Dancing in the synagogue, waiting at the well

Michael Church

  • Timebends: A Life by Arthur Miller
    Methuen, 614 pp, £17.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 413 41480 9
  • Vivien Leigh: The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker
    Weidenfeld, 342 pp, £12.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 297 79118 4

Pursuing the truth about the McCarthyite witch-hunt via 17th-century Salem, Arthur Miller was one day transfixed by an etching in a library. It had been made by an eyewitness of the original trials, and showed a bearded judge with arms upraised in horror as he watched a covey of girls screaming and clawing at invisible tormentors. This bore Miller back to a scene he had witnessed at the age of four, while under the tutelage of his great-grandfather in the 114th Street Synagogue. Told at first not to look, he heard ecstatic singing, and squinting through his fingers saw 15 old men dancing in a circle with prayer shawls over their heads. The playwright instantly saw the connection: ‘the moral intensity of the Jews and the clan’s defensiveness against pollution from outside the ranks’. Salem, he realised, was his own inheritance, and he felt strangely at home.

A play, says Miller, should cut through time like a road through a mountain revealing its geological layers, and this could stand as a metaphor for the autobiography itself. Time-bends moves in great loops which constantly overlap, flash forward and double back. The plays seem to build themselves out of the events of the life, and the process is fascinating to watch, nowhere more so than with A View from the Bridge.

The big public success of All My Sons triggered an anxiety which has haunted Miller ever since: the fear of being set apart from ordinary humanity, of guiltily turning his back on his brother and semi-literate father. His initial solution, to go to work in a box factory for the minimum wage, lasted barely a week, but then he found himself endlessly tramping the waterfront. He kept noticing a message scrawled on walls, Dove Pete Panto? and only twigged the meaning when the mysterious question was taken up by the liberal press. Panto was a longshoreman who had dared to lead a rank-and-file revolt against the union Mafiosi, and one night he simply disappeared. Two of Panto’s former allies noticed the celebrity hanging wistfully around, drew him into their campaign, and led him willingly to Sicily. Miller: ‘I was thirsting for a new sense of the future now that fascism was dead.’

Under the weight of post-war poverty, Palermo was sliding back into its pre-industrial past, and Miller’s description of its feudal inertia and pride makes a powerfully suggestive backdrop for the unseen place which was later, in A View from the Bridge, to pervade the New York tenement tragedy with its classical frame. Italian images, he says, hung behind his eyes like painted scenes: the vine-grown, sun-blasted amphitheatre at Siracusa; a dozen men standing around a well all day, in the slender hope of being offered a few hours’ work. He was reminded of a Red Hook longshoreman who had betrayed some illegal immigrant relatives and then disappeared. ‘This glimpse in Sicily ... made monstrous the idea of their betrayal after they had succeeded in escaping this slow dying in the sun.’

Years passed, other plays were written, and the idea germinated. He began sketching something called An Italian Tragedy, which unaccountably turned on incestuous feelings and their denial; after several months, puzzled and alarmed, he laid it aside. More years passed, and he was induced to scribble a one-acter to keep some underemployed young actors happy. The result was A View from the Bridge, full-fledged at last. Later again, watching a brilliant off-Broadway revival, he made another discovery: ‘I suddenly saw my father’s adoration of my sister, and through his emotion, my own.’

The single-minded pursuit of insight – into the author’s own behaviour as much as into that of his characters – is the solemn business of this book, but with work and life of such lurid interest who could complain? In an aside on the original rehearsal period for View, Miller describes an incidental quandary. On his way to the theatre each day he has to pass a life-size advertising cut-out of Marilyn, laughing as her skirt flies up over an air-vent. Each day, the actor playing Eddie Carbone tries vainly to reflect a compulsion he can’t fight – ‘the sensation of being swept away, of inviting the will’s oblivion and dreading it’. Wanting to help, but in the grip of his own compulsion, Miller has to sit dumb and desperate. ‘How could one walk toward the very thing one was fleeing from?’

There is nothing in this book to satisfy the voyeuristic lust of those responsive to the Marilyn industry – Miller doesn’t mention the party at which they met and gazed into each other’s eyes for hours, he holding her toe – and the reader has no sense of how they spent their more humdrum hours together. He writes of her in alternating states of exaltation and terror, as though the relationship’s only reality was on a mythical level. At an early casual public encounter he knew that he must either flee ‘or walk into a doom beyond all knowing’. On the other hand, ‘a youth was rising from a long sleep to claim the feminine blessing that was the spring of his creativity’: his previous incarnation as a decent paterfamilias was specious, a charade. Her perfection aroused his desire to defend it, her orphanhood flattered his masculinity. His muse, he says, has always been a ‘sanctifying woman’ (as a little boy, he had always been in close cahoots with his bewitchingly clever mother). Marilyn did provide the inspiration for one beautifully realised character – Roslyn in The Misfits – but apart from that and furnishing the material for Maggie in the lugubriously autobiographical After the Fall her effect as a muse was entirely negative. In an extraordinary paragraph Miller, who is phoning her long-distance, hears the sound of suicide in her voice, faints, then comes to, and joyfully assents to join his life to hers: ‘My blood seemed to have spoken.’

She was a human sacrifice. He was a survivor, and he has the humility, stemming not merely from guilt, to recognise in her a kind of divine genius. For all their hard-won poetry, his own creations – even the best of them – never lift off into the empyrean. The carpentering urge, which impelled him to build the studio in which he then wrote Salesman, keeps the plays anchored in the social-psychological arena where he feels most happily at home.

As a chronicle of the last fifty years in that arena, Timebends is richly illuminating. Miller’s romantic but at the time quite reasonable attachment to Marxism is shown withering under the impact of political truth; his revulsion at the McCarthyite hue-and-cry never blinds him to the much worse oppressions in Communist states. He makes his points through anecdote and description: his book is studded with novellas in miniature, many of them tragic. He watches the audience reaction to his plays, and analyses it: for him, The Crucible’s reception is the perfect barometer for a country’s political climate. He recalls one night when the American audience bowed their heads in silence after John Proctor’s execution: the Rosenbergs had simultaneously been executed in Sing Sing. He is both amused and appalled at the film trailer with which a Hollywood film company tries to neutralise Salesman (a cheery succession of businessmen dismissing Willy Loman as atypical), and at the way a Russian production blithely erases Carbone’s sexual obsession in View. He loathes the American ‘entertainment’ industry (the knife flashes just twice in this egregiously humane book – once for Louella Parsons, and once for Norman Mailer, who certainly owed his pound of flesh). And he despises the mindless experimentalism of the Sixties, the decade which ushered in an obsession with style and which showed Miller’s hard-edged, will-powered seriousness the door.

With three plays on in London in 1987, he takes an understandably rosy view of our theatre, and as a leading light of PEN, with real power to his elbow when it comes to helping dissidents, he has seen his lifelong campaign to educate and civilise reach a satisfying climax. He is, and seems always to have been, almost totally self-absorbed (few autobiographers can have evinced so little interest in their wives and children), a law-giver never in doubt about his mission. He ends his book surveying his handiwork, gazing up at the sixty-foot trees he planted twenty-five years ago, and listening to sweet music – ‘Grandpa’ from the lips of his descendants. God’s in his heaven ... But wait. One more word from the law-giver. ‘Deep down in His heart God is a comedian who loves to make us laugh.’ In that case, Miller isn’t God. He couldn’t write a comedy to save his life.

One evening while staying with Marilyn in London Miller was invited by Olivier to the theatre. Having arrived late and without a programme, he found himself asking who had written such a dull play (answer: Coward) and who could have directed such an ill-acted spectacle (answer: Olivier, and with Vivien Leigh in the cast). Both men laughed ruefully, and the friendship survived: Olivier’s years on the rack as Vivien’s husband were nearing their conclusion.

To his biography of that beautiful and damned creature Alexander Walker brings knowledge, sympathy and tact in equal measure: Vivien is the best account we could possibly expect while key figures in the drama are still living. He is especially good on the early life and convent schooldays, and his chronicle of her rise and fall reflects the hard narcissism which was at her core. The cross Olivier had to bear as her husband was in one way strikingly similar to Miller’s as Monroe’s consort: whereas Vivien was much a star offstage as on, Olivier was in private life essentially an ordinary guy. In contrast to Marilyn, Vivien was effectively ruthless in getting everything she wanted – stage parts, male parts – but for all her bewitching beauty what do we now remember apart from Gone with the Wind and Streetcar? When she played the earlier part, she virtually was Scarlett O’Hara, and Blanche Dubois was what she finally became.