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Review of Christopher Bigby’s Arthur Miller: 1915-1962

By Morris Dickstein

Christopher Bigsby
ARTHUR MILLER: 1915-1962
739 pp. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 30.00
978 0 297 85441 8

Published in the Times Literary Supplement, July 24, 2009.

Arthur Miller’s writing life was rife with contradictions. One of America’s most lionized playwrights after the war, he saw his later work neglected or dismissed by the theatrical establishment at home yet warmly welcomed abroad, especially in England. Often portrayed as a granite-jawed, Lincolnesque figure, an icon of the national conscience, he was indicted for contempt of Congress in 1956 for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee – his conviction was thrown out two years later on appeal. He was the son of a well-to-do but almost illiterate Jewish manufacturer who lost his money after the 1929 Crash, but was converted to Marxism in 1932, like many of his contemporaries, after his family was forced to move to a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. Always drawn to manual labor, Miller worked at an auto parts company for two years to earn enough money to go to college; during the war he worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard after being rejected for service. Long after he found wealth and recognition in the theatre, his work remained anchored in the grim outlook of the Depression. Insecurity, failure, injustice, betrayal, and self-deception remained his key themes. Appearing at a time when Broadway still supported serious drama, his plays, like the man himself, were earnest, solemn, often humorless – hell-bent on making large statements about social conditions and bedrock human values. He prided himself in being out of step, in touch with the insulted and the injured.

Miller was born in 1915, the same year as other Jewish American writers like Saul Bellow and Alfred Kazin. While they shaped their identity through their immigrant origins, Miller kept Jews out of his plays, out of a left-wing universalizing bent but also from a broad moral emphasis that had its own deep Jewish roots. “The Jew in me shied away from private salvation as something close to sin,” he wrote. None of his three wives was Jewish. The first, Mary Grace Slattery, was a fellow radical he met at the University of Michigan, a school that attracted him because of a famous playwriting award it offered. He later discovered, much to his surprise, that she could be even more judgmental than he was. His second wife, astonishingly, was America’s prime sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe. Theirs was a brief, troubled, deeply gratifying marriage – far more complex than what the tabloids saw as a fairytale romance between the Brain and the Body. In his last four decades, he found happiness with his third wife, the Austrian-born Magnum photographer Inge Morath. The rebellious daughter of a Nazi, full of grim memories of the war, she took him to a concentration camp in 1962, which turned his work toward Jews and the Holocaust for the first time. He witheringly examined his relation to all three women in one of his most ambitious plays, the confessional but opaque After the Fall (1964), which reunited him uneasily with his greatest director, Elia Kazan, and eventually became the germ of a powerful autobiography, Timebends, published in 1987.

His first success came not in the theatre but with a novel, Focus (1945), an attack on wartime anti-Semitism. This is a Kafkaesque parable about an uptight everyman whose new spectacles, which enable him to see more clearly, also cause him to be taken for a Jew. At first no more than a puzzled victim, he is singled out and attacked until he comes gradually to identify with Jews and finally to fight back. This symbolic, stylized transformation of the ordinary is a key to Miller’s work. The plays that followed, especially All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), both great hits on Broadway, were influenced by the ethnic family dramas of the 1930s (especially Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing!), but they were abstracted from any local roots, the social and geographical markers of thirties drama. [Miller’s work fuses the polemic of social-problem drama with an emotional intensity redolent of the Yiddish theatre, marked by histrionic generational tensions arising from the clashing values of parents and children.]

All My Sons and Death of a Salesman both take off from a family conflict, though the first play is naturalistic, the second poetic, expressionistic. Both center on a compromised father, two grown sons at loggerheads with him, and a long-suffering, half-deluded mother who is her husband’s supporter and enabler. In both plays the sons, by showing the father the real meaning of his life, help drive him to suicide, his way out of a moral quagmire, a bog of self-deception. Later plays such as The Crucible and Incident at Vichy also conclude with a kind of suicide, a heroic gesture of self-immolation. Characters die to make a point, die for a principle, the signature of an author who had difficulty thinking outside the framework of moral absolutes.

Death of a Salesman is more a counter-myth to the American dream than a tale of real people. The everyman quality of Willy Loman is a source of the play’s power but also its chief weakness. Willy is not a salesman but a Salesman. We have no idea what he sells, seeing only his glad-handing illusions, his limitless faith in personality, his unshakable belief in the efficacy of being “well liked”, his desperation when the magic palls and he is cast aside. Willy’s need to keep up a good front, his misplaced ambitions for his wastrel sons, turn his home into a house of lies and himself into a man at the end of his rope, stepping in and out of reveries that looming up from his past.

It was daring of Miller to insert such subjective flashbacks into live drama – an early backer was sure the audience could never follow it – but the formal speech he gives his characters often separates them from credible human beings. The most memorable passages make the greatest demands on actors, since they feel like oratorical constructions or choral passages from Greek tragedy, such as Willy’s wife Linda’s speech about how “attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” or Willy’s own insistence that “you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!” Such phrases, so vulnerable to parody, turn Willy into a object of attention rather a character, into Man (or “low man”) rather than a man – living testimony to the illusions that, as Miller sees it, bedevil American capitalism and American life.

The resolution of the play is even more of a problem, though great actors like Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman have turned it into something defiantly moving. As a moralist, Miller, like Orwell, was a great believer in the power of truth, though eventually he discovered that “too much truth can kill”. He helped torpedo his first marriage by confessing first his attraction to another women, then a brief affair, expecting to be admired for his honesty and sex appeal. Later he alienated Monroe, who idolized him as her mentor and guide, the first man to take her seriously, by being unable to give her the unconditional support she required. The denouement of Death of a Salesman comes when Willy’s son Biff forces his father to see that “we never told the truth for ten minutes in this house”. He insists that for all the hopes Willy has invested in him, he himself is ordinary, not “a leader of men,” while Willy was “never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them.” But would anyone actually say, “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen and so are you”? This unreality, merely an idea, is compounded by the portentous Requiem that follows Willy’s death, punctuated by risible lines like “there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made”, “he was a happy man with a batch of cement”, and “nobody dast blame this man”, ritualistic, perhaps ironic phrases that no actor has an easy time saying. Along with Miller’s fellow travelling politics, this pseudo-poetry was the bane of highbrow critics and New York intellectuals like Eric Bentley, Mary McCarthy, and later Robert Brustein; their lethal attacks dogged Miller’s career. Yet audiences have repeatedly judged otherwise, for these are ultimately performance pieces that play better than they read. Miller’s characters, especially in Salesman, are often more inchoate or ambiguous than they seem, and actors have relished the challenge to give them flesh and blood. An irresistibly demanding role for many actors, Willy Loman is the Lear of the modern stage.

No critic has done more to promote Miller’s legacy than Christopher Bigsby, the director of the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia, who has written voluminously about Miller, interviewed him repeatedly, and built up a deep knowledge of Miller’s published and unpublished work: early plays, drafts, novels, stories, essays. Most twentieth-century writers, on principle as well as by inclination, let their work speak for itself. Miller was as tireless an interpreter of his own work as he was of the serial mysteries of his personal life. Pondering these enigmas all his days, Miller became a formidable essayist and an expansive interview subject. In Miller’s last decades Bigsby seems to have become a kind of surrogate son, a good and bad omen for his work as Miller’s authorized biographer.

Miller died in 2005, approaching ninety, and Bigsby’s hefty tome concludes in 1962, leaping ahead in its concluding paragraphs to describe his death. There is no indication of a projected second volume, perhaps because this is the meatiest, most artistically significant period of his life, but also because the later life – the period of Bigsby’s own acquaintance with Miller – figures repeatedly in his treatment of the earlier years. Thanks to his prodigious research, Bigsby simply knows too much about Miller, too much that he was unable to leave out of the book. No other writer could tell us this much about Miller’s unpublished manuscripts, more than we ever wanted to know. He takes more than 250 pages to get to Miller’s first successful play, with long discussions of his family history, his college years, his early jobs, his politics, his first attempts at playwriting, his years of radio work during the war, which Miller himself dismissed as hackwork; this part of the book could have been condensed by two-thirds. Bigsby sees all this through Miller’s eyes, quoting at length from Miller looking back. Miller’s reflections are often incisive but by relying on them so heavily Bigsby invariably becomes his advocate, more an expositor than a critic. With so much documentation from the horse’s mouth, the book reads at times like the first volume of a massive Victorian “life and letters”.

Miller set out to universalize the common-man material of Depression writing but never resolved the tension between social drama, which he advocated, and intimate personal drama, the drama of memory and relationships, which was his real strength. The house in Connecticut he bought with Marilyn Monroe he lived in for the next half-century, building and rebuilding much that was in it with a carpenter’s skill. The same handful of memories, freshly reconstructed, inspired him from play to play. “I have no desire to escape my past,” he wrote in 1995. “I use it all the time”. (669) What Miller did not deploy in the theatre he worried through from time to time in fiction and memoir. Miller’s Timebends, a serious though often ponderous account of his life, would make matters difficult for any biographer. His vivid recollections, written with wry sympathy and a detached fascination with the wrinkles of human behavior, can only be summarized, not duplicated, by his biographer. One could single out his portraits of movie mogul Spyros Skouras, who had money riding on Monroe’s career, trying to convince him to name names before HUAC; Lillian Hellman skeptically interviewing some painfully sincere East European dissidents and wondering, “You believe them?”; or his friend Louis Untermeyer, popular bookman and television personality, turning recluse from the shock of being blacklisted.

The structure of Timebends is associative, not chronological; it recalls the layering of time in Death of a Salesman and After the Fall, plays that unfold in the mind of the protagonist as he moves in and out of his own memories, trying to fathom his identity by reliving past scenes. Bigsby unwittingly parodies this – and oversteps the biographer’s mark – by constantly foreshadowing future events. He cannot mention Union Square, the headquarters of the Communist Party in the 1930s, without telling us that sixty years later it was home to a farmer’s market, meaning gentrification. He repeatedly enlists the older Miller, including his late plays, to make sense of his formative years. This works best to unravel Miller’s relationships with those closest to him: his capitalist father, wrecked by the Depression, appalled by his son’s radical politics; his ambitious but disappointed mother, who encouraged his escape; his older brother Kermit, also a radical, who had to give up his own ambitions and help support the family when Miller left for college; his first wife, who gradually turned against him, feeling unnoticed, nullified, by his preoccupation with his work, his newfound fame, his sexual dissatisfaction; and finally Marilyn Monroe, vulnerable, insecure, who saw him as her way out of Hollywood, her means of gaining respect as an actress and as a person. The failure of his first marriage turned Miller from Marxism to psychoanalysis, giving him a new understanding that echoes through Bigsby’s book and fostering a lifetime of what Bigsby calls “relentless self-examination”.

Miller’s self-knowledge unfortunately did not extend to his politics. It was one thing for Miller to be a radical in the 1930s. For him to remain a fellow traveller throughout the 1940s, culminating in the notorious Stalinist-inspired Waldorf peace conference in New York in 1949, long after the crimes, purges, and repressions of Stalin had been exposed to the world, demanded a special kind of obtuseness. Miller was nothing if not a stubborn man, especially stubborn in his loyalties and sensitive to any form of betrayal. He mocked himself in After the Fall as a do-gooder, a world-saver in a “world so wonderfully threatened by injustices I was born to correct.” In Timebends he came across as a contrarian, someone with an “untamed tendency to idealize whatever challenged the system.” (230) Just as the congressional investigations were getting under way, he used his new fame to promote Soviet-American friendship. Bigsby speculates that “it was precisely the pressure to join the rest of society in drifting to the right that led him to move in the other direction”. (364) At the Waldorf conference he presided over the arts panel featuring the hapless and terrified composer Shostakovich, who gave a robotic speech, concerned as always that his life in Russia was hanging by a thread. Looking back at this fiasco, Miller wrote that “whatever my misgivings about doctrinaire Marxism, it was beyond me at the time to join the anti-Soviet crusade”. (Timebends, 239) Here Bigsby finally breaks with Miller’s own extenuations and expresses puzzlement about his naivete and sentimentality. After quoting one later, particularly unconvincing apologia, he demurs that “plainly, it could be seen as mere equivocation”. (366) Pointing to the New York intellectuals as Miller’s real peers, Bigsby, with a touch of embarrassment, writes that “his emotional commitments to Russia, his longing for wartime solidarities, were such that he seems not to have registered that revulsion against Soviet repressions that characterized so many on the liberal Left.” (345)

Miller had already been marked as a political simpleton and a target of anti-Communists – Henry Luce’s Life magazine showcased him in 1949 in a spread on “Dupes and Fellow Travelers”. At the same time his first marriage turned desperately unhappy. The almost simultaneous arrival of Monroe and McCarthyism transformed his life, somehow liberating him to act boldly, just as they deliver Bigsby’s book from its own longueurs. In Monroe he saw a woman who was natural, spontaneous, comfortable with her own body, sexually free, but also someone fragile, abused, someone crying out to be rescued, always a temptation for him. “It was her very vulnerability, the damage she had sustained, that attracted Miller, who believed he could heal her”. (574) She in turn might rescue him from a cold, guilt-ridden marriage in which he felt accused and judged, always on trial. Nothing meant more to Miller than writing for the theatre, but he put his career on hold for years to help negotiate hers, finally writing a movie, The Misfits, meant to showcase her talent as a serious actress. By then, however, their marriage had disintegrated into mutual misunderstanding, since Miller was unable to provide the unconditional support she needed, and they parted soon afterward. Bigsby picks up his cues for analyzing this unlikely union from Miller himself, especially from After the Fall and Timebends, but it makes for enthralling reading.

His relation to Monroe drew the attention of HUAC, whose chairman offered to cancel Miller’s hearing if he could be photographed with her. Two years after the downfall of McCarthy, the committee’s star was waning, but it could still attract notoriety with high-profile witnesses like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Miller, who had preemptively attacked the whole anti-Communist inquisition in The Crucible, drawing an analogy to the Salem witch trials of 1692. Monroe stood by him throughout this ordeal, which might have endangered her position. Though Miller, unlike Kazan and Odets, refused the ritual of naming names, the mood of the hearing was surprisingly civil and respectful, which led some to question the depth of Miller’s defiance. Bigsby himself feels that Miller’s reputation for opposing the committee is undeserved, and much prefers the fiery denunciation and contempt that Robeson directed at his inquisitors. But Robeson was a completely different political animal, a remarkable artist and civil rights pioneer but also a lifelong Stalinist, the recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, whose defiance was also fueled by an incandescent rage against racial injustice, but who had remained silent when Jewish writers in Russia, in danger of their lives, desperately needed him to intercede.

Despite all the petitions he signed, the front groups he endorsed, Miller was anything but the kind of party-line writers he saw as untalented hacks. In Timebends (written, of course much later) he haughtily dismisses them as “the ineffectual and the artistically failed, the sentimental drones of the literary left from whose ranks I was forever separating myself”. (397) There is not an iota of orthodox Marxism in his work, which reflects instead the mind of an obstinate, sometimes rigid moralist, in an American tradition that descends from Quakers, abolitionists, and writers like Thoreau. It was also far more personal and introspective than most overtly political writing. In his memoir he portrayed his Marxism as “far less a political than a moral act of solidarity with all those who had failed in life”, a defense amply warranted by his plays if not by his short-sighted political activity in the 1940s. But his firm, dignified behavior before HUAC, his refusal either to name names or seek protection behind the fifth amendment, turned him from a fellow traveller into a figure of conscience, a courageous resister. He would spend decades campaigning against abuses of human rights, especially those of censored or imprisoned writers.

Unfortunately, he could not always resist introducing that note of nobility into his work, as he had already done with the martyrdom of John Proctor at the end of The Crucible. Bigsby sees this as the story of a flawed man who “stumbles on an integrity he thought he was prepared to barter in exchange for mere survival”, (453) but this does not make it any less idealized. Significantly, Miller echoed one of Proctor’s key speeches almost verbatim three years later in his appearance before the committee. The Crucible has always been Miller’s most frequently revived play; it has long outlived the political circumstances that led Miller to write it. If anything, it seems newly relevant during a resurgence of theocracy and religious intolerance. Its popularity raises the question of why Americans lost interest in Miller soon afterward.

Speaking about the 1950s thirty years later, he told Bigsby that “I was quite out of synch with the whole country. . . . I couldn’t begin to speak of it. I couldn’t speak of it as an artist. I didn’t know how to do it”. (648) To add to this alienation, the theatre itself soon changed. Broadway audiences grew less interested in serious plays, while the new Off-Broadway theatre looked instead to daring, provocative work by Beckett, Pinter, Albee, Genet, the Living Theatre, and Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd. For both audiences Miller was perhaps too square, too solemn, simply too verbal at a time when silence, gesture, and visual tableau took over some of the functions of words, characters, and plausible actions. In the 1960s, social criticism took shape as a theatre of shock, or metaphysical farce. Miller remained a superb craftsman but the craft itself had suddenly changed, as he himself tried to change (after a nine-year hiatus) in After the Fall, taking stock of his life like Fellini in 8 1/2. But his somber moral anguish now seemed old-fashioned.

This was far less true in Great Britain, where experimental drama made fewer inroads and classic revivals remained staples of the theatre. Despite Pinter’s minimalism, the theatre of words, indebted to a long literary tradition, continued to hold its own, even among Angry Young Men like John Osborne. Olivier, Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson all took on new work. (Miller and Monroe changed the direction of Olivier’s career by taking him to see Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.) Like his moral themes, the cadenced language of Miller’s plays was hardly alien to the British theatre, which turned some of them into modern classics, superior in their way to the verse plays of Christopher Fry or T. S. Eliot. With increasingly hollow recognition in his own country, where his late plays scarcely registered, Miller found a home away from home, not only in Britain but elsewhere in Europe, even in China, and this undoubtedly helped keep him writing through his ninth decade. At his death in 2005 he was mourned in England as a revered contemporary, in America as a figure from a bygone age.

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