This essay was originally published in Liberty magazine in 2005 on the event of Arthur Miller’s passing (N.B. 15 years have passed since this was originally composed. I’ve evolved politically since that time, but haven’t changed materially on my assessment of Miller’s talents).
If there is a sacred cow in American letters, it is the late, lamented Arthur Miller (1915-2005). Known to everyone in a country where the average citizen can name no more than five dramatists, Miller has long been regarded by anyone who ever finished high school as the Great American Playwright, the theater’s long awaited equivalent to Melville, Poe, Emerson and the handful of others who have ascended to our education system’s woefully short reading lists.
Miller’s recent passing, as might have been predicted (and was entirely appropriate), was cause for much memorializing. The NY Times ran close to a dozen obituaries, eulogies, op-eds, and sober reflections. The rest of the nation’s newspapers weren’t far behind. Miller’s long career was widely hailed as a milestone; Miller is almost universally remembered as America’s first important dramatist. Unlike his most famous character Willy Loman, Arthur Miller was mourned by many when he passed.
While it may be a heresy of the sort that once got you hung in Salem, I must confess that Miller’s works have never spoken to – let alone impressed — me. Just as Madison Square Garden is neither located at Madison Square, named after Madison, nor a garden, I find in our reputed Great American Playwright a smallness of spirit, a sensibility out of step with the national character, and a writing style most charitably compared to bland hash. Claims that Miller is America’s first great playwright (implying that all that occurred before him was rubbish) are overstated; assertions that his heirs apparent in today’s theatre are necessarily superior to their 19th century forbears are equally hyperbolic. Good and bad plays came before and after Arthur Miller, a very large percentage of them more interesting than anything he ever wrote. And while Miller is often referred to as an intellectual, that gives him too much credit. What he was, was a pedant, no different from, or wiser than, thousands of college professors and bureaucrats around the world. In his favor it can be said that he was one of the few to envision some of the qualities the great playwright should have, and he worked hard to attain them. But he was limited by a parochial moralism, a schoolmarmish, holier-than-thou pulpit-pounding that hardly made him the superior of the McArthyites to which he professed to be an alternative.
Like so many 20th-century artists, Miller’s chief significance lay in his utterance of fashionable sentiments. He is famous for his social conscience (that’s the kind of conscience where everyone ELSE has to help address the things that YOU think are wrong.) Capitalism – the system that educated him, financed the production of his plays, and nurtured his investments to make him rich – invariably wore a black hat in the stories he told. The Cold War Era intelligentsia and the guilt-ridden wealthy liberals who patronized the New York theatre ate it up with a fork and spoon. His best known works are essentially trials, with businessmen or other powerful figures (or those who would partake of their system), sitting in the dock for the audience to judge. In All My Sons (1947) he gives us a war profiteer who sold cracked munitions to the government. In Death of a Salesman (1949), it’s a success-obsessed jerk who is cruelly fired with no safety net. In 1951, he adapted Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a story about a muckraker destroyed when he goes against the financial interests of his town. Two years later, he gave the world The Crucible, a thinly-veiled allegory about the abuses of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The HUAC theme would re-emerge in his 1964 play After the Fall. Along the way, he’d had the opportunity to testify before the committee himself and polish his leftist credentials by not naming names. In his last few decades when his newer plays weren’t scoring like the hits of the Truman and Eisenhower eras, he took his act around the world as a sort of international cause celebre.
Miller’s credentials as a liberal are therefore impeccable. As a writer and a thinker, however, in my view he comes up wanting. I’ve often heard otherwise intelligent people speak about the “poetry” in Miller’s writing, for example, and the very idea makes me scratch my head. What on earth can they be talking about? One combs through the collected works of Arthur Miller quite in vain to find even the tiniest scrap of anything resembling a poetic turn of phrase, flight of imagination, or anything of the sort. The closest I’ve been able to come up with is “A man is not a piece of fruit,” (from Death of a Salesman), and not only is that not Shakespeare, it’s not even Sunnydale Orchards.
In 70 years of writing, Miller never rose above a sort of humdrum, flat prose, reminiscent of real speech, but far more boring. Confronted with the task of taking on the voice of 17th century Massachusetts for The Crucible, he fudged the challenge, claiming modern audiences wouldn’t understand the archaic patois. But 20th century audiences sit through Elizabethan plays all the time, just as they read their King James Bible. The sad fact is that Miller didn’t take on the problem because he couldn’t. He had none of the hellfire or wit or poetry in his bones to write the speech of either the demented sermonists or the defiant sex-crazed teenaged pagans in their midst. Miller, as always, does a fine job of delineating the motives of these people, but without capturing the language he can’t convey their religiously-motivated passion, and without doing that, he forces us to experience the story through the cool eye of a disaffected modern. Eugene O’Neill, who believed that God should be pulling all the strings in the theatre, might have fared better. The atheistic Miller writes Puritans like a blind man might write about the sun.
In writing his 1944 play The Man Who Had All the Luck Miller claimed to have tried – and failed — to grasp “wonder”. But, baby, if you want to be a poet of the stage or anyplace else, “wonder” had better be the whole ball game, and you had better not have to “try” to grasp it. To his credit, Miller realized his limitation in this regard, so instead of attempting to squeeze out of himself something he could never achieve (however necessary it might be to great drama), he sought to become, instead of a poet, an advocate.
Like his alter ego Quentin in After the Fall, Miller was a lawyer at heart. He acknowledged this frankly on many occasions, and fought valiantly to make a virtue of it. Theatre, he said more than once, was “a species of jurisprudence”. His skill (and the trait that so endears him to method-trained actors) is in laying down a meticulous argument, each note of the play leading logically to the next in a cogent and digestible manner. The discovery of this knack is what made Arthur Miller a household name.
After the Broadway failure of The Man Who Had All the Luck, Miller went back to the drawing board for three years, conceivably for the last time, to see if he could get it right. Confounded by wonder, he resolved to take the opposite tack, seeking to explore, he wrote, “cause and effect, hard actions, facts, the geometry of relationships” and to build his new play on “a bedrock of logic”. The result was All My Sons, a play of nearly flawless construction. While Miller’s debt to Ibsen in this play is often acknowledged, one can also see more than a little Sophocles in the relentless, methodical peeling-back of the play’s horrific revelation. Formally, someone once said, All My Sons is like the pyramids. You can’t even fit a knife in the cracks between its building blocks.
Like Ibsen, Miller said, he wanted to “make a play as men make watches, precisely, intelligently”. But form is only one element of art. Some writers prefer to make a play more like a Vietnamese nun setting herself on fire, and others like a fat man doing a belly flop off the high dive. Big sloppy passions that speak to our whole nervous system are every bit as vital to the theatre as an architecturally sound playscript. But “bigness” onstage is the essence of theatricality, and Miller’s declared aim in writing All My Sons was “to be as untheatrical as possible”. All I can say is I’m glad Beethoven didn’t make the Eroica as unmusical as possible. Thought—and thought of a rather pedestrian and orthodox sort, rather than passion, is Miller’s stock in trade. And a man who endeavors to undertake tragedy without passion is a quixotic soul indeed, every bit as full of illusions as Willy Loman.
To be fair, Arthur Miller was a man of his times, and American theatre has had an unnatural genesis. Thanks to the Puritans who first planted a flag here, it was two centuries before a theatre culture of any sort began to evolve in America. When it did, because polite society considered it to be wicked, it was wicked, and mostly wicked people, or good people out for a wicked time, attended. Thus in the 19th century was American show business born in saloons. From this line of tradition sprang vaudeville, burlesque, musical comedy, and the philosophy that continues to drive the film, radio, and television industries. In Miller’s day, except for a few notable exceptions like Eugene O’Neill, the vast majority of American theatre was unabashedly frivolous, lacking even a scintilla of any attempt to be edifying beyond a few chuckles. The Greeks, the Elizabethans, the English, the French, the Spanish, the Italians, the Germans, the Russians – even the Swedish and the Norwegians! – had produced first class playwrights of an intellectual caliber light years beyond anything America had sired, and the excuse that we were a young nation was getting implausible after we passed the third century mark.
So perhaps we can forgive the young Arthur Miller for wanting to be “serious” as a corrective. “There is confusion in many minds about Show Business and the Theatre,” he sniffs, “I belong to the theatre.” Seeing everyone gagging on cotton candy, he thought it would be a good thing to serve up some vegetables. But contrast his conclusion with that of Bertolt Brecht, the ultimate socialist playwright, who wanted no less than Miller to see “humanity” restored to the social equation, but who thought the paramount quality necessary in the theatre was “fun”. In Brecht, one has both seriousness and fun, and in my view, both combined in him to create the greatest playwright of the 20th century (one doesn’t have to be a socialist to think so). But Miller was unable to detach the concept of fun or “theatricality” from the kind of theatre he hated, the theatre prized by “tired businessmen”, the Follies and Frolics and farces of Broadway musical theatre. If he’d found someway to synthesize the two, he might have been a more complete artist. Just imagine if Shakespeare had confined himself to “seriousness”. What would be left of any of his plays?
So the man who could not grasp wonder decides his mission is “to make understandable what is complex” and to write plays that “remove some of my helplessness before the chaos of existence.” Chaos: like the death scene in Romeo and Juliet, like Lear howling at the thunder, like Hamlet stabling Polonius. Yes, by all means, let’s have no more of that.
To use an overworked business metaphor, Miller could not think outside the box. For a playwright, that’s a bad thing. His conventional sensibilities prevented him from exploring the really tough aspects of human existence. He steered clear of true darkness, claiming that if you depicted “evil in its full bloom in a person [the audience wouldn’t] quite believe it”. This is hogwash of course. Shakespeare must have done it three dozen times, in characters like Richard III and Lady MacBeth and Iago. But to paint such characters you have to visit some pretty frightening parts of your personality. You either have the bravery – or the ability – to go there, or you don’t. One thing you can’t do is write them from a place of judgment.
Miller’s attempt to shoehorn life into economic morality plays ironically take his writing a step further away from realism. Sometimes ghastly and hilarious things happen for no bloody reason at all, and there’s nothing to do but cry or laugh about it. Man’s economic relations don’t dictate every single event in his life. Yet Miller derided those playwrights, like Tennessee Williams, who placed too high a premium on subjective emotion as mere chroniclers of personal neuroses. Really important writing, he felt, had to address the injustices of the day. In other words: decadent capitalist play, bad; didactic socialist play, good.
This is the crux of it. Theatre by itself isn’t good enough. It must serve a higher end, a political one. And not just any political end, but one that results in “social justice”. The great critic and director Robert Brustein called this type of theatre the “Theatre of Guilt”…the main character is made to pay for his attachment to money and power and we are all to cluck and shake our heads and mutter “shame, shame” as we leave the theatre. The ultimate example of where he went wrong in taking this simplistic approach to human venality is his best-known play Death of a Salesman. The ostensible gimmick of the play, and one that much ink was spilled on, was the idea that it is appropriate to write a tragedy in which the hero is not a king or a prince or a nobleman, but just a common man. This is a wonderful, egalitarian, and very American idea, and I applaud it. The problem is, Miller didn’t just make Willy Loman a humble man, he made him an asshole. He encourages his kids to steal. He lies, and encourages his kids to lie. He is rude to those around him, devalues education, and thinks the best path to getting ahead is through gladhanding. Instead of a likeable, admirable man with a single tragic flaw, he is a man composed of a thousand flaws who performs a single pointless sacrifice at the end. Miller never understood the criticism he received on this point and perhaps it wasn’t well articulated. The point in making a tragic hero noble has nothing to do with making him a literal nobleman as Miller seemed to think the critics were telling him. The point in sticking to the rules of tragedy as laid down by Aristotle don’t have to do with sticking to some literary dogma. It has to with the very practical matter of making the audience like, admire, and relate to the main character, so that they care deeply what happens to him.
Now, I must admit, I cry just like all the rest of the suckers when Willy drives off the road, but ultimately his death is just [pathos and not tragedy], because in a certain sense Willy Loman is just a son-of-a-bitch who gets what’s coming to him and deserves every second of his misery.
And that’s Miller’s point, you see. We are not to identify with this man. We are to judge him. And Linda’s famous epitaph “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a man”, so often quoted approvingly by the left, is revealed to be paradoxical. Attention must be paid to assholes? In real tragedy, essentially good people tap into the bad part of themselves and end up destroying themselves and those around them. Here, an essentially bad person destroys himself and those around him, and, we, Miller’s audience, are not only expected to care, but we are expected to leave the theatre and “do something about it.” That’s very much the socialist mindset. It divides mankind into those who have money and those who don’t, and attempts to make an angelic virtue of “need”. In this case, economic justice reveals itself to be far, far from actual justice, for Willy Loman deserves every last second of his misery and I find myself disinclined to help him in the slightest.
Yet, this is Miller’s most-quoted line. “Attention must be paid.” It reveals the muddiness of Miller’s political thought, and one encounters it frequently on the left. Who must pay the attention? How? With what resources? Is such attention to be paid to every American citizen? If so, how much attention? If a lot of attention, must be paid, will we need a staff of 300 million attention-payers to service the 300 million Americans? That’s a hell of a lot of attention. Ultimately, money, money must be paid to such a man. Whose money will it be? Oh, it’ll come from guys like Willy Loman. I changed my mind—we should definitely weep for him!
Like so many who feel the human race needs improving, Miller has no real practical platform, just the vague idea that something must be done. His knack was for the logic of motivation, of character on the stage. But actual logic, philosophical logic, eluded him. Over the years, he composed many statements about the state of the world and the theatre, usually in the form of op-eds for major newspapers and magazines, and in forewords to published volumes of his plays. Throughout them one can find the sort of muddled, meaningless language one is more accustomed to encountering in the utterances of activist actors rather than writers (never mind writers who claim to want to be logical and rational). Truisms and tautologies combine with ill-defined generalities and contradictions and we are to take it all as gospel.
For example, in one piece he proclaims, “Man will only find peace when he learns to live humanly, in conformity to those laws which decree his human nature.”
This is the sort of vague platitude that everyone applauds dutifully and automatically without pausing to check if any comprehension has actually registered After all, it all sounds so inarguably correct. “Peace” “Human.” But what did he SAY?
Well he said nothing, actually. It’s a double tautology. He essentially said, “Mankind will only act like mankind when it acts more like mankind.” But even the component parts of his sentiment break down into nonsense. After all, man has no choice BUT to live according to natural laws, doesn’t he? That’s what a natural law IS. The idea that he somehow isn’t, that it is somehow possible for man to ever act outside natural law is an error that people of all political stripes (but particularly the left) constantly make. (They claim to believe in evolution, for example, but feel somehow the negative by-products of the human animal’s activities, such as war and pollution, are “unnatural”.) Secondly, in this statement Miller reveals himself to be ignorant about what that natural law is. I suppose he derives his vision from Marx, but it sure isn’t from Darwin. By all empirical evidence, man, by killing, looting, amassing power, and a thousand other selfish activities, is living very much in harmony with the laws of human nature. That IS his nature. If your goal is to make of all men Gandhis, you are talking about the nature of some new superhuman species – not men.
“Human” proves to be one of those slippery concepts that Miller likes to inject into his apologies, much to the detriment of clarity. The aim of the theatre, he wrote in 1949, is to “make man more human.” “More humane” would seem to be Miller’s actual task, and a Sisyphean one at that. But more human? When one is a human how can one possible become MORE human? By becoming two humans?
Ah, but here lies our answer. Miller illuminates the whole thing for is in this tiny clause. Unlike the Roman playwright Terence, who famously said “I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me,” Miller places himself somehow above his audience, whom he was in the unique position to “teach” to be human. Apparently, without benefit of his instruction the American public was – there is no other word for it – sub-human.
It is this lack of humility, this absence of wisdom and grace, that prevent Arthur Miller from ascending to the rank of great artists.
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Go here for Arthur Miller, Part Two.