This play is currently on at The Print Room, London. I have just seen it, and was lucky to catch a pre performance talk by the theatre’s resident academic Dr Cindy Lawford, which helped put the play in context.

The play started out originally as a 20 minute piece about two men who meet in the waiting room of a large state mental hospital in New England. Both of their wives are inpatients, one has been there for 7 weeks, a third admission, the other for around a week.They both suffer from ‘depression’. The play was later expanded, now lasting 75 minutes, with a middle portion focusing on the two women and their relationship. In the final section, all four protagonists share the stage together.

As the programme states, there is much here that relates specifically to New England. At the time of its first performance, it was claimed that the play asserts “the values on which this country was founded deserved to be cherished”. The townspeople Miller depicts, particularly the character of one of the husbands Leroy, are “bedrock, aspiring not to greatness but to “decent children and a decent house and a decent car”. Yet, as Dr Crawford continues, Miller also considers that “…but some of them…have gotten sick with what would once have been called a sickness of the soul.”

The Last Yankee does feel like an exploration of this ‘sickness of the soul’. Not only the two inpatient wives but also their husbands are treated almost like cases studies in Miller’s narrative, and consequently the play sets out to ‘diagnose’ the aetiologies. For the women, disastrous marriages, a family history of mental illness, a lifelong sense of not being understood, the dawning realisation that for their futures there is now only one possible answer to the questions ‘is this it?/what is this?, all lead to ‘depression’ and an ‘opting out’ of their familiar and unbearable lives into the ‘safety’ of a mental institution.

The women’s characters feel stronger and more thought through, but perhaps that dichotomy is the whole point. The men avoid such questionings and explorations and make do with the life they have. There is a fatalism in their thinking, which at least partly drives the women to the brink of their lives.

There is a redemption of sorts at the end, which is left tantalisingly open to interpretation. The optimists in the audience, perhaps the majority, left feeling hopeful.

Leroy says to his wife towards the end of the play, you gotta love this life you have…