That Championship Season

by Jason Miller

Start Free Trial

The Past

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Jason Miller’s seminal 1972 play, That Championship Season, four members of a high school basketball team gather at the home of their coach for a reunion marking the twentieth anniversary of their state championship victory. (The fifth member of the team has never come to a reunion. It is revealed why he has chosen not to remember the victory over the course of the play.) This party is not merely a reunion. It is also an opportunity for Coach to use his team motivating and managing techniques on his former team.

George Sikowski, one of the teammates, is currently the town’s mayor and is running for reelection. His advisor/campaign manager is another teammate, James Daley. George’s first campaign was funded by a third teammate, the wealthy Phil Romano. Phil is hesitant about funding George’s campaign again, for George has not been a great mayor. The fourth teammate, Tom Daley (James’s younger brother), no longer lives in town and has a problem with alcohol. Each of these characters, as well as their actions in That Championship Season, are defined and ruled by the past. The past includes not only their victory but the values, relationships and motivations from their high school era. This essay looks at how the past affects each aspect of the play.

More than any other character or part of the play, Coach lives only in the past, not in the present. Though Coach was forced to retire after thirty years of teaching for breaking a student’s jaw when a boy made an obscene gesture to his face, he still goes by Coach. The audience never learns his real name. Coach is nothing but a coach and has no desire to be anything else.

The reunion takes place in Coach’s living room, which itself is a monument to the past. At the beginning of act 1, Miller describes the setting. Nearly everything in the room is old or old-fashioned. The furniture is frayed, the wallpaper is faded and stained, and the lace curtains are dirty. The television set is from the 1950s, while the pictures on the wall include Teddy Roosevelt, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and John Kennedy. The only things that seem neatly kept are his shotguns (which are prominently displayed on gun racks) and the championship trophy from that victory.

Coach is the driving force in That Championship Season. Because he lives so deeply in the past, both literally and figuratively, it is also one of the most compelling motivators in the play. Physically, Coach wears a suit with a 1940s cut. Socially, Coach believes in the values of a bygone era.

Though somewhat conservative forces were in power in the United States in 1972 (President Richard M. Nixon and his supporters), Coach worships the anticommunist values of men like McCarthy. In the 1950s, the senator held anticommunist hearings in which he outed supposed communists and their sympathizers. McCarthy often had little or no evidence for his allegations, but they ruined many lives. Coach is also a fan of Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest who had a popular radio show in the 1930s and early 1940s. Like McCarthy, Coughlin revealed what he called the ‘‘truth’’ about minority groups, and those of other religions and political persuasions, before his activities were curbed. Coach believes such men were wrongfully muzzled, and that American society currently allows too much dissension and too much questioning of authority in its ranks.

More immediately, what Coach values above all else is winning, and he will win at any price. He is convinced it is the American way. His motto...

(This entire section contains 2059 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

is ‘‘Never take less than success.’’ To keep his ‘‘team’’ together, Coach reminds them of the importance of ‘‘Pride. Loyalty. Teamwork. No other way.’’ Coach also believes that one has to pay the price of pain for victory. He says in act 2, ‘‘You endure pain to win, a law of life, no other way, none.’’ While Coach says he believes in playing by the rules, in act 2 he also says, ‘‘Exploiting a man’s weakness is the name of the game. He can’t move to the left, you left him to death. . . . Find his weak sp ot and go after it. Punish him with it.’’

Coach knows these beliefs are true because he has won with them before. He got the men in the room to win a high school state basketball championship in 1952 using such tenets. This victory, which defined his and several of the other characters’ lives, is the primary reason why Coach can live in the past. The trophy and his team are the concrete examples that Coach is right. Coach uses the past victory to influence, if not control, the present lives of George, Phil, and James. Tom can clearly see the problems in Coach’s philosophies and is relatively immune to Coach’s pressure. Still Coach tries to get them to work together to achieve more victories by reminding them, among other things, that ‘‘You turn on each other, and you don’t have a chance alone, not a solitary chance.’’

The man who buys into Coach’s philosophies the most, who is thus living in the past the most, is George. George believes that the high school basketball team’s victory is the highlight of his life, more than even being the town’s mayor. However, that post comes a close second and makes George a winner in present time. George believes he is a great mayor and deserves to run ‘‘his town.’’ George is even mayor because of Coach. George follows nearly everything Coach says to the letter. It was Coach who convinced him to run for mayor in the first place. Coach has a strong grip on George’s whole life. He also convinced George to place his infant with Down’s syndrome in an institution, though George resisted such a move for a long time. Though Coach acknowledges some of George’s shortcomings as mayor, he has much invested in his former player. Coach wants him to win again, so that he can continue to coach him.

Coach is adamant that the values of the group are above individual values. Because Coach so wants George to be reelected, he and James convince George to overlook the fact that Phil had an affair with George’s wife. Morals can be conveniently overlooked and/or rationalized when fighting the good fight. For his part, George has also taken to heart Coach’s belief that victory is had by those who exploit their opponent’s weaknesses. His opponent in the mayoral race, Norman Sherman, has two weaknesses that George wants to exploit; one weakness is that he is Jewish and two is that he has a communist for an uncle (later revealed to be a cousin). George does not see how these supposed weaknesses are mostly past prejudices, out of sync with the times and the voters. At one point, George calls Sharmen ‘‘an ecology nut,’’ yet the ecology movement was becoming more and more important in this time period. In act 2, Phil dismisses George by saying, ‘‘George isn’t a modern man.’’

Phil is controlled by the past in two ways. The first is the source of his wealth. Phil’s father worked night and day to build a successful business before dying at an early age. Though Phil worked with his father, he did not really know him. Phil inherited the business and the money and is now a rich man. This wealth makes Phil unhappy. He is bored with life and believes that many of his friends use him just for his money.

But Phil has one memory that keeps him going: the championship game. He says in act 2 that it is ‘‘my best memory to date, yeah, nothing matched it, nothing.’’ Because of the power of that memory and his loyalty to Coach, Phil ends up agreeing to financially support George’s campaign for reelection by the end of the play. The decision is not an easy one. Though Sharmen’s election would not be good for Phil’s business (with George in office, Phil has favorable leases on land for strip mining), Phil does not believe that George can win or is even a good mayor. Phil regards George as incompetent and as having an image problem. When challenged by James, Phil calls Sharmen and offers a contribution in exchange for political favors. Though Phil is turned down, it takes Coach using the past (in the form of a Fillmore High jacket) to convince him. Unlike George, however, Phil sees the hold the past has on them and their town. Though he is referring to his ‘‘arrangement’’ with his wife, Phil could be speaking about the group at hand when he says in act 2, ‘‘everybody around here lives in the Dark Ages, pitch black.’’

Like Phil and George, James also believes that he owes much to Coach and that the victory was an important moment in his life. James is another character who is trapped in the past. James is a team player in Coach’s current project, as the campaign manager and adviser to George. Unlike the others, James feels he is years behind everyone else because he always has responsibilities that limit his ability to succeed. In addition to taking care of George politically, James had to care for his abusive, alcoholic father before his death. He currently supports his alcoholic brother, Tom. James’s job is as a junior high principal, which involves taking care of the student body.

James tries to live in the future, even if past relationships and family keep holding him back. He wants to run for school superintendent the following year, after George has been elected. He offers himself up as an alternate candidate to George when Phil does not want to support him. James is turned down. Someday, James hopes to run for congress. But his dreams seem dashed by the pull of past loyalties. Phil will not fund George’s campaign with James as manager. He insists on bringing in outside professionals to run the campaign and improve George’s image. While James eventually agrees to a more limited role in the campaign, these events clearly demonstrate how oppressive the past can be in these men’s lives.

The one man in That Championship Season who sees problems with Coach’s outlook and the power of the past is Tom. He never says this victory was his shining moment, and he resists all efforts to become deeply entangled in this codependent campaign. It is not clear why Tom is present at all. He has serious problems with alcohol and has missed three previous reunions. Tom is leaving the next day for another city. Miller uses Tom as the play’s conscience. He points out the absurdities in everything that is said.

Tom also remembers the truth about their hollow victory twenty years ago. In act 3, Tom reveals the reason why Martin, the best player on the team and the one who had the winning basket, has never come to a reunion. During the game, Coach told Martin to injure the other team’s best player so their team would win. Martin broke the player’s ribs, and later asked Coach to return the trophy and renounce the victory because of his action. Coach would not give up his moment of glory, which has defined him to this day. Because of this, Tom says, ‘‘We are a myth.’’ Though only Tom believes Martin, Tom knows that the past they cling to and that defines them is tenuous at best and does not really exist.

At several points in That Championship Season, moments from that championship game are relived. They are used by Coach to keep them together so that his hold remains as firm as possible on his team. In act 2, Coach says, ‘‘You can’t make it alone, George, not anymore. Gone forever, those days, gone.’’ Only Tom does not believe this. Deep down, even George knows the score. He admits late in act 2, ‘‘Everything is in the past tense. I’m in the past tense.’’ For the men in That Championship Season, the past is only inescapable if you let it be.

Source: Annette Petrusso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

Functioning as a Team

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

When That Championship Season first opened off Broadway in 1972, it immediately won a host of critical acclaim. In his introduction to the published script, the play’s producer, Joseph Papp, explained why he believed the play was a ‘‘winner.’’ According to Papp, ‘‘The work evokes a feeling of tradition, but in the real sense, the play is a modern work with its basic roots in America. Its simplicity is deceptive—but it is this simplicity translated into recognizable human form that gives the work its extraordinary power.’’ This drama, which Papp called, ‘‘a play for the people of America,’’ explores the frailty of humanity through a group of friends gathered for an annual reunion that celebrates the highlight of their lives, winning a state championship in high school basketball. In his discussion on Miller in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jonathan Hershey calls That Championship Season a ‘‘character study of men who refuse to examine the moral bankruptcy of their lives and their perverted values of competition.’’

The men at the reunion are George, the town’s mayor; Phil, a wealthy businessman; James, a junior high school principal who also works as George’s campaign manager; Tom, James’s brother who is an unemployed alcoholic; and Coach, the men’s former basketball coach. Collectively, the men exhibit a host of undesirable traits. They are prejudiced and bigoted. George tells racial and ethnic jokes, some directed at his so-called friends. George’s mayoral opponent, Sharmen, is alternately referred to as ‘‘the Jew’’ or ‘‘Sharmawitz.’’ The men privately denigrate each other, such as when George asserts to Tom that ‘‘Phil’s not bright, really.’’ They are selfish and self-involved. One statement of Phil’s best typifies their lack of caring about others: ‘‘I like being rich, okay. I need money. I want two of everything. Cars, boats, women, etc., etc. Around expensive things I get a hard on, turned on, I want them.’’

Like Phil, the men all exhibit moral degradation of some sort. George is the most obvious representation of corruption. He vocally revels in the power he holds over other people through his position as mayor. His exploitation of the office ranges from the mundane, such as fixing parking tickets for his friends, to the extreme, such as awarding Phil lucrative land-mining contracts in return for campaign support. George also reveals his intention to back James for school superintendent after the election. ‘‘That’s patronage,’’ Tom points out, to which George complacently replies, ‘‘I know. Is there any other way?’’

An ugly glimpse into the men’s shared past is revealed early on through an exchange between Tom and George:

TOM Hey, I remembered somebody. I saw her standing by the library yesterday. Mary . . . what’s-her-name.


TOM The epileptic. Mary . . . you know, the one we banged in your garage. . . . We were freshmen or something.

GEORGE I don’t remember.

GEORGE Don’t ever breathe a word. . . . She wasn’t an epileptic. She was only retarded not a word. It could ruin me. She was raped here about two years ago. . . .

The passage shows how the friends treat and feel about people who have less power. People become, for this group of friends, only objects to use for their own purposes. As young men, they sexually abused a girl but feel no shame; the only true emotion that George has about this event is fear— fear that it could adversely affect his political career.

The corruption depicted in the play extends to the group’s family members. George’s wife, Marion, lacks a moral center. Early in act 1, George tells Tom that Marion is his conscience. The irony of his statement is revealed later, when George—and his friends—learn about Marion’s affair with Phil. Phil’s collection of stag films apparently comes from George’s brother-in-law, the chief of police. George sees no reason to defend his brother-in-law’s actions; instead, he seems to admire his brother-inlaw’s ingenuity: ‘‘He sells what he’s confiscated. Isn’t free enterprise something else?’’

Coach, however, is the most crude and regressive of all the men. Derogatory epithets such as ‘‘nigger’’ constantly pepper his speech. He calls George’s wife Marion a ‘‘hot-pantsed b—h’’ and tells George to ‘‘Go home and kick her ass all over the kitchen.’’ He despises ‘‘liberal bulls—t’’ and idealizes Joseph McCarthy, the senator who in the early 1950s led the nation on a communist witch hunt that ruined the careers and lives of many innocent people.

Coach is caught up in the days of what he considers to be his past glory. From his first appearance on the stage, his ties to the past are readily apparent: he wears a suit that is cut in the style of the 1940s. Although he relives the championship season, he claims the boys are what are most important to him. They are his ‘‘real trophies.’’ He tells them at the beginning of the reunion, ‘‘Oh, Christ, boys, Christ, it’s so good . . . the joy in my heart to feel you around me again.’’ In speaking of their ball playing, he calls them, ‘‘a thing of rare . . . beauty.’’

Like Coach, his ‘‘boys’’ cannot escape the past, both the good memories and the bad. The championship game, however, has held the men in its thrall all these years. Within the opening moments of the play, the audience is keenly attuned to this reality through George’s assertion that ‘‘I am sincerely more proud of winning that championship than I am of being mayor of this town.’’ The other men reinforce George’s attitude. Phil later comments, ‘‘Sometimes I think that’s the only thing I can still feel, you know, still feel in my gut, still feel that championship season, feel the crowds . . . my best memory to date, yeah, nothing matched it, nothing.’’

The former teammates, all grown men almost forty, still rely on their coach for advice and validation. It was Coach’s idea for George to run for mayor. ‘‘I owe my whole life, success to that man,’’ George declares, thereby negating any other influences, his own included, on his political victory. It is Coach who advises George to place his son, born with Down’s syndrome, in an institution. The child would impair George’s political career, so George agrees to this plan, though it goes against his own wishes.

Coach maintains control through his constant emphasis on teamwork. This method works on the boys because none of them feel their accomplishments have measured up to their championship game. Coach takes whatever steps he feels necessary to make the men act like a team when their cooperation threatens to break down. For instance, when George demands that Phil relate Marion’s sexual prowess, Coach snaps, ‘‘What’s wrong with you, it’s none of your business!’’ Clearly, he is trying to defuse an understandably volatile situation that could pit George and Phil against each other. Coach understands that ‘‘You turn on each other, and you don’t have a chance alone, not a solitary chance.’’ Indeed, the histories of the men bear out the truth of Coach’s words. George would not have been elected without Phil’s generous campaign contribution. Phil admits that without George’s support, he faces ‘‘a complete business disaster.’’ James’s job, and more importantly, his political aspirations, come from his association with George. Without each other, these men would be outward failures as well as personal failures.

To further promote a sense of team spirit, Coach reminds the men, ‘‘We were one flesh twenty years ago; never forget that as long as you live!’’ Indeed, the men need plenty of urging to reconnect to their past closeness. Tom snidely questions any statement that George makes. Phil has carried on an affair with George’s wife and has secretly planned to take his support from George and give it to his formidable opponent. James reveals the affair and also proposes that he run for mayor in place of George. Ironically, the men all feel that they have done nothing wrong but that the others have wronged them. This attitude is best typified through James’s reaction upon learning of his demotion from campaign manager; he declares that Phil and Coach have ‘‘knife[d] me in the back.’’ By the end of the play, however, Coach’s words are borne out; the men are intrinsically joined together. Even though their dislike and distrust of each other is readily apparent—in Hershey’s phrasing, ‘‘They betray each other while claiming to be friends’’—they return to each other.

The men maintain this connection because only when they band together are they able to accomplish some of their goals. They won the state championship twenty years ago, and they have since continued to work as a team, albeit a dysfunctional one. When the men discuss the challenge George’s opponent Sharmen poses, James reminds them, ‘‘But it we can coordinate ourselves—’’ Phil shares that his best moments in life these days are ‘‘replay[ing] the good games in my head.’’ They ‘‘[C]ould call each other’s moves . . . every time.’’

Only Tom negates this ideal of teamwork. An inherent irony the play presents is that although Tom and James are brothers, of all the men, Tom is the odd man out. He has physically distanced himself from the group for three years in a row, skipping the annual reunions and missing out on the social machinations. He resists all efforts to draw him into the group via George’s upcoming election. He also is the only person who openly mocks the hypocritical team mentality. Objecting to the proposed smear campaign against Sharmen, he pretends not to understand that Sharmen’s ‘‘on the other side now.’’

He even declares that he is ‘‘ready to campaign for Sharmen.’’ In act 3, after Coach has gotten everyone to agree to his plans for the election by invoking memories of their championship game, Tom alone dissents. ‘‘Stop lying to us,’’ he says, ‘‘Stop telling us how good we were.’’

There is also one other missing element, the fifth member of the winning team, Martin. When Martin’s name is first introduced, in act 1, the men treat his memory with an emotion akin to reverence. ‘‘Let’s say a little prayer for him, boys,’’ extols Coach, ‘‘a prayer that he’s safe and happy and still a champion.’’ At the end of the play, however, the audience learns why Martin has chosen to renounce the team: following Coach’s orders to ‘‘get that nigger center, the kangaroo,’’ Martin went after the player and ended up breaking his opponent’s ribs. He wanted Coach to refuse to accept the trophy, but Coach would not. ‘‘He came babbling something about the truth,’’ Coach recalls. ‘‘What truth, I said, we won. That trophy is the truth the only truth.’’ At the time when Martin shared this story, they did not stand by him against the Coach. Now Tom reminds the others that they ‘‘stole that trophy, [the] championship season is a lie.’’ When faced with Tom’s defection, the other men suddenly change their opinions about Martin. Suddenly, he transforms from the ‘‘perfect ballplayer’’ whom they think about often and love into ‘‘a real sonofab—h’’ and someone who ‘‘didn’t have a brain.’’

The discord among the men at this reunion threatens their team, and thus, their sense of self. Before reaching general consensus again, the men reveal their vulnerability. George tells the others, ‘‘I can’t find . . . myself. . . . I lose myself behind all the smiles, handshakes, speeches. I don’t think I’m the man I wanted to be, I seem to myself to be somebody else.’’ In this speech, George shows his dissatisfaction with a life empty except for the political role he inhabits, which is far from assured. For his part, James is ‘‘beginning to see myself’’ as a mediocre person and is upset that his gifted son recognizes him as such. Phil is ‘‘so bored half the time it’s killing me.’’ Their personal dissatisfaction and their dissatisfaction with each other is mutually parasitic; one feeds the other.

It is Coach who brings the men back together in act 3. Several verbal tactics remind the boys that they are a winning team. Coach uses negative reinforcement, at one point mocking the men’s vulnerabilities. He also attacks their loss of camaraderie. ‘‘Never did I think I’d live to see you turn savagely . . . savagely turn on each other. You’re not the same people who played for me.’’ He draws on his own memories of past failures and successes: the Great Depression, idyllic town picnics, and the loss of American leadership. He invokes the ideals of patriotism, telling the men that ‘‘Somebody has to lead the country back again.’’ His final rally of his team of ‘‘winners’’ whom he ‘‘won’t let lose’’ ends with his replaying a recording of the final ten seconds of the championship game.

Coach’s reliance on the championship season, and the trophy that represents it, overcomes any dissent. When Tom drunkenly mumbles to himself, ‘‘We are a myth.’’ Coach overhears this denigrating comment and responds with great vigor: ‘‘Is that trophy a myth! See the names engraved on it!’’ This exchange underscores the truth: that the teammates are winners only in terms of winning the state championship—not in any personal way. They became ‘‘champions’’ by unscrupulous means, and they have followed this pattern of deceit throughout their lives. Although Coach attempts to hold on to the moment of glory by ‘‘carving [the boy’s] names in silver’’ to make the moment ‘‘last forever,’’ his action is in vain. The trophy becomes a hollow symbol for the their so-called life successes.

By the end of the play, the men, with the exception of Tom, have all made up. They have asked each other’s forgiveness and declared their fraternal devotion. They also agree to work as a team to secure George’s reelection. The play culminates in their gathering around the trophy, taking pictures, reasserting their supremacy in a world where white men such as themselves own the basketball courts—a world that no longer exists.

Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Sports and the Competitive Ethic: Death of a Salesman and That Championship Season

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

‘‘We are the country, boys, never forget that, never,’’ asserts the Coach to his returning players in Jason Miller’s play, That Championship Season. A horrifying thought, yet characteristic of a number of American plays of the 1970’s, which attempt to portray through a limited number of characters the corruption of America and the American dream. That Championship Season, a multiple award-winning drama, seemed to revive the realistic wellmade play as a viable vehicle for such purposes, and a comparison with Death of a Salesman, of a generation earlier but with similar thematic and structural elements, will illustrate how our view of ourselves has changed under the influence of the Cold War and the Nixon years. In fact, the overlay of specific political content in Jason Miller’s play suggests that politics has strongly affected his view of contemporary America.

In comparing the plays, a worthwhile starting point is the motif of sports—central to That Championship Season and seemingly only peripheral to Death of a Salesman. Yet the myth and ethic of sports in truth undergird both plays. Ideally the world of sports is a world set apart, independent and clearly structured, in which the game is played according to rules accepted by all participants. It is a world where one can succeed through sacrifice, hard work, and courage, a world of simple order offering the potential for heroic action. Biff Loman played football, while the characters in That Championship Season played basketball, in itself a suggestive comparison. For paradoxically, though Biff grew up in the city, it is basketball which is a particularly urban game. The centrality of the sport of basketball to our progressively more urban society may be one reason for Jason Miller’s use of that sport. America’s increasing urbanization is important to Death of a Salesman, but the presence of the game of football suggests that green spaces and pastoral areas still exist, an important theme in the play as a whole.

It may seem a long leap from sports to salesmanship in Death of a Salesman, but actually both endeavors are based on competition, on winning through striving to be number one. Seeing his sons as Adonises on the playing field, Willy is sure that they will have no trouble attaining equal success in the adult world, a feeling the Coach shares. Success in athletics is thus equated with success in life, a common enough attitude in our present sportsoriented culture, but one which the plays show to be fallacious, for the younger men in both are anything but successful.

The central structural device of the two plays is the homecoming—Biff returning on the one hand and the four players having their yearly reunion on the other. Perhaps the most striking parallel between the plays is the similarity between Willy and the Coach, the older adults to whom the younger characters keep returning. Almost against his will, Biff is periodically drawn back to his father, who continues to have a strong hold over his life. Jason Miller has said that his characters are all searching for a father, and the Coach is actually the nearest thing to a father they have. He has made them what they are, as Willy has formed his sons, with devastating results.

Both Willy and the Coach are out of place in the modern world—a fact first indicated by the settings of the plays. The Coach’s living room is described as A large and expansive living room in a Gothic- Victorian tradition. The dominant mood of the room is nostalgia. Of Willy’s single family dwelling, threatened by looming apartment houses, Arthur Miller suggests that An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality. Choosing to live in such surroundings, both characters declare their allegiance to the past. Their pasts are very different, however. The Coach’s loaded guns and the picture of Joseph McCarthy on his wall evoke the reactionary violence lurking beneath the surface of his character, while Willy’s past is embodied by the recurring flute music, small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. Both characters too are present failures; Willy is fired during the course of the play and the Coach has already been fired for striking a boy.

In their current situations, they look to their boys for fulfillment and the justification of their own ideals. The Coach’s ‘‘You were a thing of rare . . . beauty, boys,’’ his more desperate ‘‘You’re all still immensely talented’’ echo Willy’s ‘‘You got a greatness in you, Biff, remember that. You got all kinds of greatness.’’ In both cases the boys’ present failure clashes sharply with their remembered success, but the Coach and Willy, through force of personality, and their power is considerable, attempt to impose success on them.

‘‘Never settle for less than success,’’ a wellworn slogan of the Coach’s, could also be Willy’s motto. In fact they measure success in the same ways, with Willy’s emphasis on contacts and being well-liked corresponding to the Coach’s pride when the policeman remembers him and tears up the speeding ticket. Even more important both characters exhibit a deep division of self. The Coach is described upon his first entrance as a Huge man. Old Testament temperament. A superb actor. A man of immense and powerful contradictions. His con tradictions are gradually revealed in the course of the play. He begins by emphasizing teamwork, love, pride, and loyalty as the keys to success. Gradually this modulates into: ‘‘Exploiting a man’s weakness is the name of the game,’’ until finally he says, ‘‘you have to hate to win, it takes hate to win.’’

Though possessing a volatile temper, basically Willy is not a violent man. Much kinder than the Coach, he does, however, reveal some of the same kinds of contradictions. Consider, for example, the two men who embody his ideals. On the one hand is Dave Singleman, the perfect salesman who made his living through contacts, never even having to leave his hotel room to finalize a sale. If Willy is to be believed, he was universally loved. Yet there is also brother Ben, equally Willy’s ideal, who went into the jungle and came out rich. His greatest lesson, which Willy does not seem to comprehend, is: ‘‘Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way.’’

Describing Willy Loman’s tragic stature, Arthur Miller wrote:

It matters not at all whether a modern play concerns itself with a grocer or a president if the intensity of the hero’s commitment to his course is less than the maximum possible . . . if the intensity, the human passion to surpass his given bounds, the fanatic insistence upon his serf-conceived role—if these are not present there can only be an outline of tragedy but no living thing.

I do not want to revive the tired debate over Willy Loman’s tragic stature, and even less to suggest that the Coach is a tragic hero; yet perhaps the most significant similarity between Willy and the Coach is the powerful intensity of their commitment to their ideals. The Coach shows a strain of bigotry and hate absent in Willy, but both attempt to transmit a vision of heroism and wholeness to future generations. Both visions are corrupt, but a quality more emphasized in Willy, his love for his sons, is also present in the Coach. Devoting his life to moulding young men, he has been concerned deeply and sincerely for them, as Willy’s life was lived for his boys.

Certainly neither realizes that he is responsible for the frustration and failure of the younger men, but the sons in both plays are paralyzed by the influence of the father figures on them. Jason Miller’s comment on his basketball players—that they are men facing middle age with a sense of terror and defeat—is also applicable to Biff Loman, a thirtyfour year old man who has yet to find himself. In fact, all the younger men are immature and unable to grow up. Biff’s asking his mother to dye her hair again so she will still be his pal is but one instance. A closer parallel to That Championship Season is the dream of Happy and Biff to sell sporting goods by organizing two teams, the Loman Brothers, to travel around the country giving sporting exhibitions. To Happy, ‘‘the beauty of it is, Biff, it wouldn’t be like a business. We’d be out playin’ ball again. . . . There’d be the old honor, and comradeship.’’ Such a dream takes literally the Coach’s concept of life as a game and shows how adolescent such an idea is. Only one side of Biff’s divided nature can respond to such an appeal. Unlike the characters in That Championship Season, he has experienced a fulfilling life out West.

Pathetically the characters in That Championship Season have no such ideal with which to counter the Coach’s emphasis on success. The gradual unfolding of the play reveals that they are all failures; James consumed with a sense of his own mediocrity and a determination to get his rightful share of the spoils; Paul monetarily successful but so bored that he can be stirred from his lethargy only by fast cars and fast women; George, the mayor of the town, blurting in a moment of painful candor, ‘‘I can’t find . . . myself. . . . I lose myself behind all the smiles, handshakes, speeches’’; Tom the chronic alcoholic, seemingly the most complete failure of all.

Even though the Coach has preached love and teamwork, and apparently the players have believed him, they are constantly at one another’s throats. Both James and Paul are ready to replace George as candidate for mayor, Paul is willing to support the opposing candidate, and George wants to dump James as his campaign manager. They have no love for one another; each is out simply for himself. In a strange way this very situation is the fulfillment of the Coach’s ethos of competition. Love and competition are in truth opposites, mutually exclusive. Willy too devoted himself to a life based on love, personal regard, and contacts, but when he is fired, the business world, centered as it is around competition, is shown to have no room for love, fellow feeling, the human element. Thus the world of sports, theoretically based on such human feelings, is no different from the ‘‘real’’ world.

Tom, in a sense the most lost of the former basketball players, forces the truth to come out— that in effect they stole that championship game. The world of sports, apparently an ideal world governed by rules of conduct, is a fraud, for competition leads to the subversion of those very rules in the sacred name of success. Tom and Biff become the vehicles for the revelation of the truth about the Coach and Willy. Though the ideals both held are based on lies, they do not lie to their boys so much as to themselves, and they show a similar resistance to the truth. Tom tells the Coach, ‘‘Stop lying to us. Stop telling us how good we were,’’ and proceeds to reveal how Martin was instructed to injure the opposing team’s top player. However, the Coach and the others will not listen or admit that Tom’s story is the truth. As the Coach says, ‘‘That trophy is the truth, the only truth.’’ For these characters truth is identical with a material object. The Coach, because of his powerful devotion to his beliefs and because his boys have a commitment to nothing to put in their place, is able to make his vision prevail. All are reunited again by the end; the hard truths which have come out during the play are papered over. They come together in the face of a common enemy, Sharmen, against whom they can unite in competition.

Biff plays a role in Death of a Salesman similar to Tom’s. In his climactic confrontation with his father, he is determined to tell the truth about himself and Willy. ‘‘No, you’re going to hear the truth—what you are and what I am. . . . We nev er told the truth for ten minutes in this house!’’ Yet truth, the falsity and emptiness of his dreams, has no effect on Willy. Like the Coach in his refusal to listen, he carries out his suicide, a plan predicated on the same materialistic values as the Coach’s.

The failure of the truth in Death of a Salesman, however, is not as complete as in That Championship Season. Ultimately Willy does realize that Biff loves him, and we see that all Biff’s confusion arises from his frustrated love for Willy. The basic failure of the characters in That Championship Season is a failure of the heart, while in a sense the triumph in Death of a Salesman is one of love. Unlike the characters in That Championship Season who end just as they began, having faced their own emptiness but out of sheer terror denying it, Biff is able to say at the end, ‘‘I know who I am.’’ His brother, Happy, like Phil, George and James, resists the truth and remains committed to the ethos of competition and success. Like Tom, Biff turns his back on that dream. Unlike Tom, who has nothing but alcoholic numbness to replace it, Biff gains self-knowledge.

His sense of himself is in fact a legacy from his father, who had really only been happy working with his hands. In a profound sense the American agrarian dream undergirds both plays. Even though Death of a Salesman takes place in a city, where the population is a constant menace, Biff feels that he can be himself out West, which remains an arena for individual and independent action. Individuality is still possible in the world of Death of a Salesman, though it involves a rejection of contemporary American values. By contrast That Championship Season suggests the opposite, for its action bears out the Coach’s statement that you can’t do it alone anymore. The characters simply have no sense of themselves as worthwhile individuals. The play also provides one explanation for America’s fall. While it is set in a much smaller city than New York, the main industry of the town is strip mining, with Phil the main beneficiary. Nature is being destroyed by industrial America, and no great good place remains for the man who wants to find himself. Tom, the vehicle for truth in the play, is directionless. The only character for whom one can hope is Martin, the absent player who rejected wholly the Coach’s values. However, he never appears, and the characters who do appear refuse to recognize the significance of his absence.

Thus a comparison of the two plays measures America’s fall in the two and a half decades between them. The ethos of competition and success has a much stronger hold on the characters of That Championship Season, and they are unable to cope with their emptiness. Although there was no hope for Willy Loman, at least Biff could take the best of his father’s legacy and build a meaningful life around it. The agrarian dream, based on concepts other than material success, had a force and a possibility for Biff lost to the Americans of That Championship Season.

Source: Frank W. Shelton, ‘‘Sports and the Competitive Ethic: Death of a Salesman and That Championship Season,’’ in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring 1979, pp. 17–21.

Parallels of Life and the Game

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

It was a good feeling, last spring when the New York Drama Critics’ Circle was voting for the best play of the season, to find myself in a quandary: whether to vote for David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones or Jason Miller’s That Championship Season. Two good plays do not exactly constitute an embarrassment of riches. But they were both American plays; had both, thanks to Joseph Papp, made it to Broad way; and two good dramas on Broadway in one calendar year was more than we had had in some time. I have written here about Rabe’s play before; now for Jason Miller’s.

That Championship Season is a necessary play. In a naturalistic way it does more or less the same thing that Sticks and Bones does in its absurdistsymbolist fashion: it tells grass-roots America that it stinks. For even in this Vietnam-war-waging, Nixon- favoring, culture-despising year of 1972, when Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue is the hottest ticket on Broadway, when The Godfather is the biggest cinematic money-maker, when Herman Wouk, Taylor Caldwell and Irving Wallace are perching on top of the best-seller list, there remains considerable faith in the solid backbone of America, the good and simple folk back in the small towns, the America that the two Walts, Whitman and Disney, could hear singing, the unspoiled, sweet salt of the earth. And it is these people that Miller reveals to be weak, cowardly, prejudiced, corrupt and sustained, if at all, by self-delusion. And what makes the indictment stick is, first, that it is made from an evident position of intimate knowledge and understanding of the people portrayed, and, secondly, that the judgment is made regretfully, without rancor, almost with love.

Understanding is clearly necessary for an intelligent verdict. The locale of the play, as we gather from both internal and external evidence, is Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Miller was raised. It is an unprepossessing milieu, this small, cultureless, coalmining town, and treated without close knowledge (as in Barbara Loden’s film, Wanda), it can strike us as completely dehumanized. But because the author was truly of that world, and now no longer is, he is able to give us both the inside-out and the outside-in view of it, the latter chiefly from the mouth of Tom, whose nomadic life has taken him largely out of the town. But more important even than knowledge is sympathy: a recognition of the humanity of these beings—of that bit of depth even in shallowness of the stirrings of awareness even in ignorance—which makes the five dramatis personae persons as well as dramatic, worthy of our concern because we cannot quite hide from ourselves that, under the superego, we are their brothers.

Who are the players in this quintet? There is, first, the old coach, known only as Coach, who twenty years ago guided the other four (along with another boy, Martin) to victory in the Interstate High-School Basketball Championship. The big silver trophy, with all their names engraved on it, stands proudly displayed on a table in the coach’s living room, the scene of the action. The coach was subsequently retired, pensioned off, for having broken the jaw of a disrespectful student. But he and his boys—always accepting Martin—have annually come together to celebrate a victory that ‘‘gave this defeated town something to be proud of,’’ as the coach put it, a victory on account of which a local cop will still tear up the coach’s traffic tickets. The coach became the moral, social and political mentor of his boys for life, and that role is now his only raison d’être. It is his values that have governed their lives in one way or another—and why not, since he has abundantly drilled it into them that life and basketball are essentially identical. When one of the boys, Phil, says, ‘‘Politics is not basketball,’’ the coach retorts, ‘‘Hell, yes. You get the crowd behind you and you can’t lose. Everybody votes for a winner.’’ And again: ‘‘Life is a game and I’m proud to say I played it with the best.’’ And yet again: ‘‘You quit on the field, you’ll quit in life. It’s on the playing fields the wars are won.’’ The pathos of this is that it is, in a sense, true; or, at least, widely believed to be so. Between the playing fields of Eton and the basketball court of Scranton there may not be that much difference, and no less a sage than Sir Walter Scott has assured us that ‘‘life is itself but a game of football.’’ But between believing it and living it, there is a world of difference.

The boys are now in their late thirties and the coach warns them that this is the age of heart disease. (The irony is that they are not so much weak as faint of heart.) He wants them, as he always wanted them, ‘‘lean and mean.’’ (Well, they are getting less and less lean, but they are not wanting in meanness.) There is, first, George, the mayor, who, with the coach’s help, won his election by a margin of 32 votes against an old drunk. Now, however, he is up against an appealing, intelligent, honest man, Sharmen the high school principal. George is worried, but he covers it up with bravado: Sharmen is a Jew, and a relative of his, as the coach has ferreted out, was a Communist; that and Phil’s money should get George re-elected.

Phil Romano is the ‘‘dumb dago’’ who inherited his father’s strip-mining business and is the town’s rich man. Ever since school days, the boys depended on Phil’s car to get laid in; now he will provide the required campaign funds. But Phil has lost confidence in George, as has most of the rest of the town, and would gladly support Sharmen, if it were not for the latter’s opposition to him as an ecological menace. Then there is James Daley, the junior-high-school principal, who first had to look after his long-dying father, then after his numerous brood, and now even after Tom, his dipsomaniac younger brother, whom he has had to fish out of the alcoholic wards of several cities. James is embittered by having been a constant, dutiful grind, sacrificing himself for others; he hopes for a belated recompense: success in politics. He is George’s campaign manager, for which he is to be rewarded with the post of school superintendent. His ultimate ambition is Congress; but James, like George, is a loser, identifiable by the sweatiness under his collar.

More obviously a loser is Tom, the drunkard. Yet alcohol has turned him into one of those privileged jesters whom the coxcomb allows to utter sardonic truths intolerable from a sober, responsible person. Tom is a ‘‘happy’’ drinker who finds the truth in wine; but he is too weak to be set free by it, except to go off to other cities for his binges. And then James has to bring him back home. Tom uses the truth merely as sarcastic witticisms to be hurled at his fellows, or as innocent-sounding questions that lead them into self-incrimination. But revealing the mud around him does not elevate Tom: a morass can’t be used as a springboard; a morass sucks one in. Phil, too, with all his money, is a loser. ‘‘I like being rich, okay,’’ he boasts. ‘‘I need money. I want two of everything. Cars, boats, women, etc., etc. Around expensive things I get a hard-on, turned on. I want them.’’ But having two of everything is divisive and can be almost as frustrating and depleting as having none. Another time, Phil admits: ‘‘I’m so bored half the time, it’s killing me.’’ The two things that console him are driving his sports car at suicidal speeds, and girls, mostly very young ones. And something else: ‘‘Sit and replay the old games in my head . . . Sometimes I think that’s the only thing I can still feel . . . That Championship Season . . . nothing matched it, nothing.’’

What Miller does is to let his characters interact and gradually reveal themselves. This is, of course, a time-honored basic technique of realistic drama, but Miller handles it with admirable assurance. The two pegs on which he hangs the action are the basketball reunion and the mayoral race, which permits the conversations to oscillate between the blissfully nostalgic retrospect of victory and the somewhat parlous prospect of collaborating on George’s re-election. The coach looms as chief strategist in both contests, and the parallel between the game and life is thus forcefully posited. But now things begin to emerge. George is unmasked as an incompetent politically and even humanly: Marion, his wife, has been carrying on with Phil and, indeed, a good many others in town. It comes out, too, that Phil would rather support the Jew, Sharmen; that James, whom his own young son considers mediocre, would as soon run himself for mayor; that the boys are about to bring in outside experts to run George’s campaign and so cut out James; that Tom is not a hopeful but a hopeless alcoholic; that the coach, who claims to have fully recovered from his operation, is actually in precarious health; and that Phil, with all his money, has very little to look forward to.

The game-life parallel begins to fall apart. In the game they were all one harmonious team; now they are squabbling, undermining, insulting, betraying, hitting and even threatening to shoot one another as the evening and the flow of liquor progresses. In this respect, That Championship Season is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where a friendly get-together deteriorates into a drunken orgy of hate and self-hate; but Albee, despite some attempts at making his play transcendent through references to the decline of western culture, is still dealing essentially with private, personal problems. Miller’s play, however, takes on a genuinely social character by capturing both the private and the public lives of a town as they intermingle and uneasily fuse. Thus, for example, although Miller ostensibly writes a play about men only, he deftly intimates what the town’s women are like. There is George’s wife, Marion, with her joyless promiscuity; Phil’s Claire, who, in collaboration with her mother, lives the gay life of the rich bitch with continual travel and sex abroad; and James’s Helen, who mass-produces babies and sacrifices her talent for painting to her monomaniacal motherhood. Then there was the more sophisticated Miss Morris, the music teacher, with whom the coach had a long-lasting relationship but whom he could not marry because she would not convert to Catholicism and because he had to take care of his old mother. There is even Mary, epileptic and retarded, with whom the boys used to have gang bangs, and who was recently brutally raped. As the feminine side of town comes gradually to life, it too seems to be populated with losers.

Is it, then, a case of the wonderful old basketball days versus the measly, bickering, unfulfilled days of adult life? No; Miller eventually brings life and the game together again in painful harmony. Tom reveals why Martin left town and never came back to these reunions: because the championship was won crookedly. There had been a superb Negro center on the opposing team, and Martin, on instructions from the coach, broke his ribs (‘‘I told him to get tough under the boards’’ is how the coach euphemizes it), and that is how the trophy was captured. Now it all fits together: both life and basketball are a fraud, the one merely extending and perpetuating the other. Yet Miller does not allow things to become quite that simplistic, either. He makes the coach himself phrase his philosophy differently at different moments. There is the noble version, when the coach explains why he did not marry: ‘‘I never had the time. Teaching the game was not just a profession, it was a vocation. Like a priest. Devoted my life to excellence . . . superiority. . . . You, boys, are my real trophies, never forget that, never.’’ Soon after, there comes a more equivocal version, a stoic-masochistic one: ‘‘Pain. The price is pain. Endurance. You endure pain to win, a law of life, no other way, none. The pain in my gut. It’s been there all my life. It’s good to hurt. The mind overcomes pain. You keep your marriage, George. Hold on to it.’’ (It is, be it noted, in such incomplete sentences that much of the play’s dialogue unfolds—the syntactic incompleteness becoming the objective correlative of the primitiveness and untidiness of these lives.) Finally, we get the third and ungarnished version: ‘‘Exploiting a man’s weakness is the name of the game. He can’t move to the left, you left him to death. Can’t stop a hook, you hook away on him. Find his weak spot and go after it. Punish him with it. I drilled that into you a thousand times!’’ This is the coach’s reply to Tom’s accusation that they are smearing Sharmen with his long-dead Communist relative; forthwith, we see the application of this sports philosophy to the game of life. It is to be stated even more bluntly by the coach at the very last: ‘‘You have to hate to win, it takes hate to win.’’ Dedication, pain, hate; it isn’t any one of them but all three together. Two parts bad to one part good—that, alas, is the final truth about the games of basketball and life as they are played in Scranton, Pa., and just possibly elsewhere, too.

The game theory of life is, above all, immature, as the play copiously illustrates. For in stressing the team, the in-group, development is stunted in two directions: toward the single self, leading to selfreliance, self-cultivation, individualism; and toward public-spiritedness, ecumenism, world-citizenship. The coach and at least three of his boys are arrested at the level of parent and child servicing each other’s physical and emotional needs—which the sports family, the coach-father and player-children, reiterates and prolongs into life. Miller lets us feel the weakness of unhappy families as paralleling the weakness of the in-group’s morals and morale in contrast to those of Sharmen. Tom, as we have seen, does not really emancipate himself; only Martin has done that, but we do not know at what price.

This immaturity is neatly epitomized in various small but telling ways. I have mentioned the coach’s need to look after his mother as his pretext for not marrying; more revealingly, Phil bursts out at one point: ‘‘You know the only woman I ever loved? . . . my mother, f—k the psychiatrists . . . my mother is the only . . . woman I ever knew. The rest are all c—ts.’’ (Ellipses the author’s. This line, by the way, was loudly applauded by the opening-night audience on Broadway.) These men are inveterate mother’s boys. Even more infantile is the unwillingness to accept as true what one doesn’t want to believe. When Tom, mocking the coach’s semiliterate eulogy of the Greek ideal, observes that the Greeks were homosexual, the coach explodes: ‘‘The Greeks homos? Not the Greeks, maybe the Romans but not the Greeks! Don’t come around me with that liberal bulls—t. I won’t listen.’’ ‘‘I won’t listen’’ is arguably the motto of the play: the boys will be boys and hear and believe only what they want to hear and believe. George lets himself be convinced that Marion did it with Phil only to raise money for her dear husband, James is convinced that he spilled the beans to George just so that the truth would bring them all together again, Phil is readily persuaded that James would never hurt him intentionally. And the play ends with the coach and his boys pulling together against Sharmen, against good government, progress and truth, against anyone who isn’t one of them.

Miller is skillful with some important devices. He knows how to make a character or a situation gradually take on a different complexion through a casual remark here, a small revelation there. Thus Marion appears at first as a woman who committed a single indiscretion; but, by accretion of information and the change of the coach’s way of talking about her, she ends up as a slut. James’s dedication to his slowly dying father is spoken of in Act One as a great personal sacrifice, such as, the coach declares, not many would have made. In the second act, this sacrifice, which James uses as an excuse for his underachieving, earns only a hollow, rote approbation from George: ‘‘We all have great respect for you, James, you sacrificed, well, you know.’’ By the third act, however, when James complains that his father never showed him the slightest respect in return for his sacrifice, the Coach lets him have it: ‘‘Whine. . . . Bitch and whine and blame your life on everybody. You got the eyes of a beggar.’’ Meanwhile we also heard from Tom that ‘‘James never did anything out of . . . love. The word embarrasses him.’’ For James is ‘‘just obedient. An obedient man. Press a button . . .’’. There it is again: obedience, a child’s virtue; another great manly sacrifice was, like the coach’s devotion to his mother, just infantile doing what one is told to do.

Feeling is immature in the boys. When George learns of his wife’s infidelity, he cries out uncomprehendingly, ‘‘Marion. Unfaithful. I’m the Mayor, for Chrissakes!’’ This is pathetic—but for the shallowness, not the depth, of its feeling. What are feelings to George, anyway? When he wants to prove to the others that he has them, he exclaims: ‘‘I can understand . . . understand what makes a man take a gun, go up a tower, and start blowing people apart. I know the feeling. All smiles, huh? I have rage in me . . . I hate like everybody, hate . . . things.’’ This is the horrible confirmation of the coach’s ‘‘it takes hate to win’’; yet it is also pathetic. Beautifully, Miller makes genuine pathos out of such inferior feelings, especially of that lame, evasive last word, ‘‘things’’: George does not even have the courage of his hates.

Another device Miller uses unobtrusively but compellingly is the parallel. The key revelation of the breaking of the black center’s ribs is prefigured by an incident the coach recalls: ‘‘A communist came through here, 1930 maybe. Bad times. Poverty like a plague. . . . He came to organize. We broke his legs . . . with a two-by-four and sent him packing.’’ So, too, Phil makes a semi-pitying, semicontemptuous statement about his father, an ignorant immigrant who had only hard work and premature death out of the fortune he amassed—and Phil doesn’t realize how this parallels his own boring himself to death with his fast women, fast cars, and the fast demise he is courting.

What emerges is the picture of a society that makes a fetish out of success, but does not know what to do with it or even what it really is. It recognizes success, ultimately, only in material terms. However proudly the coach may talk about the Bach and Shakespeare he heard in his father’s house, when he wants to prove the incontestability and value of That Championship Season he must reach for that prominently displayed trophy and exclaim: ‘‘I carved your names in silver, last forever, forever . . .’’ This echoes his earlier tribute to Teddy Roosevelt: ‘‘They carved that man’s face in a mountain,’’ which is typical also of the misinformation he frequently spreads. Concrete proof is what is wanted, and Miller deftly brings on a set of concrete, pragmatic evidences of championship with which to cement anew these perennial basketballers’ unholy alliance.

First is a recording of the last few seconds of a broadcast of that championship game. The coach plays this record that is cracked with age and scratchy from constant replay, but it is evidence, concrete evidence. The boys listen to it raptly, then burst into the school song, and Phil and George even end up crying in each other’s arms. Tangible or, at any rate, audible success. And sloppy sentimentality, with grass-roots America singing ‘‘Another victory for Fillmore’’—a school named for a president whose face could at best be carved in a molehill.

After the aural, the ocular evidence. As the coach admonishes them, ‘‘No way a man can do it alone. Got to belong to something more than yourself,’’ the boys proceed to arrange themselves around that twenty-year-old, ill-gotten trophy for the annual photograph. Even the unconverted Tom smiles for the coach’s camera. Then the boys insist on taking a picture of the coach holding the cup. To make him smile, Tom, recalling the coach’s earlier puzzlement by that word, encourages him ironically, ‘‘Say cunnilingus,’’ but what dent can Thersites make in Achilles? The lights fade, and only a spotlight is left enshrining the coach. James, the photographer, announces, ‘‘I got you, Coach,’’ and the remark is rich in subliminal meanings. The coach responds with the curtain line: ‘‘Yeah.’’ The complacency of grass-roots America is engraved on that silver monosyllable.

Did the coach speak true when, early in the play, he declared, ‘‘We are the country, boys’’? I think the characters are truly representative, created with sympathy, authentic. While Miller reprehends their outlook and behavior, he allows them, nevertheless, a fleeting self-cognizance, a bit of misdirected decency, some juvenile affection. Even as he makes us aware of their racism, crudeness, jejuneness, he also makes us feel the pity of this entrapment by the pettiness, barrenness, monotony of small-town existence. An author who can be both surgically probing and charitable, both muck-raking and forgiving, performs that marriage of incisiveness and generosity from which truths are born. Miller’s accuracy as a reported is mirrored in the persuasive shabbiness of the language. The incomplete sentences, lacunas and aposiopeses, awkward repetitions, omnipresent cliches, all that invincible prosaism that can nevertheless stumble onto some sort of clumsy dignity—these and other traits of speech are instinct with authenticity. Most interesting, perhaps, is Miller’s avoidance of that folksy poetry with which writers tend to redeem the speech of plain people. That method is no more wrong than plain folk are incapable of unconscious poetry, yet I admire Miller’s refusal to make use of it and still succeeding in making his characters fascinate us. He charges his dialogue with deliberate or inadvertent humor, self-revelation, conscious or unconscious, and the ominous ring of human hollowness. But, for all that, he does not encourage glib feelings of superiority in the audience: they recognize too much of themselves in these characters.

To one of them, however, Miller does grant a spurious poetry. Some of the coach’s lines have a certain afflatus, a grandiose rhythm, obsessive refrains, and some fairly conventional but charismatic metaphors. This is true especially at the play’s end, where the coach is given what amounts to a virtually two-page monologue. But the poetic heightening is undercut by a mixture of nostalgia for a past that was even more reactionary then the present and a grandiloquence that is more than faintly self-serving. The speech begins with a glowing evocation of the coach’s father and the town as it was in his time; it ends with this prognostication about the mayoral race:

You won’t lose, boys—because I won’t let you lose. I’ll whip your ass to the bone, drive you into the ground. Your soul belongs to God but your ass belongs to me, remember that one, yes sir, we can do it, we are going to win because we can’t lose, dare not lose, won’t lose, lose is not in our vocabulary! I shaped you, boys, never forget that. I ran you till the blisters busted, ran you right into perfection, bloody socks and all; you couldn’t put on your jocks, awkward, all legs, afraid, a mistake a second. I made you winners. I made you winners.

There is a horrible beauty in that, after all.

But in general, along with the purposive leanness of the dialogue, there is even an almost complete absence of stage directions and instructions about how a line is to be read (e.g., anxiously, softly, etc.). Though there is nothing wrong with such hints to actors, directors and readers, there is also something fine and fastidious about refraining from them. It allows the director, actor or reader to come to his own conclusions and fill in his own details; yet the movement of a speech is always so clearly plotted that this leeway will not alter basic meanings or imperil communication.

In Joseph Papp’s production, first mounted at the Public Theatre, then transferred to the Booth on Broadway, the production values are all of the utmost artistry. A. J. Antoon’s staging is as meticulous as it is resourceful, creating an elaborate choreography of movements that first delight us by their unexpectedness, then delight us again by their absolute rightness. A drunk falls down a flight of stairs almost too spectacularly; an angry man goes out on the porch to simmer down, and repeatedly sticks his head back in through the window to hurl further invective at his offender; a bit of violence erupts so swiftly that it is over before it is really fathomed; all these events have an uncanny aroma of credibility, of really happening and happening for the first time. The rhythms of speech are cogently orchestrated, motion flows freely across the entire stage, and each entrance and exit has its particular shape and flavor.

The set, by Santo Loquasto, is right to the last detail. The tacky curtains and doilies, the Persian rugs and flowered wallpaper, the framed photographs of teams, the Grand Rapids mahogany furniture, the archetypal dowel post and balusters of the staircase spiraling to the second floor—all share in a fadedness and mustiness that no amount of cleaning or polishing could assuage. It is bourgeois respectability going to seed, but gallantly hanging on to every graspable vestige. The very layout of the room, with its unequal spaces to which further nooks and crannies adhere like pockmarks and warts, generates an aura of mixed coziness and embarrassment. It all exudes an uncertain yellowness, which it seems to have absorbed from bygone lives and is now breathing back into the current ones. Ian Calderon’s lighting cannily contributes to this impression.

But the ultimate triumph of That Championship Season is in its performances. The five actors could scarcely be surpassed individually, but are even more astounding together. One might perhaps object that some look a little younger or older than their prescribed ages, but that is as nothing to their perfection in every other respect. As the mayor, Charles Durning gives off exaggerated self-assurance with every paper-thin smile and briskly tossedoff conviviality. Durning has a jerkiness of speech and angularity of motion that jut out incriminatingly from under the assumed fluidity. Even crushed with pain or maddened with wrath, he retains that puppetlike pettiness that makes him in equal measure ludicrous and pitiful. As James, the juniorhigh- school principal, Michael McGuire conveys magisterially that ingrained mediocrity sweatily straining to please. Even his pomposity has a thin, brittle tinkle in it, and his slightly squeaky voice seems to curl upward as it slowly gathers courage. At bay, he fights back with the inept but desperately serious anger of an aging tenor with a second-rate opera company in a grand, dramatic moment. As Tom, his younger, alcoholic brother—the softly sardonic voice of defeated reasonableness—Walter McGinn gives a magnificently balanced performance, not allowing the justness of his perceptions to blind us to his hopeless decay, and infusing his genuine likableness with a chilling sense of the sodden impotence beneath. His drunkard’s titubations are flawless in their underlying somnambulistic agility, and his cascading down the stairs is splendid and alarming.

Richard A. Dysart’s Coach is no less superb. Dysart conveys the maniacal aspects of the man without losing any of his equally relevant joviality. Though he can, at times, sound and look like a lesser Old Testament prophet, at other times, as when he pries esuriently into the details of Phil’s intercourse with Marion, he becomes childlike, almost Puckish. Dysart wisely eschews the extremes of distastefulness or cuteness that the part could seduce one into, and makes a marvelously kaleidoscopic jumble out of probity and mean prejudice. He declines Phil’s invitation to watch basketball on color TV: ‘‘They all shoot down at the basket. Not my game,’’ and sees to it that the line sounds too funny to be moving; then continues with ‘‘it’s not the white man’s game,’’ in tones of such disarmingly seriocomic distaste that the underlying nastiness hits us only a second or two later.

But the most dazzling presence on stage— primus inter pares—is Paul Sarvino as Phil. He makes the ‘‘dumb dago’’ shrewd, warm-hearted, ruthless, amiably oafish and coldly cynical all at once. I cannot begin to describe how the actor can convey that many conflicting and contradictory characteristics with a single slow expression, one quick remark, or a solitary dismissing gesture—but he does. He makes you feel that everything comes from very deep in him, but also that he is just a huge, overgrown baby whose innermost core is right under the skin. He is so simple, so obvious, and then, suddenly, we don’t know where this weeping has come from, or whether that inflection derives from silliness or great subtlety. And his comic timing is always exemplary. From all five actors we get ensemble acting of the highest order, which could hold its own against the finest acting aggregations of the world.

Jason Miller has written a first-rate commercial theatre piece. It is not quite profound or venturesome or novel enough to make it a work of art, but it is the very best example of the sort of play that keeps a commercial theatre meaningfully and honorably alive. If it cannot have a long life on Broadway, Broadway itself no longer deserves to live.

Source: John Simon, ‘‘That Championship Season,’’ in Hudson Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 616–25.


Critical Overview