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Arthur Miller, 1915-62 
by Christopher Bigsby.
Weidenfeld, 739 pp., £30, November 2008, 978 0 297 85441 8
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Even as late as the 1950s, at the height of his fame as a playwright, Arthur Miller would periodically leave his nice house to hang around the dockyards. He had worked for two years in the 1930s at a car parts warehouse, where he first encountered anti-semitism and suspicion. Reading Russian novels on his way into work, he found, when he considered it later, that the workers ‘feared his intelligence, his application, his ambition and his thrift, taking all these as tokens of his Jewish identity’. Miller’s mother made fun of his radicalism, calling him ‘Artovsky Millensky’, and in 1947, several weeks after his first big success with All My Sons, he applied to the New York State Employment Service, keen to take any job they might have. He was sent to Long Island City to assemble beer-box dividers, earning the minimum wage. He was on the run from a hit Broadway play. ‘I couldn’t stand the idea that I was making money without working,’ he said years later. ‘It was morally disgusting . . . but I couldn’t get past a week. It was not the work; it was the boredom . . . I wanted to be with the salt of the earth, and the salt was in that factory. But these people were totally depressed. It was just awful being there and I would have gone crazy finally.’ In that spirit he continued to pride himself on a certain opposition to the Partisan Review crowd: the Trotskyists, he said, ‘were a New York literary phenomenon rather than anything else. I never heard of them as being active in unions or election politics.’ Miller watched the waterfront, and it would take him years to stop admiring the Soviets.

With his appearance at the Waldorf Conference in 1949, he effectively branded himself an un-American for years to come, while his plays began to establish social conscience at the level of style. Christopher Bigbsy, the author of this new biography, has a perfect ear for the manners and motions of Miller’s art, and he tells a gripping story of Miller’s hunt for truth. There are mysteries to bear and ironies to become invested in – all good biographies must have their share – and yet the Miller who emerges from this book is ambiguous enough to become a beacon of the Cold War period. As he stood next to Shostakovich at the Waldorf Conference, Miller found himself impressed with the composer’s defence of Soviet freedoms. He did, it’s true, think Shostakovich a little blank-eyed; it didn’t occur to him that his temporary colleague’s face displayed nothing if not the terrified look of a man under compulsion to speak the truths of Uncle Joe.

Arthur Miller’s brother Kermit said that their family had left Poland clutching sewing machines. Their father, Isidore, arrived at Battery Park with a scab on his head the size of a silver dollar: it was a gruelling crossing. From the very start, Arthur was attuned to the immigrant view of the future, and his Marxism can be seen as a negotiation with his father’s failures as a businessman. The Crash laid waste to his father’s hopes, also to his mother’s confidence in his father’s powers, but out of it came Miller’s understanding of a particularly American experience of delusion. At one and the same time, he appears to have been mortified by his father’s decline and exhilarated, in ways both Freudian and contemporary, by the space it opened up for his own long struggle with reality. Edmund Wilson catches the mood in a passage from The Shores of Light:

One couldn’t help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud. It gave us a new sense of freedom . . . a new sense of power to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers, for a change, were taking a beating. With a businessman’s president in the White House, who kept telling us . . . that the system was perfectly sound, who sent General Douglas MacArthur to burn the camp of the unemployed war veterans who had come to appeal to Washington, we wondered about the survival of representative American institutions; and we became more and more impressed by the achievements of the Soviet Union.

National economic disaster, global threat, family disillusionment: Miller had the kind of temperament that allowed him to see each as a matter of personal destiny. In this sense, Bigsby is right to compare him to Koestler, another guilty man whose family lost its money, and who ‘generalised a personal anxiety into a social ethic’. In Miller’s case, the moral sophistication of the plays often has a vehemently subjective underlay: he wasn’t intellectually smart, not where politics were concerned, and was rather slow in advancing his political outlook. It took him years to pay attention to the threat of the Bomb, years to notice the Holocaust, and decades to accept Stalin’s crimes. He also had a bizarre near aversion to the Civil Rights movement, which was active around the time he was enjoying his greatest moment. Yet the plays are the thing, and they leap from a place opened up in the American theatre by Clifford Odets and the Group Theater, becoming, in Miller’s hands, the securest platform for liberal dismay. Written in six weeks, in a studio he built himself, Death of a Salesman supplied 1950s America with a cautionary tale about the decay of the spirit and the threat posed to liberty by the regimentation of capitalist dreams. It is the ultimate fellow-traveller’s fantasy, where tragedy is seen to emerge not from systems of government but from the dank wellsprings of human weakness.

Bigsby’s biography is so effective because it manages to locate Miller’s art in terms both of the progression of his idealism and the regressions of his actual experience. There can’t be many writers who appeared to live so much at the centre of their times and who suffered so much from that seeming centrality. Miller already had an FBI file on leaving the University of Michigan and his literary ambition was always tied to a more or less covert desire for societal change. Despite the efforts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to stamp him as a Party member, all they could turn up, in the end, was a 1940s application form with no signature. (His signature, more maddeningly for the HUAC, appeared on every other petition raised in that period.) Miller was, in fact, like so many in those years, a sort-of-Marxist committed primarily to self-discovery and the ousting of Fascism, and the plays, where they are at their best, survive as artworks more for the self-discovery than the anti-Fascism. Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and After the Fall are powered by vibrant political analogies, but their essence lies deep in their understanding of what is personal in America. Willy Loman is a grandson of Tom Sawyer, just as John Proctor is a kinsman of the upholders of the Scarlet Letter: they are each sons of the singer of himself in Walt Whitman, or of the powerful American addressee, Ishmael. Loman bears a relation to the figment and self-projection that is Jay Gatsby, as much as to that newly self-aware, post-immigrant landlubber Augie March.

Miller’s lasting gift to the American theatre was, at base, a contribution to the history of American personality. He gave a public voice to a new kind of personal alienation, then, as if to top it all, he married the most famous woman of the age. Great lives depend on a unity of form and content: that’s to say, the story of the life and the story of the work must seem to bleed together, bleed a lot, and form what appears to be an archetype. Miller was damned to fame, an angel fallen to earth with his notebooks blazing. Like Ted Hughes, he came into his literary inheritance seeking to make something as solid and permanent as the ancients, but that ambition would forever be inflected by the Greek drama of his own life.

Long before there was Marilyn, though, there was that other charismatic lodestar, Adolf Hitler. Miller’s fight against Fascism left scars that would still be raw 50 years later, when Broken Glass was in rehearsal. (This is a flash-forward. The present volume leaves off in 1962.) ‘For Miller,’ Bigsby writes,

the smell of that corruption had never been fully purged. It would take a lifetime for the bruise to fade. Fascism as fact, Fascism as metaphor, structured his sense of the dynamics of betrayal and denial, those twin themes of his work. It was the fact of Fascism, as it would be the wartime sacrifices of Russia, that kept him loyal to Marxism not merely when others had abandoned it, but when it had become dangerous to declare loyalties now at odds with a new and vindictive orthodoxy.

Miller was a slave to the precepts of his youth, no great or original crime in a writer, but it might be argued that the condition was made more extreme in his case by the ludicrous drift of paranoia and suspicion promulgated by the State Department’s war against Communism. Suddenly, the American state itself seemed fascistic, the shadow of Goebbels falling over the dark face of Joseph McCarthy, giving renewed vigour to Miller, and such as Miller, as they advocated resistance to the evil forces of their time. For Miller, The Crucible was not merely a searing objection to the McCarthy witch-hunt, but a potent denunciation of the Fascist impulse in all communities.

Once again, his literary stance would be reflected in his public attempt to live the moral life, not only refusing to name names but cutting off his friendship with ‘friendly witnesses’ such as Elia Kazan. In this context, and from a pinnacle of moral rectitude, Miller could imagine, even after 1956, that denouncing Communism would appear to constitute a vote of confidence in a system of fear and intimidation. For a while in the 1950s, this conundrum described a win-win situation for Miller as a playwright, but a lose-lose situation for him as a citizen. In 1954 his passport was withdrawn. As presented in Bigsby’s book, the story shines a light into Miller’s mentality, but also into the dark voids of our own American times, when horror at terrorist criminals is expected to cancel one’s objection to the policies that ordained them. In this way we witness the death of dissent. Willy Loman is not alone in being a modern cautionary tale.

Kazan directed Death of a Salesman but was not asked to direct The Crucible. What he had done was not simply to name names to save his career, but, even more descriptive of the times, to speak of his action as a civic duty. There is evidence that Miller’s ultra-moral stance in opposition to this obscenity may have destroyed his own career. I don’t mean that he didn’t get work, but that his righteousness was dangerous to him artistically as well as politically, ironing out his ambivalences. What can a public man go on to do once he has confirmed his goodness – or his badness – under fire? Interestingly, after the HUAC, Kazan went on to direct all his important movies, including the very self-justifying On the Waterfront. Miller never wrote a truly great play again. It will be worth waiting for Bigsby’s second volume in hopes of an explanation. For now, we can only look to Miller’s private life. He had argued his case in public, he had tried to stick close to ‘the salt of the earth’, he would continue to riddle with the moral temperament of his age in his plays, but the mythical fight this book ends with was the one he’d always been having. It comes not from the ‘emergency speak’ of late capitalism that he’d learned from watching his immigrant father’s heartbreaking journey towards ruin, but the other side, the story of the spouse’s bid for survival. If a great part of Miller’s story is about the crisis of the liberal mind, then how might that crisis have been shaped by a legacy of unhappy women? If you look at Chekhov, if you look at John Osborne, sex is often the element most readily denatured by a social purpose. So how did Arthur Miller cope with that feast of adjectives, Marilyn Monroe?

Badly is the answer. One has to work hard to find the comedy in some relationships, but the marriage between Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe has something of a folie de grandeur, where each of these talented people was looking to the other to save them from their former selves. Miller’s problem – one way or another it was always his problem – was to see Marilyn as a cause more than a woman. He loved causes. He allowed himself to think he could save her from those who misunderstood her talent, who exploited her, who harmed her, while basking in the glow of what he once called ‘her perfection . . . it was a perfection that aroused a wish to defend it.’ Marilyn, it seemed, would be able to free him from the blame culture that had blighted his previous marriage to the left-wing Mary Slattery. He said again and again that Marilyn wasn’t judgmental, she lived in the moment, but he soon came to understand how dreadfully she struggled to live at all. However fascinating she was, Marilyn, much to her own dismay and surprise, could be a formidable cause of resentment in others, and Miller spent a lot of their marriage trying to defend her against the verbal reprisals of directors and others who found her impossible. Bigsby refers to Miller’s gallant attempt to deflect the insults of Billy Wilder after the gruelling filming of Some Like It Hot. What he doesn’t quote is Miller’s sentence in one of his outraged telegrams to Wilder, where he called her ‘the salt of the earth’, as if, in his own mind, he was back in the Brooklyn dockyards, keeping close to the people, fighting for the rights of the workers. Except that Marilyn was spiralling on barbiturates and had told Wilder’s second assistant director to go fuck himself. She was a woman who demanded complete approval or nothing at all, which was the painful part of her charm, while Miller just wanted to be in a room writing plays. She soon began to distrust him, to dislike him, his failure to transform her life seeming to make him a shocking failure in his own.

Marilyn was a wonderful phenomenon and Miller knew it when he met her, but she killed his work stone dead, turning her husband into a very busy approval-machine for a woman he loved but didn’t entirely approve of. He wrote one thing only during that time, The Misfits, a movie whose express purpose was to give Marilyn the kind of serious role she craved. She didn’t thank him. He had written a part he hoped might show her a way out of her disappointments. But Marilyn wasn’t unlike a female Willy Loman by then, unable to focus on what was real and what was fiction, on what freed her and what imprisoned her. At the end of The Misfits, Roslyn, Marilyn’s character, and the character of the divorced cowboy played by Clark Gable, ride off together in a truck under the stars. It seems like all dispute has been calmed into a semblance of future serenity. In fact, it would be Marilyn’s last film, and Gable’s too. At the end of the final day’s shooting, Arthur and Marilyn travelled home in different cars, their nerves shattered and their marriage over.

If the immigrant experience, the Great Depression and the Second World War opened the door to Arthur Miller’s vision of America, then his fight with the anti-Communists and his marriage to Marilyn effectively closed it. He said himself in the late 1950s that he felt he had lost touch with his own society and the later plays perhaps bear that out. For now, though, he was left stranded with a massive series of complexes about the meaning of the moral life. In the America of his heyday, Miller was never permitted the oppositionalism that Murray Kempton once said was natural to European artists. America, after all, was a country in which the author of the lyrics to ‘Over the Rainbow’ was blacklisted, a country where, in 1955, more than a third of the members of the American Communist Party were FBI agents. One of the coups of Bigsby’s terrific biography is that it finally allows Miller to name the names he refused to name in 1956 – a television writer and his wife, long since known to the Committee. Miller spent the first half of his life in an agony of conscience, never seeing, as he might do if he were alive today, that his period at least was one in which Western governments considered culture something worth funding and fighting over. Under the shadow of a death-camp watchtower, with a blonde star before him choking on her fate, Quentin in After the Fall is still holding out for what his biographer calls ‘the old leftist solidarity that had shaped him’, while knowing that all the political rectitude in the world had failed to help him save a single life. Miller was hard on himself in that play, but he achieved a signature truth, showing that idealism not only liberates a man but that it can come in the end to devour him too.

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