Arthur Miller at 100
By Murray BiggsFebruary 29, 2016
Perhaps it has to do with our early childhood learning, in which the 10-times table seemed something to strive toward. Ten-times-ten was an endpoint; it thus entered our deeper levels of consciousness and has stayed there ever since. I’m still disappointed that the trophy on my mantelpiece marks my victory at the age of 12 in “the 80-yard dash,” so frustratingly short of the gold standard for all would-be sprinters.
But of course it’s the larger human dimension of the number 100 that so fascinates us. Even in the West, as we all know, never mind that Japanese island where centenarians sound like the norm, the prospect of reaching 100 becomes more realistic every year, even if its attractiveness is qualified by anxiety about its possible accompaniments. I’m told that, when Harry Truman turned 70 in May of 1954, he declared, “from now on, every day is a blessing.” Some might wish to say that of every day from birth; but we’re probably all willing in 2016 to upgrade Truman’s figure to 80, or even 90. Thus the possibility of arriving at 100 becomes the next personal frontier.
Winnie Blagden was a Yorkshire widow without children and living alone. When she reached 100, a local BBC radio station launched a Facebook appeal to help her celebrate. The media post was viewed by 6 million people worldwide. 16,000 of them sent birthday cards. Her gifts included a locket, personalized perfume, a stay in a hotel, a limousine ride, pizza, fish and chips, 100 pink roses, and special greetings from British Prime Minister David Cameron and actor Dustin Hoffman.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that when a public figure turns 100, the world around him or her takes notice. And so we’ve come to expect that artists and authors in particular will be remembered and celebrated on their 100th anniversary, whether alive or dead.
Ten years after his death in 2005, Arthur Miller’s centenary proved a bumper year for productions of his work, and not all of it the old familiars. The Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, for example, a notable regional theater led by Mark Lamos, formerly of Hartford Stage, chose the centenary month of October to revive Miller’s Broken Glass, an important late play that I’ll have more to say about in due course. But let’s start with what historians might call the foundational moment.
Arthur Asher Miller was born in New York City on October 17, 1915, the second of three children to Isidore and Augusta Miller. The family lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, from where Miller Sr. was chauffeur-driven to work until 1928, when the decline of his prosperous clothing business obliged him to move with his family to humbler circumstances in Brooklyn. Young Arthur was barely 13; his experience of the Depression defined his adolescence. Five years later, having graduated from high school and worked odd jobs in the interim, he enrolled at the University of Michigan, first majoring in journalism but then switching to English and starting to write plays under faculty encouragement.
Although Miller wrote a number of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays — the occasional screenplay and work for television; a novel Focus, published in 1945 and turned into a film in 2001; and an important memoir, Timebends of 1987 — he engaged unequally in all genres. Playwriting was his thing; it’s that above all that defines him for posterity. In all, he wrote about 50 plays, long and short, for stage and radio.
Miller’s first major play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, made it to Broadway in 1944, his 30th year. Obviously the title wasn’t meant to refer to the author himself, since the play closed after four performances. Although it won a prize from the Theatre Guild, its commercial failure tempted Miller to abandon playwriting altogether; this early work had to wait almost 50 years for a production at the Bristol Old Vic in England, and nearly 60 years, in 2002, for a spectacular revival in New York by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
We are fortunate that Miller wasn’t deterred by the failure of his first Broadway attempt, because between 1947 and ’55 he produced the four plays for which he’s best known today: All My Sons in 1947, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the year; Death of a Salesman in 1949, which won the Drama Critics’ Award, a Tony Award, and a Pulitzer Prize; The Crucible in 1953, which picked up the Tony for Best Play; and the one-act version of A View from the Bridge in 1955 that became the more familiar two-acter the following year. If Miller had never written another piece of theater, his reputation as one of the country’s premier dramatists of any period would have been assured to this day.
Meanwhile, of course, Miller had become a very public figure outside the theater, and not just because of his 1956 marriage to Marilyn Monroe. (Real domestic happiness for him seems to have begun only in 1962, after his divorce from Monroe and his marriage to the Austrian photographer Ingeborg Morath, who bore him two children, one of them the film director Rebecca Miller, now married to Daniel Day-Lewis. Arthur was evidently delighted to write for his son-in-law the screenplay of The Crucible, released in 1996.) Miller had become a public figure for less personal reasons: his political activism.
The Crucible alone was a political statement for anyone with ears to hear the McCarthy witch-hunt allusion. Already under federal scrutiny, the playwright was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to which he refused to name names. Convicted of contempt of Congress, he was denied a passport to attend productions of The Crucible abroad. The conviction was quashed on appeal. Unrepentant, Miller continued to be politically visible. In 1968 he became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and four years later in Miami. The Vietnam War made these turbulent times at home, and Arthur Miller was never one to retreat to the sidelines. Indeed he went global, as a member of PEN (the international writers’ organization defending fellow writers subject to suppressive governments abroad), and serving for four years as its president.
Let me address three essential features of Miller’s output that make him worth a centenary retrospective.
The first arises directly out of, or is made manifest by, Miller’s commitment to politics. In recent times, especially during a presidential campaign, we’ve come to think of politics and morality as distinct, or even antithetical. For Miller, a moral person had to express himself politically. Politics was morality writ large; the theater delivered a unique opportunity, almost a duty, to enact the publicly moral issues of the time. Miller was in some ways the heir of Clifford Odets, the dramatist of the American Depression. But he surpassed Odets, and became the most overtly political American playwright of the later 20th century. As he said in an interview in 1998,
Everything ultimately is political. Everything finally ends up being part of the way we govern ourselves. The Greeks used to use the word “idiot” for someone who had no interest in politics, and we know the word “id” and that’s its derivation” — “id” here meaning something like animal impulse rather than critical thinking. “I don’t want to be an idiot. I want [a] play to reflect the fullness of life, so that ultimately whatever I am doing […] has some resonance politically. But I don’t write political plays in the sense that I’m writing some kind of an argument […] [My plays] are about people seen, I hope, in a totality of which the society is a part. I’ve used the image many times that man is in society like the fish is in the water, but the water is also in the fish. And that, I think, is the way I am political.
Arthur Miller admired the ancient Greek tragedians particularly because, as he put it, they “wrote about the present” (that is, the present as it’s experienced in the action of each play, even if the subject matter is distantly mythological), but it’s “the present as created by the past.” So, to take the most famous Greek example, the present life of Oedipus as King of Thebes is created by his having, however unwittingly, killed his father and married his mother. As Miller was fond of putting it, the birds always come home to roost.
This fact alone led our playwright to value the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen more highly than any other modern predecessor. Indeed he even made his own version, in 1950, of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. This is one of Ibsen’s 12 plays of social and psychological realism, in which, time and again, a principal character or, in the case of this play, a whole society (usually a small town community, as here) is in conscious denial of some past mistake that simply won’t go away or stay permanently suppressed. Serious errors and misjudgments, Ibsen showed, as the Greeks had, must eventually be paid for.
The second element of Miller’s oeuvre that strikes me as worth special emphasis is the contrast between his qualified reputation at home and a continuing prestige abroad. While Miller was widely celebrated in his 100th year — with media profiles, republications, and productions of his works — few recalled that he had almost as many detractors as admirers in his own country. The playwright himself was sardonic — even a touch bitter about this, suggesting that most American audiences prefer what he dubbed “entertainment” to a theatrical experience that makes them think, even uncomfortably, about themselves: a fact that commercial producers, not least on Broadway, have responded to reflexively. Miller frequently drew attention to the fact that his plays were often more popular abroad, especially in Britain, which he attributed to what he called “a certain distance from the material,” but also, and rather more, to the theater’s being, over there, “part of the life of the people.” The socially and morally challenging world of Miller’s plays would there be considered what the stage is for. Nicholas Hytner, recently retired director of Britain’s National Theatre, who also directed the 1996 film of The Crucible, said memorably years ago: “In England we revere him as one step above God and one step below Shakespeare.” There’s even an Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia, overseen by Christopher Bigsby, the world’s leading authority on the man and his work.
There are, of course, at least two other reasons why today’s playwright hasn’t been universally popular at home. The more obvious one is that, to the extent that Miller was always a publicly political figure, his very politics counted against him in some quarters, and against his plays as the supposed manifestations of that politics. Here we’re talking essentially party politics; Miller’s disclaimer that none of his plays put forward a political “argument” simply doesn’t wash with activists of a different stripe. There were reasons why Miller was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, even if they rested on nothing better than suspicion. He was never, in fact, a member of the Communist Party; nor was he surprised when the Soviet Union banned his All My Sons, because, although the play exposed a particular corruption of the capitalist ethic, it did not indict capitalism itself: an assumption of approval that, as he wrote in his memoir, “no Marxist could accept.” In fact Miller’s public positions, although clearly and consistently left of center, belonged to a respectable American tradition of democratic dissent.
Another reason for the disapproval of Miller in his own land is subtler, and quite unpolitical. Indeed those holding him in this other kind of disfavor are likely to approve of his leftist political stance. Their objection is aesthetic, and it’s an objection to the intrusion of any kind of political attitude into a work of art. Here we need to understand “political” as more like “moral.” In this view, Miller moralizes; he’s preachy, and lacks a sense of humor. Although I don’t in general share this negative view, which is current even now, I can understand it, and occasionally feel something like it. But the issue is more general, because it rehearses the old debate about art: whether it should be sufficient unto itself, or can express something outside itself. My own attitude is that either kind of art is in principle justifiable. What matters is how good it is.
What I’ve described as the aesthetic objection to Miller’s kind of art — objectionable because it’s not pure art, but a bogus art contaminated by moral message — is typically linked to a variant on the same objection: that Miller is simply a realist writer and therefore not the better kind of artist at all. Miller’s own defense against this charge has been twofold: first, that many of his plays use nonrealistic devices, like dreams, or a Chorus figure; and second, that yes, he’s proud to be a realist in the sense that he writes about real people facing real moral dilemmas, and that (as we’ve seen) is for him what the theater is for. When Richard Eyre, an earlier director of Britain’s National Theatre, described Arthur Miller as showing us “how to live our lives,” he meant it as a compliment for exactly the reason that some American critics find the work unappealing. Another British figure, the theater critic Kenneth Tynan, once described Miller as “Lincoln […] in horn-rims, making dry jokes in gnarled, relaxed language. When Miller talks seriously, he sometimes gets woolly, but the wool is home-spun and durable; it is meant to last.”
The third aspect of Miller’s dramatic legacy I want to focus on is Miller’s use of memory. I’ve already touched on this subject in citing Miller’s belief in the continuing presence of the past in the lives of individuals and societies. But beyond that, the playwright was fascinated by the use of memory as a dramatic tool. We can see many of his plays as specimens of a theatrical subgenre called the “memory play.” One of his short works is actually called A Memory of Two Mondays. This is about the author’s 1955 recall of his work in an auto parts warehouse 20-plus years earlier. It includes asides from different characters about FDR’s politics and the recent emergence of Adolf Hitler. But almost all Miller’s plays, whether or not they operate through the specific mechanism of individual or collective memory, find dramatic mileage in some important recollection or reenacting of an earlier event of significance. In some examples we can even detect the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis in a period when it was given more weight than perhaps it is now. The playwright was himself analyzed.
There were two factors in Miller’s own experience and family history that become, in his plays, especially charged. The first is the Great Depression. I’ve already indicated what effect this had on the family breadwinner, and by association on his adolescent son. In a 1995 interview, Miller recalled that:
there were three suicides on the little block where we lived [in Brooklyn]. They couldn’t cope. The impact was incalculable. These people were profound believers in the American dream. The day the money stopped, their identity was gone […] America is hope, even when it doesn’t work […] America is promises […] I don’t think America ever got over the Depression.
And he spoke that five years from the end of the century.
No doubt the playwright wasn’t old enough to write about the Great Depression until it had passed into memory, however recent. But what is most striking about Miller’s own memory of the 1930s is that he chose not, or was perhaps unable, to make that decade the prime subject of a play until many years later. Leaving aside After the Fall of 1964, to which I’ll return, and allusions to the Depression in a few other plays, it wasn’t until The Price of 1968 that Miller seemed ready to confront the issue in a central way. Even then it was only indirectly, because this work — a “memory play” if ever there was one — is set in the 1968 present, when two brothers, now middle-aged, revisit the house where they had grown up, and are reminded through the old furniture, now in a kind of storage, of all their actual experiences 30 or more years earlier. The brothers are vaguely modeled on Miller himself and his older brother Kermit; the playwright identified with this personal material to the extent of providing his parents’ dining table for the table in the play’s first production.
Another 12 years passed before Miller returned to the subject of the Depression, and this time he faced it head on. The American Clock of 1980 looks at the events of those dark years in the present tense, tracing in almost documentary style the lives of representative Americans, especially Brooklyn Jews, hit hard by material shortages. The first production, in 1980, featured Miller’s sister Joan Copeland in a role resembling their mother. This relative rarity among the playwright’s work was vividly revived in 1997 by the Signature Theatre in New York, which created an onstage world of history lived. The performance had the feel of today’s news.
During these middle years of his writing, Arthur Miller also came to reckon with a much darker period of history: not one that either he or his parents experienced for themselves, but one that inevitably touched all Jews (and Miller was Polish-Jewish on both sides) with a profundity that can hardly be described. (I should mention in passing that our author was exempt from military service in World War II because of an old football injury.) In 1962, Miller married his third wife, Morath, who was not Jewish but as an Austrian subject of the Nazis was requisitioned for work in an airplane factory. Two years after their wedding, Miller wrote a pair of plays directly informed by the Holocaust.
The new couple found themselves in Linz, near Hitler’s Austrian birthplace, at the time (according to Miller) “still famous for its anti-Semitism.” As he describes it in his autobiography of 1987, which is dedicated to Morath,
Just outside the city, high on the crest of a low, forested mountain, stood the Mauthausen concentration camp, which Inge thought I might want to see. She had suffered under the Nazis, but she had also survived them, and her mind kept sifting through a past with which she wished to make peace […] Built like a castle fortress, the camp was surrounded by a massive twenty-five-foot-high stone wall instead of the usual barbed wire fence on poles. This place was obviously to be a permanent killing ground for the Thousand-Year Reich. Beside the tall gates, locked shut, was a small wooden door. We knocked, and waited in the country silence. The loveliness of the countryside falling so soothingly away in undulating waves of dense woodland mocked everything one knew. Where every prospect pleases and only man is vile.
After the Fall of 1964 is Miller’s theatrical commemoration of, and deeply felt tribute to, those who died at Mauthausen and encampments like it. It’s hardly surprising that this is his most complex and difficult work, a difficulty compounded by the fact that it’s about a lot of other things as well, including the Depression. But it’s made most difficult by Miller’s choosing, perhaps rightly and inevitably, not to describe this death camp in anything like the literal, documentary style of The American Clock for the Depression. In any case, that play came years later, and the story it told was straightforward by comparison. Miller approached the more horrendous experience obliquely, almost allegorically, by setting the action, as he put it, “in the mind, thought, and memory” of the protagonist, Quentin. The narrative is therefore not linear. Since mind and memory naturally jumble up temporal sequence, thoughts dart in and out of Quentin’s consciousness arbitrarily and unannounced. But Quentin himself was not interned; so that his “memory” is memory at a remove. In fact it soon becomes obvious that this secondhand witness is the playwright himself, trying to come to terms with and understand an experience that he was spared but that is part of his (if you will) collective past, and not just because he was Jewish.
Miller’s other Holocaust play of 1964 was Incident at Vichy, which is much easier to grasp because, as its title indicates, it recounts a single, specific incident that can be described in relatively straightforward, linear fashion. This play too had its foundation in Miller’s own secondhand experience. He developed it from a story told him 10 years earlier by his former psychoanalyst of a Jewish colleague that the analyst had known during the war in Nazi-occupied France. This man owed his life to the self-sacrifice of a non-Jew, who substituted himself in the Nazi firing line. This man was an Austrian prince, accustomed since birth to aristocratic privilege, whose heroic surrender resonated even more strongly with the playwright because his wife Morath had known him personally. Many readers have understandably recognized in this man echoes of John Proctor, the innocent victim of tyranny in The Crucible. Prince von Berg’s moment of heroism is the “Incident” of the title, but the word also hints at the fact that the German occupiers considered all Jewish lives as incidental. At the same time, the “Incident” is significantly attached to Vichy in central France, seat of Marshal Pétain’s collaborationist government: a puppet collective which is implicitly undercut by the example of another kind of, truly human, collaboration between one individual person and another.
Sixteen years after Incident at Vichy, in 1980, Arthur Miller followed French (and other) Jews via the freight trains to the concentration camps and gas chambers. He adapted for television the memoir of Birkenau in Poland by Fania Fénelon (with Marcelle Routier), first published in French in 1976 as Sursis pour l’orchestre, and translated into English by Judith Landry as Playing for Time the following year. It’s the title also of Miller’s screenplay and of a 1985 stage version. It is easy to see why the playwright was drawn to Fénelon’s book. It confronts such issues as Jewish identity and the decision to acknowledge or suppress it (denial being a recurring theme of Miller’s work); the duties of memory (implied in the very word “memoir”); and the ambiguous politics of music, especially German music.
This work is primarily about the women’s orchestra in Birkenau, and its use as a strategy of survival that the English title, Playing for Time, tellingly suggests. Fénelon, herself an accomplished musician, is the principal character of both her memoir and the screenplay. In the film, the first conversation we hear is between her and a younger woman, an overgrown child of 20 called Marianne, who idolizes her. They are on the train bound east. Marianne asks Fania if she is Jewish. “Half,” her heroine replies. In the course of her Birkenau experience, Fania’s pride in her French Catholic half comes to seem trivial beside the need to assert her Jewishness. This compulsion is made harder to sustain by the very power of her musical gift, which threatens to lull her critical awareness. In this of course she is abetted, maybe unwittingly, by her Nazi captors, who are genuinely moved by her playing, and speak their gratitude to her. This — the seductive power of music — is perhaps the most insidious of all the temptations possible within the Nazi system, and the hardest to resist. Prince von Berg, the “incidental” hero of Incident at Vichy, found it impossible to believe that a love of music and a willingness to perpetrate what became the Holocaust could exist in the same human sensibility; yet Playing for Time documents the fact. Von Berg spoke more wisely than he knew when he remarked of the Nazis that “their motives are musical and people are merely sounds [that] they play.” It is sometimes said that musicians are, in general, the least political of artists; even some of the Jews in the Birkenau orchestra seem to be enraptured by their own sweet sounds to the point where they become politically almost unconscious. Miller the political writer must have been acutely aware of the danger of such obliviousness to human society itself.
Arthur Miller’s final account of Jewishness in the modern world was Broken Glass of 1994. Its title alludes to Kristallnacht of November 9–10, 1938, in which hoodlums smashed Jewish storefront windows in Berlin, and Hitler’s fascist government confined Jews to ghettos and confiscated their goods. The play presents this event from the point of view of Jews safely ensconced in Brooklyn. It’s about a particular Jew’s willful denial of faraway happenings brought by daily newspaper to every American breakfast table. But this is also a memory play, because it was written and first performed at a time, more than half a century later, when a majority of Americans (and others) were too young to have lived through the original persecutions even by report, and when attempts to deny them were gaining currency. Broken Glass is a study of both those psychologies: the impulse to turn a blind eye to what is happening, and the refusal to admit that it did happen.
Broken Glass should probably be thought of as Arthur Miller’s last major play. It serves as a kind of epitaph to both the work and the life. For the moralist in him never went away. And the principal tenets of that morality are two: face the truth, however uncomfortable, and proclaim it. Proclaim it publicly, and repeatedly, as long as memory lasts and before it becomes a vehicle of distortion and untruth. Any commemoration of our chief political playwright must itself stay true to those principles. If Miller’s political moralizing offends some readers and audiences as anti-aesthetic, it’s precisely that which stimulates others, including myself.
Let me end, therefore, on a personal note. I was twice fortunate enough to meet Arthur Miller, both times over a meal, and both in the company of his wife Morath. The first occasion, many years ago, was courtesy of the political cartoonist Robert Osborn and his wife at their house in northwestern Connecticut. It was a beautiful spring day; the atmosphere was relaxed and informal. The round table on the patio seated eight, and since I was supposed to know something about drama, I was seated next to the great man. A first-year assistant professor of English like myself could hardly resist the opportunity of a lifetime to fire at the guest of honor such scintillating questions as “Are you Willy Loman?” But this gentle bear of a man with the commanding handshake, whom I’d always imagined as a shriveled neurotic, more Woody Allen than John Proctor, obstinately refused to discuss his work. All he would talk about was how to grow radishes in nearby rural Roxbury, and how to care for the ground. That insistence of his has stayed with me over the years as a dominant image of a playwright who, for all his idealism and occasional abstractness, not to mention his theatrical and political achievements around the globe, has never lost touch with the soil, and (despite McCarthy) American soil at that.
Years later, in 1998, I got my revenge on the man for having previously shunned my professional questions, when he agreed to an onstage “conversation” with me at Yale. Every one of our Art Gallery’s 400 seats was taken; another 300 people were turned away. Miller was our captive; yet a more obliging conversationalist it would be hard to imagine. My practice with public interviews is always to run by my guest an outline of the questions I have in mind, giving him or her a chance to add or subtract. Miller demurred at only one question, and it wasn’t about Marilyn Monroe, which I’d myself taken off the table despite the prodding of several more prurient colleagues. It was about Elia Kazan, perhaps the most gifted American stage director of his period, who’d been partly responsible for the transformative success of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, but who had also named names to HUAC on the grounds that he needed to protect his own artistic future. Miller, who had risked imprisonment by his silence, wasn’t willing to be drawn into this fundamental split with Kazan, so the man wasn’t mentioned in our exchange. The following year, 1999, when Kazan was proposed for an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, the theater and movie worlds were outraged. It was characteristic of Miller’s understanding of the whole man, and of his own magnanimity, that he spoke out in favor of the award on artistic grounds. His voice was made prominent by The New York Times and surely helped to carry the day.
After that exhilarating onstage conversation with Miller, we adjourned with his wife and a few colleagues to an informal dinner on campus. What I remember most about the evening is that this outwardly very serious, mostly unsmiling, man told a joke. Now you may not find it funny, but to our guest it was hilarious. It went like this:
Two professors living near each other used to walk to work together every day. After they’d been doing this for 30 years, one of them said to the other, “You know, I don’t know your name.” The other responded, “Why would you want to?”
Miller’s roar of laughter convulsed the room. I’m not sure that the rest of us were so amused at this perception of how cloistered we academics are. But for him, it was a perfect statement of how the fish belongs in the water. Miller never named other people’s names — but he knew his own, and was never afraid to declare it.
This essay is adapted from a lecture to the Baltimore Arts Seminar, December 8, 2015.
Professor Murray Biggs taught English, theater, and film at Yale from 1986 to 2014.
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