Back to Reality

David Edgar

  • Arthur Miller: A Life by Martin Gottfried
    Faber, 484 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 571 21946 2

In his 1987 autobiography, Arthur Miller tells of a conversation with a Kentucky farmer about the Holy Ghost. Pressed to give a definition of the most mysterious element in the Trinity, the farmer replied: ‘I figure it’s sort of an oblong blur.’ In a later interview, Miller used the same phrase to describe the political mood of the late 1970s: ‘We were living in what to me was a kind of oblong blur. There was simply no definition to the society.’ At a stretch, the metaphor could also stand for the conventional view of Miller’s career: a sturdy quartet of well-carpentered plays that caught the spirit of mid-century America, followed by a long, increasingly unfocused, foggy tail. Rejected in his own country, the one-time toast of Broadway has finally to rely for validation on the subsidised theatre in England.

Although he doesn’t entirely agree with this model, Martin Gottfried is a New York drama critic and his new biography of Miller certainly outlines the orthodox view. The second son of a New York coat manufacturer bankrupted in the Depression, Miller burst onto Broadway with four plays which called the American dream into question at its most triumphant moment. Following All My Sons (1947), which exposed a guilty secret in the past of an airplane manufacturer, and Death of a Salesman (1949), about the failure of the American dream to deliver to its most faithful devotees, Miller wrote The Crucible (1953), an allegory of the McCarthy anti-Communist crusade set in New England during the 17th-century witch hunts, and followed it two years later with A View from the Bridge, a play about informers set among the longshoremen of the Brooklyn waterfront. Already a celebrity, his fame spread way beyond the theatre with his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1956 (‘Local Resident Will Marry Miss Monroe of Hollywood,’ his local paper announced: ‘Roxbury Only Spot in World to Greet News Calmly’). Ever more bound up with Monroe and her problems, facing his own hearing before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Miller wrote nothing further for the theatre until after his divorce and Monroe’s death.

The central character of his next play, After the Fall (1964), is a Jewish intellectual with a radical past; the first half is dominated by a debate about informing on former Communists and the second by the intellectual’s marriage to a demanding and ultimately self-destructive sex goddess. Despite Miller’s disingenuous claim that he had no idea people might associate this character with Monroe, the play was dismissed by a vitriolic press as tasteless, embarrassing and exhibitionist, and thrived only as a succès de scandale. Alienated from theatrical fashion first by 1950s Absurdism and then by what he describes as ‘a newly influential and resentful 1960s avant-garde’, Miller never recovered his influence or his reputation in the States. With the single exception of his 1968 four-hander The Price, his post-1956 plays – ranging in subject from the Holocaust to the Eastern bloc, from mental health to marital deceit, from the Depression to the Creation – were seen through the prism of After the Fall, as either self-indulgent in form or self-regarding in content, or on occasion both.

Gottfried has major reservations about this narrative: he points out that The Crucible and A View from the Bridge were indifferently received when they opened, and argues that the theatre version of Miller’s 1980 television play about the Jewish orchestra in Auschwitz, Playing for Time, and his 1991 play The Ride down Mount Morgan are worthy of joining the canon. But the most cogent defence of late Miller (or, more accurately, last two-thirds Miller) is provided by the British critic Christopher Bigsby. For Bigsby, Miller has ‘quite consciously experimented with form’, not just in the later plays but throughout his career. Writing about The Archbishop’s Ceiling of 1977 (in which a group of East European intellectuals spend an evening in a grand apartment with a visiting American writer, none of them sure whether the ornate ceiling contains a microphone), Bigsby suggests that a debate about the nature of reality goes back to the plays of the 1940s and 1950s, that ‘behind the moral concerns, the social and political urgencies’ of Miller’s earlier work, ‘there was always a fascination with the problematic nature of the real.’ As far back as Death of a Salesman, the plays are not so much a critique of the reality of capitalism as a challenge to the idea of reality itself.

In seeking to rescue pre-1956 Miller from the realist tradition and its founding fathers, Bigsby can draw on the playwright himself for qualified support. Miller complained that he had come to be known by the ‘single play I have ever tried to do in completely realistic mode’: All My Sons, he said, ‘had exhausted my lifelong interest in the Greco-Ibsen form’ (which Miller’s playwriting tutor Kenneth Rowe had defined as ‘the past coming to life in the present and creating drama’). But, elsewhere, Miller insists not only that he came ‘out of that playwriting tradition’, but that the basic action of birds coming home to roost is at the core of his work. This contradiction is explored and explained in his 1994 essay ‘Theatre Language’, in which he defines the realism he rejects as mainstream commercial drama, a form ‘with no revolutionary implications for society or even a symbolic statement of some general truth’. By this definition, Ibsen and Chekhov cease to be realists,precisely because their ‘whole thrust was in opposition to the bourgeois status quo’.

This syllogism is necessary to the non-realist thesis. Certainly, if Chekhov is a realist, then The Crucible is realism, as the play not only represents observable reality (no out-front speeches, commentary, songs, ghosts or alter egos) but is meticulously Chekhovian in form: it is in four acts, each set in a different location within the same general environment (in this case, the town of Salem); the acts are divided by time jumps during which important events occur (as in The Seagull and The Three Sisters); most of the characters follow definable trajectories in the course of the drama; and, like every Chekhov central character, The Crucible’s John Proctor begins in a state of frustration and ends in a state of despair.

Chekhovian in shape, The Crucible is Ibsenite in action. It is about a man with greater vision than his neighbours who ends up a scapegoat for ills he has warned against. This is the action that Ibsen experimented with in Brand and brought to fruition in his most obviously political play, An Enemy of the People, in which a leading citizen reveals that the town’s water supply is polluted and falls victim to the short-sightedness of his neighbours, who are prepared to let the town be poisoned for short-term economic gain. Before he wrote The Crucible, Miller adapted An Enemy of the People, toning down the quasi-eugenic ‘strong man is mightiest alone’ tinge of the original and rescuing its protagonist as a prototype of that great late 20th-century hero, the whistleblower.

Before adapting An Enemy of the People, Miller wrote his most celebrated play, which is also about a lonely man up against society, but one who is crushed by it. Death of a Salesman supports the anti-realist-from-the-start thesis thanks to its remarkable form. The original title was ‘The Inside of His Head’, and its action is the unravelling of the dreams that the failed salesman Willy Loman had for himself and his sons. The contrast between Loman’s dreams and present-day reality is exposed not through reminiscence or the arrival of a character from the past, but by dramatising Loman’s memories at the moment they come into his mind. Gottfried argues that these are not so much flashbacks as projections of the past in the present; and certainly, they are not flashbacks in the sense that flashbacks result from an authorial decision to put the events in a non-linear order (as in Singin’ in the Rain, All about Eve, Pulp Fiction and countless other movies). They are, however, like the flashbacks in Citizen Kane, in which the scenes of the past are mediated through the memories of the investigating journalist’s five interlocutors. What is original about Death of a Salesman is that Loman’s memory is unreliable, and that we are invited to witness the way these unreliable memories provoke his present actions. The most dramatic example of this technique is Willy’s highly mythologised memory of his brother Ben, whom he recalls entering the African jungle a pauper and coming out the owner of a diamond mine, and who becomes Willy’s confidant as he decides to kill himself so that his favourite son Biff can build a business career (or rather, Willy’s dream of Biff’s career) with the life insurance money.

Memorable and innovative though this device is, it occupies no more than a fifth of the stage time. The rest of the play is a present-tense picture of a man who has lived a life based on an illusion and who sees it unravel in a day. That description would fit almost all of Ibsen’s mature plays; the difference is that instead of reporting the illusions of the past, Miller has taken a cinematic device and reminted it to demonstrate that it is not the past but our memory of it that informs our actions in the here and now. What makes Death of a Salesman Chekhovian is that Willy, unlike Ibsen’s heroines and heroes (whose tragedy is that they are forced to understand and confront their illusions), clings pathetically to his illusions to the last. One of his sons, indeed, carries those illusions on from his father’s graveside.

What Death of a Salesman can’t be is a play about whether reality is real. Willy Loman may well be – as Bigsby argues – a man ‘finally unable to separate reality from appearance’, but we only know that because we can. Miller found a highly original way of dramatising the gap between the American dream and its achievement, and did it so persuasively that when they made it as a film, Columbia felt obliged to shoot a 25-minute preface about the generally enviable life of the vast majority of American salesmen, to which Miller responded not by asserting that the play was really an epistemological speculation but by asking why the hell they were so ashamed of their picture. Similarly, if The Crucible is a ‘debate about the nature of the real’, it falls apart: we should be and are in no doubt that John and Elizabeth Proctor are unjustly accused. Miller has p0inted out that The Crucible tends to be staged in countries which are about to enter or leave a period of dictatorship. This is not because the play is a philosophical treatise, or indeed a documentary about a fascinating historical period, but because it demonstrates, step by step, the human and social process by which a lie can become accepted as truth. Its moment by moment believability is the reason it has proved so popular – and important – with people who can confirm its accuracy.

In fact, far from claiming Miller as an anterior postmodernist, you could equally well up-end the Bigsby/Miller thesis and read the post-1956 canon as a continuation of the realist project. For although Miller continued to experiment with theatrical form (most radically in the 1998 memory play Mr Peter’s Connections), and was never again to address material so blisteringly immediate as the McCarthy witch hunt and the limitations of the American dream, he found at least two big subjects to wrestle with in the post-1950s world.

The first was the psychological impact of public events on the private lives of individuals not directly touched by them. Miller’s first crack at this subject, in After the Fall, is not entirely satisfactory: the highly effective present-tense scenes (particularly the ones based on Miller’s relationship with Monroe) are undermined not just by the presence of an imagined listener to the protagonist’s memorial soliloquies, but by a Nazi death camp watchtower casting its shadow over the stage (at one point Miller comes perilously close to equating a parent’s telling a white lie to a child with the Holocaust). Miller returned to the theme with Broken Glass (1994), one of a parade of plays that have had much more success (in much better versions) in Britain than in America. The effect of Kristallnacht on a comfortable if troubled New York Jewish couple is dramatised not by symbolic or memorial devices but by psychotherapy (another late Miller motif); the untangling of personal and political traumas is no less painful than in After the Fall, but more complex and more believable.

Broken Glass is partly about the processes of denial, equivocation and accommodation, which is Miller’s other great theme. Again, there is a kind of false start. Premiered in the same year as After the Fall, Incident at Vichy is a real-time, one-act play about a group of arrested Jews in the waiting-room of a French police station in 1942. It has been criticised for both the speechifying and the over-neat plotting of its closing section (an aristocratic gentile arrested by mistake hands on his pass to one of the other prisoners, who escapes). Critics have tended to miss, however, the strength of the first half of the play, in which Miller paints a chilling picture of the process by which frightened people explain away the warning signs of imminent catastrophe. Similarly, Miller’s 1980 ‘vaudeville play’ about the Depression, The American Clock, is far from being a postmodern historical collage. Formally a throwback to the 1930s, it emulates Miller’s own description of the Living Newspaper theatre as ‘an epic in more or less presentational form’, dealing ‘in an overtly exuberant spirit with social issues’. Written against the background of the oblong blur that Miller identified in late 1970s America, The American Clock challenges the historical importance of the essentially middle-class youth revolt of the 1960s and 1970s by describing a period of genuine privation in which the personal became political by force of circumstance rather than act of will. But, like Incident at Vichy, The American Clock also shows how people came to terms with the disaster that overwhelmed them, if only thanks to ‘the readiness of Americans to blame themselves rather than the system for their downfall’.

Most successful is The Archbishop’s Ceiling (written in 1977, but first produced in its original version by the RSC in 1986), which shows the processes by which a group of East European intellectuals both challenge and accommodate to the realities of a stagnating Stalinist regime. The presence of a visiting American writer, whose forthright but simplistic passion blinds him to the nuances of life under totalitarianism, exposes a much more subtle matrix of survival strategies, as the supposed collaborator risks his privileges and the supposedly heroic dissident rejects the offer of exile. The central dramatic device of the maybe-there, maybe-not microphone questions the real in one but not every sense: if we were invited to believe that the microphone might be there and not there at the same time, this would undermine the achievement of the play. What Miller has done is imagine how people would talk if they didn’t know whether the secret police were listening. As he did (and does) throughout his work, Miller is not questioning reality so much as meticulously observing it, in order to explain the processes by which largely honourable people delude each other and themselves.

Although less acute in his readings than Bigsby, Gottfried describes the plays (in their various versions) and their production history very well. Like Miller’s autobiography Timebends, his Life contains some excellent anecdotes, including the revelation that the director Elia Kazan persuaded Miller to group all the Death of a Salesman ‘flashbacks’ together as a kind of interlude, only to be overruled by the producer Kermit Bloomgarden, whose ‘this piece of shit I will not do’ saved a masterpiece. Bloomgarden was then overruled when he tried to get Miller to change the title to ‘Free and Clear’ on the grounds that the word ‘death’ was off-putting; Miller was able to point to the failure of a current play called A Smile of the World as evidence that happy titles don’t necessarily lead to long box-office queues.

Gottfried is less convincing on Miller’s politics and personality. In his introduction, he reports that Miller withdrew co-operation when he discovered that Gottfried intended to talk about his personal life (‘Arthur Miller’s notion of a biography was a book about his plays’). Perhaps as a result, he takes any opportunity to question Miller’s own take on events, often with a pretty partial and sometimes inaccurate reading of the evidence (appropriately for a biographer who gets the date of Kennedy’s assassination only nearly right). So, yes, Miller skipped Monroe’s funeral, but his public reaction to her death was more than a letter to a friend: ‘She won’t be there,’ he said to a reporter, explaining his decision not to attend. No, Miller does not mention in his autobiography that a left-wing Catholic priest he supported against dismissal would go on to chair a dinner at which Howard Fast would receive the Stalin Peace Prize, but he does describe the priest as ‘a rather naive believer in the goodness of Soviet aims, if not of the system’, which seems to make the same point. Yes, Miller ‘saw no reason to cancel a speech he was to make at a New York PEN Congress’ on the day his father died, but it wasn’t any old speech or any old congress: Miller was PEN’s president, and his sense of uplift was not just at the ‘fine spring weather’ (as Gottfried asserts) but at ‘what was clearly a new life being born around me’ as PEN opened its doors to writers from the Eastern bloc and Latin America. Gottfried’s constant listing of things that Miller left out of his autobiography invites the inference that he ruthlessly censors any incident that shows him in a less than perfect light: in fact, he ‘confesses’ to visiting a prostitute, becoming a Marxist to get at his father, and nursing incestuous feelings towards his sister. Sure, he leaves some things out (including that he and his third wife, Inge Morath, had a child with Down’s syndrome). But it’s hardly a whitewash.

Most dubiously, Gottfried drops completely unsubstantiated hints that Miller had been a secret member of the Communist Party (which there is ‘reason to suspect’ on the grounds that ‘nothing was proved’) and that he did some kind of deal with Elia Kazan, who after directing Death of a Salesman had invited Miller to his house to report his decision to name Communist sympathisers to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. The existence of this deal (presumably that Kazan wouldn’t mention that Miller had attended meetings of party writers that he, Kazan, had not attended and there is no evidence he knew about) is confirmed in Gottfried’s account by Miller’s reported change of mood as he left Kazan’s house to start research on The Crucible: ‘Despite these described concerns, Miller wrote in Timebends that he was no longer worried when he left Kazan’s home and started for Salem.’ Well, I have read the end of this passage in Timebends several times, and there is no mention of any ‘peace of mind’ falling on Miller, still less any evidence of him promising Kazan anything at all. Rather, as he drove northwards, ‘the grey rain on my windshield was falling into my soul.’

After all this, it’s no surprise that Gottfried can hardly bring himself to acknowledge that when Miller himself came up before the committee, he refused to name names and was sentenced to a year in prison (a sentence subsequently suspended and later overturned). He was ‘not, perhaps, a perfect hero out of fiction or a movie and not heroic in the way Paul Robeson had been’; no doubt he was guilty of ‘his share of evasion, backtracking, even pleading’; and perhaps it was true that ‘nobody believed in Arthur Miller’s moral heroism more than he did.’ But even Gottfried has to admit that ‘moral heroism it surely was.’

Why, apart from setting the record straight, does it matter that Miller’s moral heroism is preserved, along with his place in the great social realist canon of the 20th century? Miller belongs to the generation that was politicised by the failure of capitalism to deliver on its promises, and disillusioned by the failure of Communism to provide a morally viable alternative. Unlike many members of that generation, he did not scuttle into the conservative camp, but tried to rescue the idea of justice from the mire of Stalinism and what he saw as the shallowness of the youth rebellion of the 1960s. What he hung onto is expressed, oddly, in a section of Timebends in which he talks about revisiting his old university at the height of the 1960s revolt, and finding himself warning the students that, however wonderful it felt to be there, they mustn’t forget that the FBI was among them and someday they might have to account for their actions. But, even if they were eventually called on ‘to renounce and condemn the passions they were feeling’, it was ‘the essential risk of living at all to feel what they were feeling now’.

Miller revised but never renounced his passions, and has accounted for his life and his times in his work. Gottfried’s biography does the plays justice, and understands the times which produced them. But it is unjust to the life, which must await another writer.