Like the tiny dot of light that, refracted through a burning glass, can instantly start wisps of smoke rising from flammable material, Arthur Miller was a focal point for American culture. Born into affluence and radicalized by the trauma of growing up during the Depression, he became in succession an artist, a commercial success, a political hero and victim, a celebrity, a pundit, an elder statesman, and finally a monument—obliged in that last role to suffer the peculiarly malign mixture of gushing adoration, cynical dismissal, and apathetic neglect that America always visits on its cultural monuments. Even in America, few writers have traversed such extremities of change, and still fewer have embraced them with the sardonic alacrity that Miller brought to his every role, like a skilled reporter (one of many jobs he had held on his way up) who is only mildly startled to discover that his biggest story is himself.
That was Miller’s essence, and it made him a central figure in American life whether you admired a given play or a given action of his, or not—perhaps even more if you did not. He was there to challenge the system by becoming part of it, to disrupt the tradition by continuing it, to question the prevailing images by adding irrevocably to their stock. It was perfectly apt that Eric Bentley, reprinting Miller’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in his collection of HUAC confrontations, Thirty Years of Treason, felt compelled to point out in a headnote that the seemingly cordial, mild-mannered exchanges between Miller and the committee members had in fact led to a contempt citation, a protracted legal battle, and a dozen years of covert blacklisting.
If Miller had wanted to be a conformist, and to play corporate society’s game by the rules, the option was there for him: In his memoir Timebends he revealed that, the night before he was scheduled to appear, his lawyer, Joseph Rauh, conveyed an offer from Committee Chairman Francis Walter (R-PA), who was facing a tough reelection fight. Walter’s aides had suggested that the congressman would be willing to forget all about Miller’s subpoena, and there would be no need for an appearance, if he, Walter, could be photographed with the newlywed Mrs. Miller, Marilyn Monroe having naturally accompanied her husband to Washington. “This grotesque suggestion,” Miller wrote in Timebends, “did not tempt me in the least.”
Other suggestions did. Eyebrows were raised on the liberal side in 1965, when it was announced that Miller’s large quasi-autobiographical drama, After the Fall, which looks back on both blacklisting and his marriage to Monroe, among other topics, would be directed by Elia Kazan, who had not only named names before HUAC, but had turned a project that began as a collaboration with Miller into the pro-name-naming movie On the Waterfront. Kazan was even a thinly disguised character in After the Fall, but Miller declined to have the misgivings about him that other blacklistees continued to hold. A whole new set of eyebrows shot up in the mid-70s when Miller allowed the producers of his TV adaptation of Playing for Time to cast, in the lead role, Vanessa Redgrave, whose view of Israeli policies made her, in many eyes, inappropriate casting for a concentration-camp inmate. It might be said that Miller won these and many similar skirmishes by the simple—and innately artistic—device of declining to play by any rules but his own.
This was as true aesthetically as it was in politics, both the larger kind and those of the little theatrical world where Miller loomed so large. An avowed naturalist whose hero was Ibsen, Miller was also an Expressionist whose naturalistic family scenes and husband-wife confrontations often flowed freely in and out of dreamlike, nonsequential juxtapositions; the original title of Death of a Salesman was The Inside of His Head. In addition, he had a vaudevillian streak that cropped up increasingly in his more free-form later plays (most memorably in The Price), and a love of music that makes the big speeches in all his plays suggest arias; it is not an accident that both The Crucible and A View from the Bridge have been made into operas, the latter twice. Even within naturalism, he was a sometime Marxist who was also a Freudian; his best plays finally approach the tragic because, in finding psychological motives for political acts and vice versa, he touches on the ways in which all human action is mysterious. The loftier-browed critics who ragged him, in the 50s and 60s, for providing pat explanations of his characters’ behavior were missing the point: When two pat explanations collide, the cognitive dissonance they create clears space for an unspoken third element. Why doesn’t Willy Loman ever mention his mother? (Except for Linda, there are no mothers in Death of a Salesman.) What does Eddie Carbone hope to achieve by kissing Rudolpho? What makes Quentin think he can avert Maggie’s self-destruction?
Looking back over his whole career, we can now see that Miller was always as intrigued by paradox and irony as by pat explanations of whatever stripe. In his charming one-act A Memory of Two Mondays, the women employees agitate for the factory’s grimy back windows to be washed. When it’s done, the view reveals that the factory’s back faces a whorehouse; the women are appalled and their male coworkers amused. The unexpected, seized with writerly glee, is always lurking around the corner of Miller’s seemingly grim and rigid structures: The Price‘s laughing record, the black woman firebrand in The American Clock‘s relief office. The last plays, which New York has not glimpsed (or, in the case of Mr. Peters’ Connections, glimpsed inadequately), may well reveal more to us now that we know there will be no others: Miller put the finishing touches on a revised version of Resurrection Blues, for a projected New York production, the week before he died.
I only met Miller on a few occasions, when he was always cordial and quiet; like many theater people, he tended to approach critics with caution. What made our contact interesting was the range of people through whom I met him: the playwrights Jean-Claude van Itallie and John Guare, the poet and librettist Arnold Weinstein, the composer Stanley Silverman, the director-choreographer Martha Clarke. These were all artists with whose work, one would have imagined, Arthur Miller’s sensibility would find little common ground. Yet there they were: friends, respected colleagues, neighbors and even occasional collaborators. (Silverman wrote the score for Miller’s one full-fledged attempt at musical theater, Up from Paradise. Weinstein shared with Miller the writing of the libretto for William Bolcom’s opera of A View from the Bridge—for the Met production of which Miller, not Weinstein, created the text for an additional aria.) A man is known by the company he keeps; Arthur Miller’s taste in company, over a long life, was far-ranging and not overly judgmental. Pursued by the private demons that brought his family situation into play after play, he pulled his social canvas as wide as it could go.
The two phenomena—the inner drive and the outward exploration—make a dialectic that has kept his early plays popular, and is more than likely to make us think differently of those that followed in time to come.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 8, 2005