Great Piece on Arthur Miller

Great piece from The Times on Arthur Miller, written by Erica Wagner. Thanks to John Naughton for the link.

Why the 20th century was the century of Arthur Miller

His dramatisation of the 17th-century Salem witch trials has continuing resonances

PERHAPS the 21st century will be remembered as the American century; although just now, at its outset, it is hard not to think that this may be for all the wrong reasons. And if the same could be said, perhaps more kindly, of the previous 100 years, it would be fine to consider that this might in part be because it was the century of Arthur Miller, too.
His life spanned both, of course; and did not begin until 1915, when he was born to Polish-Jewish immigrants in Manhattan. His father, Isidore, made ladies’ coats, but his business failed in 1928 and the family moved to Brooklyn, across the East River. From Death of a Salesman to The American Clock, this scene of the sudden reversal of fortune was one that Miller the playwright — after he had served his apprenticeship working with his father, then as a shipping clerk in an automobile parts warehouse, and later, at the time of his first marriage, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard — would revisit again and again in his work. Of this time, the time of his father’s failure and the Great Depression, he once said: “It was hard to know where my own family situation left off and where society began. It was all happening right there in the living room.”

That was, in a sense, his great gift: that it was all happening right there in the living room. Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge — these are not great plays because of the political statements that they make, although the themes they embody are still as pertinent as ever. They are great plays, and works of art, because they are human stories of enduring power that live, and live again, through their characters.

When Death of a Salesman made its Chinese-language debut in Beijing in 1983 there was some doubt as to how well Chinese audiences — mostly raised on socialist morality plays — would understand Willy Loman’s story, however well-disposed they might be to the tale of a man broken on the capitalist wheel. However it was Loman’s relationships within his family that drew them in — and that make the play what it is, for any audience, anywhere. Miller ’s third wife, Inge Morath, recalled that a woman came in to watch the play in its Beijing rehearsals and broke down in tears at Linda Loman’s inability to save her husband. “It’s the same situation,” the woman said.

Miller himself knew failure — his Broadway debut, The Man Who Had All the Luck, opened on November 23, 1944, and closed after four performances. The play, the tale of a struggling garage mechanic, was such a mess, apparently, that one critic left “confidently expecting the final curtain to come down upon the spectacle of everyone on the stage squirting seltzer siphons at one another”. But All My Sons came just three years after this failure, and when Death of a Salesman opened in 1949, the 33-year-old playwright won a Pulitzer prize. Another reversal of fortune, one from failure to success; the American dream made flesh — and then even more so when Miller married Marilyn Monroe in 1956. The marriage lasted only five years, but if America was to be seen through the Hollywood lens, why should not one of its greatest writers be drawn into that world too? Hollywood was the heart of that America as much as Miller was.

But three years before his marriage to Monroe The Crucible had opened on Broadway. This dramatisation of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century has continuing resonances — Miller himself referred to the comparisons that could (and could not) be made with the witch trials when Kenneth Starr brought Bill Clinton to book.

“Salem purified itself nearly to death,” he wrote, “but in the end some good may have come of it. I am not historian enough to assert this as fact, but I have often wondered if the witchhunt may have helped to spawn, 100 years later, the Bill of Rights, particularly the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits forcing a person to testify against himself — something that would have stopped the witch-hunt in its tracks.”

And, by the same token, the Salem trials would be the cause of Miller being able to resist testifying against himself when, in 1956, he appeared before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee because he was named by Elia Kazan (who had directed All My Sons and Death of a Salesman on Broadway). The two men had both attended communist meetings; the following year Miller was found guilty of contempt of Congress (a conviction later reversed) for refusing to reveal the names of members of a literary circle that was suspected of communist affiliations.

So this was America too: a place of freedom and a place of orthodoxy. Miller’s life, and his work, seemed to contain it all. His later plays never brought him the acclaim of his earlier work, but that matters only in the present moment, the moment of newspapers and critics. The moment of history, the moment of literature, is longer, and lasts. What is of worth will be remembered, and what Arthur Miller brought not only to America but to all the literate world — both his passion and his polemic — will always be remembered.

In the East London school where my husband teaches, the students who read Death of a Salesman weep as much as I did when I first saw it, and as did that Chinese woman in a rehearsal studio in Beijing. Call the 20th century Miller’s century: a time and a man to trouble us, to inspire us, to call us to question each other and ourselves.

Erica Wagner is Literary Editor of The Times

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