In this superbly cast and acted production by Rapture Theatre, we see two men’s attempts to come to terms with their wives’ depression. But it soon unfolds that no one is completely immune to mental ill-health, and a refusal to acknowledge or address his own psychological struggles means that the titular ‘Last Yankee’, Leroy Hamilton, is equally responsible for the deterioration of his mind and his marriage.
Miller’s preoccupation with protagonists in search of identity continues in The Last Yankee, set in an ever changing modern age, where expectations to succeed are based on the rules of the American Dream. We see two men with profoundly different values, which represent their own psychological problems when faced with the challenge of supporting their wives through their illnesses. These are men rendered powerless, searching for answers as to why their lives have not followed the path they had sought to pave.
One, Leroy Hamilton – a descendent of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton – is burdened by history and a famous lineage. Ironically, he shuns the American Dream for which his forefather laid the foundations, instead finding fulfillment with infrequent carpentry work and his search for ‘the spiritual’. The latter he describes as a way to ‘forget myself’ – a reference perhaps to the burden of being expected to live up to his ancestor’s achievements.
On the other hand, we have Frick, a self-made man, obsessed by appearances and the cost of everything. A pragmatic man fascinated by the causality of things. Their paths cross in the waiting room of the hospital in which their wives are being treated, as Frick ponders the factors that could have led to his wife’s depression. Neither man has the answer, as Hamilton describes his wife’s illness as ‘emotional’. He becomes angry when Frick focuses on how much he earns, and how his appearance belies his trade as a carpenter.
It is interesting how Miller uses carpentry – a vocation he himself followed – as the antithesis of a ‘successful’ career, or perhaps emblematic of non-conformity in the consumerist age that Miller consistently critiques throughout his work. In Death of A Salesman, Willy Loman refers to someone he perceives as unsuccessful in these terms: ‘Even your grandfather was better than a carpenter’.
Neither man is happy. Frick seems almost embarrassed by his wife’s condition, seeing it as a blot on their ‘perfect’ consumerist’s life that he is so proud of working hard to achieve. Hamilton is a more complex character who subscribes to a ‘money can’t buy happiness’ ethos, whose frustration lies in the fact that he can’t make his wife happy on a deeper level.
Miller does his bit to challenge the stigma of mental illness by presenting the depressive, Leroy’s wife Patricia, as perhaps the wisest character. She identifies her husband’s non-conformist tendencies and suspicion of society as the reasons for his own mental struggles. At one point Patricia says to her husband: ‘You’re 50 times more depressed than I am… because you’re scared of people, and that’s incidentally why you never make any money.’ This refusal to engage with our environment can lead to or exacerbate existing mental ill-health. Miller’s portrayal of a female character as a ‘steady ship’ recurs in The Last Yankee, and perhaps more powerfully here, using a character with a depressive illness as the lone voice advocating individualism.
In Death of A Salesman, Linda Loman, the protagonist’s wife, is a compassionate apologist for her husband’s extreme behavior, she is able to separate Willy’s emotional and psychological turmoil from his intrinsic character; she sees the good of the individual, she understands the importance of humanism. Meanwhile, Willy punishes himself for not living up to the American Dream. He has lost sight of his individual identity in the demands of a consumerist society, in which it is increasingly difficult to stand out. Measures of success never stand still, getting further and further out of reach.
There is never time for self-congratulation, to take stock of ones achievements, or even for self-reflection. As a result, Willy’s identity is buried, and this is the source of his suffering. Linda identifies this, and as he gets more ill, she demands that more ‘attention must be paid to such a person!’ A beaten man, Willy clings vicariously to the aspirations of his sons, hoping a final hope that their successes will reflect positively onto him.
We see that even in the 1990s, when Miller wrote The Last Yankee, he sought to reflect the confused and varied attitudes towards mental health that still existed, and the characters in the play represent the breadth of outlooks that still exist today. Patricia shuns medication and sees spirituality as her cure; Frick believes that the comfort money brings should defeat his wife’s depression; and Leroy understands, but struggles to find, the peace that true individualism would bring him.
The Last Yankee is an allegory of sorts that warns that mental ill-health can occur in spite of our best efforts to stay healthy. It warns that blanket value judgments on how best to treat mental ill-health are not always helpful; in making them we deny the essentialism and individuality of us all, as well as the fact that psychological disorders are as multi-faceted as the individuals afflicted by them. Acknowledging this is the first step to winning the battle.
Written by Tom Grayson
The Last Yankee is touring throughout Scotland until Sat 7 Nov, with 24 dates in total. Visit this page for full listings and to book tickets for all performances.