A Half-Dollar and a Dream: Arthur Miller, Scrooge, and a “big pile of French copper”

The currency market has been giving me a headache. The British pound is anything but sterling these days, which, along with our impending move and the renovation project it entails, is making a visit to the old neighborhood seem more like a pipe dream to me. The old neighborhood, after all, is some three thousand miles away, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; and even though I have come to like life here in Wales, New York is often on my mind. You don’t have to be an inveterate penny-pincher to be feeling the pressure of the economic squeeze. I wonder just how many dreams are being deferred for lack of funding, dreams far greater than the wants and desires that preoccupy those who, like me, are hardly in dire straits. Back in March 1885, Joseph Pulitzer was doing his part to make such a larger-than-life dream a reality when he tried to raise funds for the erection of the Statue of Liberty. In one of his most sentimental plays for radio, Arthur Miller told the story through the eyes of a soldier and his miserly grandfather—Miller’s Scrooge.

Broadcast on 26 March 1945, “Grandpa and the Statue” is announced as a “warm, human story of the most famous pinup girl in the world.” Miller claimed that he “could not bear” to write just “another Statue of Liberty show” designed to “illustrate how friendly we are with France and how the Statue of Liberty will stand forever as a symbol of a symbol and so on.” As I put it in my dissertation, the Dickensian comedy he wrote instead “is a nostalgic response to the public’s growing World War-weariness and the prospects of international unity and concord after Yalta.”

As the play opens, a wounded American soldier, recovering in a hospital room with a view of New York Harbor, recalls how his grandfather—“Merciless Monaghan,” the “stingiest man in Brooklyn” got “all twisted up with the Statue of Liberty.” Old Monaghan (played by Charles Laughton) refused to make a contribution to the Statue Fund and, for decades to come, stubbornly defended his position until, one day, his grandson entreats him to take a ferry to Bedloe’s Island:

GRANDPA. What I can’t understand is what all these people see in that statue that they’ll keep a boat like this full makin’ the trip, year in year out. To hear the newspapers talk, if the statue was gone we’d be at war with the nation that stole her the followin’ mornin’ early. All it is is a big pile of French copper. 

YOUNG MONAGHAN. The teacher says it shows us that we got liberty. 

GRANDPA. Bah! If you’ve got liberty you don’t need a statue to tell you you got it; and if you haven’t got liberty no statue’s going to do you any good tellin’ you you got it. It was a criminal waste of the people’s money. 

Among the visitors to Bedloe Island is a veteran of the Spanish-American War. Celebrating the birthday of his fallen brother by visiting the “only stone he’s got,” the veteran convinces the old man that the “statue kinda looks like what we believe.”

Profoundly moved, Monaghan asks to be left alone while inspecting the inscription at the base of the statue: 

GRANDPA (to himself). “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled
masses . . .” 

(Music: Swells from a sneak to full, then under to background.) 

YOUNG MONAGHAN. I ran over and got my peanuts and stood there cracking them open, looking around. And I happened to glance over to grampa. He had his nose right up to that bronze tablet, reading it. And then he reached into his pocket and kinda spied around over his eyeglasses to see if anybody was looking, and then he took out a coin and stuck it in a crack of cement over the tablet. 

(Biz: Coin falling onto concrete.) 

YOUNG MONAGHAN. It fell out and before he could pick it up I got a look at it. It was a half a buck. He picked it up and pressed it into the crack so it stuck. And then he came over to me and we went home. 

(Music: Changes to stronger, more forceful theme.) 

That’s why, when I look at her now through this window, I remember that time and that poem [. . .].

Unlike the published script (as it appeared in the 1948 anthology Plays from Radio), the broadcast play concludes with the last lines of Emma Lazarus’s famous if oft misquoted sonnet “The New Colossus.”

I am very critical of Arthur Miller in Etherized Victorians; but, for all its sentimental propagandizing, “Grandpa and the Statue” is one of Miller’s most affecting plays for the medium. As I read and listen to it now, so far away from New York City, I get a little wistful; and yet, the message is not lost on me, either, as I think of the larger picture, the ideals worth our investment, and the funds unreplenished, that makes my pouting for a few weeks in the Big Apple seem downright petty. Besides, I’ve got the airwaves to carry me through and keep me buoyant when I go “Oh, boy.”

Related recordings
”Grandpa and the Statue 26 March 1945

Related writings
“Politics and Plumbing” (Arthur Miller’s “Pussycat”)
“Arthur Miller Asks Americans to ‘Listen for the Sound of Wings’”
“Arthur Miller Unleashes a Pussycat”

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