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HBO’s “Arthur Miller: Writer” Parses the Life of One of America’s Definitive Playwrights

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Does every playwright eventually become akin to his or her characters? Tennessee Williams never penned a pill-popping drunk who choked to death on a nasal-spray bottle cap. Nor did any of Eugene O’Neill’s creations ever expire on the line, “Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” But it feels like they might have. And that’s how both those legends died, at least. To see eightyish Arthur Miller potter about in the woodshed in his daughter Rebecca’s new HBO documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer, one might muse that America’s great social dramatist ended up lost, forgotten — Willy Loman-like. The culture used him and cast him aside, evoking Willy’s pathetic orange peel metaphor: “A man is not a piece of fruit!” Tempting analogy, right?

Best to resist the temptation. It’s true that Miller’s success was woefully lopsided, but he had a joyful, long life (1915–2005) that was full of planting — plays as much as trees. (He seeded a pine forest of six thousand trunks at his sprawling estate in rural Connecticut.) If the last four-plus decades of Miller’s industry never fructified into the literary redwoods for which he’s famous, he kept watering and tending the garden, anyway.

Theater buffs know the general outline. Following the failure of The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), a rookie flop that nearly drove him from the stage, Miller bounced back to enjoy an astonishing run: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View From the Bridge (in eight miraculous years), up to the beginning of the end, 1964’s After the Fall. Faced with the explosion of the youth counterculture, Vietnam protests, and theater’s growing irrelevance, Miller retreated to 350 acres in Roxbury, Connecticut, with his third wife and three kids (a fourth, a son with Down syndrome, was institutionalized). There, he cranked out twenty-odd more works that met with critical dismissal or outright hostility. A more hyperbolic assessment would say he was canonized and crucified simultaneously.

What happened? For some, the flashy answer might be: Marilyn Monroe. Miller’s five-year marriage to the Hollywood icon was a creatively fallow period during which he looked after the emotionally fragile actress and dodged paparazzi. Her death the year after their divorce never stopped haunting him. He returns to it in his last play, Finishing the Picture (2004), inspired by the making of the John Huston–directed The Misfits (1961), whose script he wrote for Monroe. But let’s say the screen legend is not to blame. Maybe Miller’s decline is simply what happens to a writer who generates so many masterpieces, and garners such national acclaim, in so short a time. As interviewee Mike Nichols asks, in the doc, vis-à-vis Death of a Salesman: “Did he or did he not feel that he burned something out when he wrote it? I think anyone who wrote Salesman, something would have burned out, because it’s so close to the target. It’s so…alive.”

So, there are plenty of theories. Rather than pick one, Rebecca Miller chronicles her father’s life in six affectionate but fairly unflinching chapters from childhood to Broadway breakthrough and the decades out of fashion. She pieces together the story through cozy, at-home interviews; scores of archival photos and video clips; and voice-overs of Miller reading from his memoir, Timebends. Tony Kushner pops up a couple of times to remind us how radical it was, two years after the Second World War, to condemn wartime profiteering at the expense of soldiers’ safety (All My Sons).

Rebecca makes clear that her father lived many lives. He was a teenager during the Great Depression (which wiped out his father’s garment business and robbed the family of its affluent lifestyle), a red-hot playwright alongside Odets and Williams, and an eloquent, serious writer when the nation still looked to Broadway for elevating discourse. And then there’s the not-quite-retiree. Chatting with his daughter, Miller comes across as a grandfatherly mensch: a relaxed, confident, incorrigible optimist. He seems to have been a decent father and dependable husband in his third marriage, to Austrian photographer Inge Morath. Miller never gave up the stage, even if he never caught lightning in a bottle again — that nexus of personal failing and social tragedy that could capture a nation’s imagination. Unless the filmmaker took pains to sanitize this portrait of the artist in senior citizenship, Miller grew into a reasonably happy man, at peace with himself and his legacy.

On the downside, we get only a cursory view of the theater industry of the Forties and Fifties. There’s time devoted to Miller’s intense friendship and collaboration with director Elia Kazan, and each of the great plays gets a little background about inspiration, plotline, and reception. But greater context and quotes from his contemporaries might have shed light on how dramaturgical fashions moved on — or how Miller’s influence is evident today in, say, the works of Kushner, J.T. Rogers, and Lynn Nottage.

It’s a funny subgenre, the playwright doc. You can find decent ones on O’Neill (from Ric Burns), Kushner, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and others. But they’re inherently incomplete. On the one hand, playwriting seems a less romantic occupation than the godlike and isolated novelist. Playwrights have to be social creatures. They may write in solitude, but they realize their visions in mini-communities of actors, directors, and designers. That sense of letting strangers into the room and taking the camera backstage where the art finds expression should, ideally, lead to an expansive portrait on film. But Rebecca Miller keeps the focus on the dogged, lifelong working man who built his own writing shed and hammered out a series of world-shaking dramas. It’s a great story, and partly true, but there’s more to it. Otherwise, the ironic takeaway would be: Arthur Miller wrote of society, even as he shut it out.

Arthur Miller: Writer is available to stream on HBO, and also airs Sunday, April 8, at 9:30 a.m.

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