a long time an admirer of On The Waterfront as a film but held deep reservations about its political conclusions. In the final sequence of the film we see Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) stagger towards the pier boss standing in the shuttered doorway, thereby leading a return to work and the status quo. He may have dealt a blow to the racketeering union boss but nothing has fundamentally changed. The film is a crude attempt by Kazan to justify his own behaviour in ratting on his former colleagues and friends. You cannot equate Mafiosi-influenced union bosses with well-intentioned Communist Party members. An injustice had been served on Miller and the longshoremen who he wrote about that needed to be corrected.

Dockers and longshoremen both suffered the shameful use of casual labour

James Dacre, director of the play The Hook, has spent years lovingly and forensically searching archives for references to The Hook and has collected Miller’s notes, Miller’s alternative versions of scenes and contextual evidence to present to Ron Hutchinson to allow him to make a stage adaptation that is as close to Miller’s intentions as possible.

Although the play clearly originates from the piers (docks) of Red Hook it does feel that, in part, we are bringing the play to its home in Liverpool, given its historical connections to the docks and ships that have sailed from New York. Are there parallels to be drawn between the lives of the Merseyside dockers and those longshoremen depicted in the play? The gangster unionism that plagued the ILA under Joe Ryan and the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa has never featured on British docksides. However, dockers and longshoremen both suffered the shameful use of casual labour through the potentially corrupt form of daily picking workers. In Red Hook it was called the shape-up” and in Liverpool men joined “the stands” to be chosen for a day’s work. This practise continued in America for some time but was replaced in Britain by the Dock Labour Scheme in 1947 (casualisation had been suspended during the Second World War). The Dock Labour Scheme was a double-edged sword. Gone was the daily humiliation of waiting to be picked for work but the scheme was administered by the employers along with trade union representatives – in this case by the Transport and General Workers Uunion officials. This led to confrontation between the union and the rank-and-file committees that had sprung up on the docks during the 1945 strike over wages – a strike not supported by the TGWU officials. Following Hull dockers, some Liverpool dockers joined the breakaway National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union. This was an unhappy experience for many dockers, culminating in the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers officials not supporting a strike over recognition in 1955.

One of the big questions that arises in the play is, should workers reform their union by taking positions in the bureaucracy or should the union be reformed from below? Indeed, should the union be abandoned completely in favour of forming a new union that would be based on the rank-and-file? US longshoremen on the west coast of America faced a similar dilemma. After a general strike in 1934 some west coast longshoremen based in San Francisco split with the corrupt ILA to form the International Longshore and Warehouse Union which still goes strong today. Attempts were made to export their success to the New York piers when the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Harry Bridges, visited the New York longshoremen during the late forties but the men were simply too frightened to take Joe Ryan and the ILA on.

Today, there only 1,500 longshoremen working from the Red Hook piers, which was once one of the largest docks in the world. In 1989 the Tory government abolished the Dock Labour Scheme. In 1995 Liverpool dockers refused to cross a picket line in support of workmates striking against Torside and 500 dockers were sacked, leading to a strike that lasted until 1998. During that strike New York longshoremen refused to handle ships from Liverpool in solidarity with sacked Liverpool dockers.

I hope this play does justice to the struggle that both Red Hook longshoremen and Liverpool dockers have undertaken in their fights for justice. The Hook pays tribute to those brave workers who have stood up to corruption and injustice.

The Hook is at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, 1-25 July

Interact: Responses to Blog: Patrick Connellan

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.