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Arthur Miller Outlived His Critics

October 14, 2002

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With Arthur Miller reaching the age of eighty-seven this month, it is time for those of us who have not always been in his corner to salute one of our theater's most distinguished elder statesmen. Aging surely has its inconsolable side, the worst being the waning of your faculties and the loss of those you love (Miller this year suffered the death of his wife, the gifted photographer Inge Morath.) But one of the advantages of growing old is that you finally begin to outlive your critics—or at least their sour opinions of you.

Miller has managed to prevail over an indifferent critical community largely by continuing to pursue what Dylan Thomas called "my craft and sullen art." Shaw also kept writing well into his nineties, not because he had something to say, but rather, as he ruefully reflected at times, because he did not know what else to do. Miller's later works, by contrast, are hardly products of dotage. His creative muscles have deteriorated as little as his physical powers. (Miller may walk with a stoop, but he remains an expert carpenter.) Though hardly masterpieces, his later plays are bold attempts to plow new formal ground, even if they occasionally harvest relatively familiar themes.

Miller's reputation, for years in eclipse in America, has always been solid in London, where virtually every work, new and revived, is greeted with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for coronations and royal weddings. I once said that England and America were two countries divided by a common playwright. That remains true to a certain degree, but Miller's reputation in this country, following the recent Goodman Theater revival of Death of a Salesman, has been strengthening considerably. While his late plays may still draw critical fire, producers have been paying homage to him with a slew of productions, and writers with a number of celebratory books. Two of these recent books reveal an intellectual side to Miller that has, oddly, been insufficiently appreciated, considering that his social and political interests have been the most consistent—I would even say insistent—aspects of his career.

These two books—Echoes Down the Corridor, published by Penguin (Miller's collected essays from 1944 to 2000, edited by Steven R. Centola) and Conversations With Arthur Miller, from the University Press of Mississippi (Mel Gussow's chatty cluster of interviews from 1963 to the present)—suggest how dogged Miller's ideas have been over the past half-century. This intellectual consistency is a sign of Miller's stubbornness and persistence, qualities that have helped him keep his balance in our fickle culture. The price of this is a degree of repetition within each book and from one book to the other, possibly because Miller is always being asked the same questions. The echoes down the corridor often reverberate from similar acoustical sources.

One of these echoes, usually a melancholy one, has to do with change. Miller's nostalgia for a simpler, more decent America, when people put more faith in each other and less in things, was already evident at least as early as Death of a Salesman, which was first produced in 1948. (Alex North's haunting flute theme insinuated itself whenever Willy Loman reflected on the lost Eden of his Brooklyn neighborhood.) From these essays and interviews, it is clear how much Willy's nostalgia for a lost time really belongs to his creator. In 1955, in an essay called "A Boy Grows in Brooklyn," Miller, using the Loman idiom, remembers how lovely his own neighborhood was in the spring and fall, and how "one could sing out loud for the beauty of it." Gone, all gone, along with the bucolic innocence that he recalls in a later essay about the Connecticut village he has called home for the past half-century, where "all the land has become real estate." In a tribute to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, he senses a change from the years when he attended—buildings where once there were lawns and trees, professors acting as entertainers, a certain propriety and stiffness in the air, a new conformity. In the theater, he sadly notes the emergence of the star actor and star director usurping the traditional power of the playwright, along with the disappearance of an engaged and loyal audience. In an essay on what we once called "juvenile delinquency," he detects a new nihilism among youth replacing the old political passions.

That was in the 1950s. In the 1960s the student radicals arrived. Miller observes these middle-class rebels with something less than total admiration, insidiously comparing them with the leftists of the 1930s, on whom he turns his patented nostalgia. The first group emerged out of scarcity, fulminating against social inequity; the second came from abundance, complaining about the inadequacies of their parents. About the only thing that seems not to have gotten worse in the view of Miller, writing in 1984, is anti-Semitism, though he might feel compelled to alter that opinion today.

Another passion that Miller has maintained throughout the years is his outrage against social injustice. These feelings are allied with his belief that art must serve a political function—"remaking humanity in one way or another, and of course," he drolly adds, "winning fame at the same time." It is a belief that led him to embrace Marxist causes in the 1930s, though he recognized before most of his fellow radicals that the Soviet Union was one of the most repressive regimes on earth. (It took him somewhat longer to stop idealizing the Common Man.) His reward for signing a few manifestoes and attending a few rallies was an indictment from the House Un-American Activities Committee, a process that cost him $40,000 in lawyer's fees, the loss of his passport, and a citation for contempt of Congress when he refused to follow his colleague Elia Kazan in naming names. (Chairman Walters offered to lift the indictment if Miller would allow him to be photographed with Marilyn Monroe, the playwright's wife at the time.)

Instead of abandoning his political idealism or turning cranky and neoconservative like many of the old Stalinists and Trotskyites, Miller channeled his disappointed political energies into positive action, defending, as president of PEN International, dissident artists and intellectuals in Turkey, Czechoslovakia, China, and the Soviet Union. (His essays also include an excellent interview with Nelson Mandela.) He became a minor witness to history as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968, writing about the bloody "Battle of Chicago" that ensued. He was a delegate to the Miami convention in 1972 that helped nominate George McGovern. He took the opportunity to defend Bill Clinton against a rebirth of the sexual and political witch-hunting that inspired The Crucible. In his best essay, "The Crucible in History," originally a lecture delivered at Harvard, he makes a strong case for the analogy in that play between the Salem witch hunts and McCarthyism, refuting the charge that his comparison was spurious because, unlike witches, Reds actually existed.

Miller's style in these accounts lacks the wild energy of Hunter S. Thompson's journalism or the kind of freestyle associating found in Norman Mailer's reportage. Indeed, while Miller's prose undergoes considerable improvement in later years, it is often more than a little clunky. Somewhere beneath the skin of the sociologist there is a genuine poet, but, as Eliot remarked about Shaw, the poet in Miller is usually stillborn. What keeps his language alive are his hallmark virtues: heroism, decency, and dignity—qualities easily mocked in our cynical age, yet inarguably authentic in Miller.

Miller's activity on behalf of imprisoned artists finds its artistic counterpart in his generosity toward his competitors in the theater, many of them in another kind of exile. He writes a warm tribute to Tennessee Williams in 1984, in the midst of Williams's decline in public affection. He expresses admiration for Mamet and for Albee, especially the latter's Three Tall Women. Twice arraigned for indecency himself, he defends Karen Finley against her Tartuffian congressional critics ("Anyone who covers herself in chocolate needs all the support she can get"). He praises younger writers such as Robin Alan Baitz and Christopher Durang. He maintains a soft spot for Pinter, despite his increasingly rabid anti-Americanism. And he expresses great admiration for Sartre, despite his unapologetic Marxism and often clumsy didacticism. (Sartre's The Condemned of Altona was surely written in imitation of Miller, and Sartre was responsible for the ideologized screenplay of the French film of The Crucible.)

It is regarding Miller's remarks about the theater, in both the essays and the interviews, that I sometimes find myself in disagreement with him. I applaud his recognition of the deep sentimentality in the optimism of Wilder and Saroyan. I share his belief that Lee Strasberg was more interested in creating television and movie personalities than versatile theater actors, and that his influence on Marilyn Monroe, whose minor comic talents he invested with absurd pretensions, was less than felicitous. I have experienced the same chagrin as Miller over the fact that most actors prefer the high pay and easy hours of film to the rigors of the stage. (Not all, of course: many continue to make considerable sacrifices for their art, and Miller is full of admiration for the talent and the commitment of Dustin Hoffman in a revival of Death of a Salesman.) And of course I welcome his eloquent complaints about the use of theater as mere entertainment (he calls Broadway in its present state "a surreal Coney Island").

But Miller's tendency to judge drama largely by its political content has led him until very recently to underestimate Beckett, along with what he once called "the whole absurd department." Despite his calls for a subsidized theater, he never seems to have shaken his conviction that plays have to be produced on Broadway to acquire any significance (or profit.) And despite his liberal socialist leanings, he continues to consider plays the exclusive and unalterable capital of the playwright. (He once threatened suit against The Wooster Group for daring to produce an unauthorized version of The Crucible.) Although he admires Brecht, Miller certainly doesn't agree with his comment that "in literature, as in life, I do not recognize the concept of private property."

Miller is correct to dispute the charge that he is a realist who lacks poetry. But there is no question that most of his plays exist so as to advance an argument. When Gussow notes how many times lawyers appear in his plays, Miller responds, "Law is a metaphor for the moral order of men." Kazan once suggested that Bernard in Death of a Salesman, who pleads a case before the Supreme Court, was a stand-in for his author. Pleading a case certainly seems to be one of Miller's major theatrical and literary functions. For this writer, the personal may be the political, but seldom does the political shade into the personal.

It may be that Miller never experienced the messy eruptions that spill into the laps of most of us, but in these pages he rarely reveals any inner secrets. One feels a similar reserve in his characters: John Proctor in The Crucible, Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge, Quentin Compson in After the Fall, and even Willy Loman all seem to have more significance as political and moral signifiers than as individual sufferers. Few of his characters ever escape their author's control to achieve a life beyond their dramatic function, as Falstaff escaped Shakespeare and Mother Courage escaped Brecht. The bigamous hero of Miller's recent A Ride Down Mount Morgan displays a non-political private life that the author refrains from judging, but he is a rare bird. Only his comic characters—notably Solomon in The Price—share this freedom, for comedy, like lunacy, is the expression of the unaccommodated man.

With his preternatural sense of dignity, Miller always manages to protect his privacy, even when he is responding as honestly as he can to Gussow's probes into the secret areas of his life. (Miller's otherwise engrossing autobiography, Timebends, though never less than forthcoming, comes across more like a statesman's memoir than like the confessions of a Rousseau or a Gide.) There is one moment in Conversations With Arthur Miller, however, when we get a glimpse of the inner man, and it has to do with food. Gussow has brought the playwright to Union Square Cafe, where Miller orders a "marvelous hamburger," advising the waiter, "Without telling anybody, put a little bacon in it. Maybe you got a tomato, sliced tomato." When the meal comes, he reminds the waiter, "Just don't tell anybody." Miller at this moment brings to mind the invalid Joseph Cotten confined to a wheelchair in Citizen Kane, trying to wheedle a cigar out of the reporter interviewing him without letting his nurse find out. It's a small moment, but it's a precious one.

Asked by Gussow what his legacy will be, Miller modestly replies: "Some good parts for actors." His legacy will no doubt consist of considerably more than that. The photographs on the cover of Echoes Down the Corridor show Miller's progress from a handsome, raw-boned young man for whom the future seems limitless to a balding, smiling, sad-eyed skeptic who has experienced the best and the worst that America has to offer. ("I don't know where to do the next play" is one of his most sorrowful commentaries on the American theater—the play was Resurrection Blues, and it was done at the Guthrie to mixed reviews.) That he has managed to keep his equilibrium and his equanimity on our crazy national cultural roller coaster is a tribute to his stubborn endurance. A true public intellectual, he leaves not just a legacy of powerful plays, but also a shining moral example unmatched in American theater.