Arthur Miller and the great­est plays of the con­tem­po­rary canon

Arthur Miller, born 100 years ago to­day, re­mains a gi­ant of the literary stage. Peter Craven cel­e­brates his en­dur­ing suc­cess

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

Arthur Miller wrote two of the great­est plays of the mod­ern Amer­i­can theatre and he mar­ried Mar­i­lyn Monroe. The man who was born 100 years ago to­day was a fig­ure who stood at the ab­so­lute cen­tre of Amer­i­can cul­ture in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury and his shadow is go­ing to loom for a long time yet.

It’s not an al­to­gether happy life story nor one of un­bro­ken achieve­ment. Miller, who would see a script of his, The Mis­fits, made into a film by the great John Hus­ton star­ring Monroe op­po­site Clark Gable, would also see her dead a cou­ple of years later, shat­tered, sad and — fa­mously to the point of seem­ing al­most mytho­log­i­cal — pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s mistress.

Miller writes with great elo­quence about Monroe in his su­perb 1987 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Timebends, and he is ut­terly be­liev­able:

“I con­fronted the end of her as one might stand watch­ing the sink­ing sun. When a re­porter called ask­ing if I would be at­tend­ing her fu­neral in Cal­i­for­nia, the very idea of a burial was out­landish, and stunned as I was, I an­swered with­out think­ing, ‘She won’t be there’.”

That’s one re­al­i­sa­tion of per­sonal dis­as­ter. And the play that is the great­est ever to be writ­ten about Amer­i­can history as a kind of sym­bolic frame­work for what could go wrong with Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, The Cru­cible, came out of the ter­ri­ble con­fu­sions of McCarthy­ism and the House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee, which saw Miller hauled be­fore that star cham­ber and asked to name names of com­mu­nists be­cause he had been some sort of leftie long ago.

In the process it wounded Miller’s re­la­tion­ship with Elia Kazan, who had di­rected Death of a Sales­man on Broad­way and who was cru­cial to the per­cep­tion of Miller as an in­stant clas­sic, a kind of lat­ter-day Shake­speare or Ib­sen.

So when Syd­neysiders were lucky enough to see Death of a Sales­man per­formed in 1982 with War­ren Mitchell as Willy Lo­man (the lit­tle man who goes down like King Lear) and the young Mel Gib­son as Biff, they knew — a few brief decades af­ter the play was writ­ten — they were wit­ness­ing one of the greater works of dra­matic art the imag­i­na­tion was ca­pa­ble of.

You can see the risky, hy­per-rich folk id­iom of The Cru­cible — with Miller cre­at­ing a ver­nac­u­lar Amer­i­can that never ex­isted lin­guis­ti­cally, a bit like Melville in Moby-Dick, a gothic, pic­ture-post­card dream of Amer­ica con­cocted out of bib­li­cal rhythms — come out of Miller’s early dreams of a clas­si­cal theatre. And at the same time, they were linked with a Diego Rivera-style sense of the grandeur of the folk.

Whereas Miller just once, in The Cru­cible, and then riskily, acted out the metaphor of the witch-hunt on a his­tor­i­cal can­vas that was rich and strange and eerily fa­mil­iar. He in­voked what Har­vard critic Harry Levin called — apro­pos of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville and be­fore that, Edgar Allan Poe — the power of black­ness.

But be­fore that he had to com­pose his an­thems for com­mon men. The first of these, and still a mod­ern clas­sic, was All My Sons (1947), which David Suchet did on the Lon­don stage in 2010 and which I saw per­formed with con­sid­er­able power by John Stan­ton and Janet An­drewartha in a Kate Cherry pro­duc­tion in Mel­bourne in 2007. It’s the story of a man, an or­di­nary Joe, who sells de­fi­cient hard­ware to the air force which is re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of young men and whose busi­ness part­ner goes to jail while he es­capes through men­dac­ity.

It’s a pow­er­ful, poly­phonic, im­per­fectly or­gan­ised play, with a soar­ing role of sor­row for the ac­tor who plays the wife and mother who won’t ac­cept the death of her son, and a great, sham­bling, guilt-drenched quiver of eva­sion — you can imag­ine what Robert De Niro would have made of the role — for the fa­ther who does ev­ery­thing in his power to turn away from tragedy, to blink and flinch and let his gaze flicker but who is caught by it any­way.

It is an “af­ter­math of World War II” play and per­haps a bit too en­tan­gled both in the col­lec­tive grief of war and Miller’s sense of com­mu­ni­tar­i­an­ism. He said him­self the play was cen­trally flawed by the fact — un­be­known to him — that the air force would have elab­o­rately tested the ma­te­rial any­way.

Still, All My Sons re­tains its power. It is the first step to­wards Miller’s recog­ni­tion that the sup­pos­edly com­mon man in mod­ern so­ci­ety has his own claims to tragic hero­ism; that his ca­pac­ity for suf­fer­ing is no less than that of Othello or Oedi­pus.

Death of a Sales­man in 1949 proved this like great cathe­dral bells that tolled for the kind of Amer­i­can who was li­able to be con­nected to ev­ery mem­ber of the au­di­ence and who did it hard with­out celebrity or recog­ni­tion. It fol­lowed in the wake of Ten­nessee Wil­liams’s The Glass Menagerie and A Street­car Named De­sire, which seemed to rein­vent the id­iom of the Amer­i­can theatre and, like them — and the great pre­cur­sor Eu­gene O’Neill whose Long Day’s Jour­ney into Night, although writ­ten in the early 1940s, was not pro­duced un­til the mid-50s — it showed the in­ten­sity and the striv­ing of life in a demo­cratic, com­mon-gar­den so­ci­ety. And like Street­car and All My Sons, Death of a Sales­man had the tremen­dous ben­e­fit of Kazan’s di­rec­tion.

It was Kazan who gave us Mar­lon Brando’s Stan­ley Kowal­ski in Street­car and just as that per­for­mance rein­vented mod­ern act­ing so did Death of a Sales­man make the world re­alise the or­di­nary and the ex­tra­or­di­nary were two sides of the same coin when it came to the pity and terror of hu­man ex­trem­ity. Lee J. Cobb played Willy Lo­man. Here is Miller’s de­scrip­tion of the mag­i­cal mo­ment when he re­alised he had a great ac­tor in a great role:

“I be­gan to weep my­self at some point but was not par­tic­u­larly sad, but it was as much out of pride in our art, in Lee’s mag­i­cal ca­pac­ity to imag­ine, to col­lect within him­self ev­ery mote of life since Ge­n­e­sis and to let it pour forth. He stood up there like a gi­ant mov­ing the Rocky Moun­tains into po­si­tion.”

Willy Lo­man is the sales­man who is left with no ca­pac­ity to sell and noth­ing to earn, like a king dis­pos­sessed of his king­dom, which — para­dox­i­cally — re­flects (or at any rate re­fracts) the op­ti­mism of the post­war mo­ment when Amer­i­can wealth, power and pres­tige was at some sort of zenith.

But some­how the op­ti­mism and the height­ened liv­ing stan­dards of the pe­riod also al­lowed for the kind of pes­simism that is the byprod­uct of in­tro­spec­tion and, more par­tic­u­larly, the sense of the in­evitabil­ity of tragedy in hu­man life and the supreme pre­cious­ness in dra­matic art of cel­e­brat­ing the pain of what is en­dured.

Miller was al­ways ob­sessed by the theatre of the Greeks and the fact that for all its majesty it was a folk art. A so­ci­ety that can look heart- break in the face and turn it into art by telling the truth about it is a supremely civilised one.

No one who wit­nesses the or­deal of Willy Lo­man can fail to be over­whelm­ingly moved by this play. I re­mem­ber see­ing it in Lon­don in 2006 with Brian Den­nehy as Willy Lo­man and Clare Higgins, that re­mark­able ac­tress, ev­ery inch his equal as Willy’s wife, Linda.

I had known the play since I was a teenager but I was stag­gered by its power in the hands of ac­tors of the first rank in a su­perb pro­duc­tion by Robert Falls.

Death of a Sales­man is the blind­ing achieve­ment of Arthur Miller’s ca­reer.

The Cru­cible, when it comes in 1953 — at the height of McCarthy­ism and in the light of Miller be­ing ar­raigned (and also the shad­ow­play of his emerg­ing de­sire for Monroe) — is some­thing else again. It’s as dif­fer­ent from Sales­man as a work could be and that is some in­di­ca­tion of its achieve­ment.

Did the cos­tume-drama as­pect of The Cru­cible free Miller to write an al­le­gory that was also an ex­er­cise in an en­riched rhetoric? Did all those bon­nets and Pu­ri­tan black peaked hats, all that dark ro­mance of old Mas­sachusetts, with its chiaroscuro and its bril­liance of blend­ing light and oc­cluded dark­ness, re­lease a ro­man­tic side in Miller that had not been touched by the com­bi­na­tion of nat­u­ral­ism and ex­pres­sion­ism, the bril­liant struc­tural weav­ing in and out, from past to present (from Willy and Linda in their kitchen, to Biff and Happy in their bed­room) in Sales­man?

And The Cru­cible is a tremen­dous bit of cos­tume drama (one that al­most hungers for the screen) at the same time that it is overtly such a pow­er­ful cri­tique of that as­pect of Amer­i­can civil­i­sa­tion that could not only look crazy but could seem to as prac­tised an eye as Thomas Mann’s at the edge of fas­cism or some mu­tated to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. But the play has a weird am­biva­lence that does not lessen the hero­ism of Proc­tor or his wife but which susurrates like a great black kind of tra­di­tion through all those parts of the play that re­main vivid still, long af­ter the hor­rors of sen­a­tor Joe McCarthy.

Miller was ap­palled when some­one wrote to


him prais­ing his pre­sen­ta­tion of the re­al­ity of ac­tual witch­craft, and (though he thought his cor­re­spon­dent was mad) he got a tiny, un­canny inkling of the fea­si­bil­ity of the delu­sion.

What is not in doubt, though some peo­ple would think it’s a delu­sion, is the ro­man­tic na­ture of the rhetoric in which the play is cast.

Abi­gail can threaten: “I will come to you in the black of some ter­ri­ble night, and I will bring with me a pointy reck­on­ing that will shud­der you! And you know I can do it. I saw In­di­ans smash my dear par­ents’ heads on the pil­low next to mine. And I have seen some red­dish work done at night. And I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!”

And there is the thun­der­ing elo­quence, no less thun­der­ing for be­ing ex­cru­ci­ated, of Proc­tor’s own lan­guage: “Peace. It is a providence, and no great change; we are only what we al­ways were, but naked now. Aye, naked! And the wind, God’s icy wind, will blow!”

Miller brings his con­structed ye olde Amer­i­can lan­guage alive be­cause of the for­mal in­ten­sity with which he projects it on to the deadly dia­lec­tic of the devil-ver­sus-de­cency de­bate in which ev­ery face is a mask for its op­po­site.

At one level, The Cru­cible is a pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of one kind of clas­sic fic­tion, the plum pud­ding and poi­son po­et­i­cism of Hawthorne and Melville, but in ef­fect­ing this — and it’s a tremen­dous act of an­i­mat­ing a form of ar­ti­fice — he has cre­ated a dic­tion it is im­pos­si­ble for us not to imag­ine as the voice of late 17th-cen­tury Salem, a voice that echoes deep in our mem­o­ries as weirdly true.

So The Cru­cible is an ex­tra­or­di­nary black magic trick to play on history and a stun­ning move on the po­lit­i­cal chess­board. It is one of the great­est acts of lib­eral pro­pa­ganda in the history of the world. And it is also, thank God, a re­mark­able play.

So too is A View from the Bridge (1955), which was done with great suc­cess in New York in 1997 with Aus­tralia’s An­thony LaPaglia. It was also di­rected pow­er­fully by Ivo van Hove only this year at Bri­tain’s Young Vic, with a tow­er­ing per­for­mance from Mark Strong as the Ital­ianAmer­i­can who comes over all un­nec­es­sary at his young niece, and Ni­cola Walker (Ruth in TV’s Spooks) steady as a rock as his wife. It showed how Miller re­mained pow­er­ful — and in touch with that folk vi­sion, which is also a demo­cratic one — even if you set the whole ac­tion in some­thing like a box­ing ring.

It’s a pity no one ever filmed Af­ter the Fall, which has the tremen­dous hook of the MillerMon­roe mar­riage and the tragedy that en­sued.

But all of Miller is worth at­tend­ing to even though his most im­por­tant work is in the pe­riod from the mid-40s to the mid-60s.

Miller be­lieved — and it’s hard to deny — that he de­served a bet­ter theatre. We should be grate­ful, though, for the mas­ter­pieces he wrote for the one he had.

The great Willy Lo­mans will con­tinue as long as there is an Amer­ica of the mind with its own dream and its own night­mare. As long as there is a man who wants des­per­ately not just to be “liked” but to be “well-liked”. And to this man, one of the most stag­ger­ing fig­ures in the history of drama as we know it, “at­ten­tion must be paid”.

From left, Mar­i­lyn Monroe and Arthur Miller shortly af­ter their mar­riage; Philip Seymour Hof­mann and An­drew Garfield

at a Death of a Sales­man cur­tain call on Broad­way in 2012; Monroe and Miller; Wi­nona Ry­der and Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1996 film of The Cru­cible

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