Arthur Miller, Part Two

From 2006 notebook entries. I’ve evolved somewhat in the decade and a half since then in some areas, but I publish this mostly unedited, as I think there’s more to be gleaned from full-throated dialetic opposition to this supoosed Amerion Lion than from kowtowing, as is normally done. 

My anti-eulogy on Arthur Miller in the spring 2005 Liberty (re-published here) should not be taken as my last word on the subject. Miller is certainly no WORSE a playwright than many of America’s best, if that makes any sense. I place him in a category with a dozen or two other fine American playwrights – a category which I rank somewhat below the Greeks, Elizabethans and European modernists. What galls about Miller is that: a) he is a household name and is so widely taught, despite an output that is no more distinguished than a lot of other peoples’; and that b) his worst plays are the ones that are prized, and for all the wrong reasons (i.e., their “admirable” political leanings as opposed to his skill as an artist). As I wrote in the Liberty piece, my bugaboos are Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. All My Sons I really do admire, even if its morality is facile. It is powerfully constructed.

One of my biggest problems with Miller is that his concerns are alien to me. He doesn’t seem to understand the soul of America…the peculiar mix of egalitarianism and ambition. He doesn’t write about the Lower Depths, like a lot of great playwrights do, nor about the highly entertaining joys and sorrows of those at the top, like a lot of other great writers do. He writes about the boring squares and drudges of the middle class—people whose aches and pains seem minor and uninteresting to me. I find Next Door an unfit place for drama. I’d rather spend the while in slums or mansions. Miller seems to write about America from an alien place and with a tin ear.

His best plays are the ones no one ever talks about. In my view his most important play is Incident at Vichy (1964), which I never investigated for years (as with many of his plays) because I found the title uncompelling. He transcends his usual limitations here, avoiding his usual facile formulations of good and evil. Nazism is clearly evil…but what the individual can do in the face of such an overwhelming evil, here he wisely and intriguingly leaves an open-ended question. Uncharacteristically pessimistic? It feels like he learned a thing or two from the existentialists and absurdists. It feels like Sartre. WAY BETTER than his Death of a Salesman or The Crucible.

I also enjoyed The Price (1967) a great deal. Again, a crappy title. Again, great because it presents conflicts and questions that are not easily answered. There is more humor in the play, which is refreshing, and it has a great simplicity which again seems derived from the Europeans, or perhaps Albee. AGAIN, WAY BETTER.

I once literally rubbed elbows with Miller at a party (at the New-York Historical Society, around 2001, when I was the P.R. man there). It was a dilemma for me. Usually when I encounter someone of great stature and I have the opportunity, I’ll say hi and indicate that I admire their work. In fact, it is my enthusiasm for the work that allows me to overcome my fear of talking to them. In Miller’s case, however, I couldn’t. I really couldn’t. I felt like it would have been hypocrisy, so I didn’t talk to him. If I encountered him today—having read Incident at Vichy and The Price, I definitely would have done it. I genuinely admire those plays.

I also have affection for A View from the Bridge (1955), involving as it does for once, people at the lower end, and a good-old fashioned Italian vendetta. Someone gets shot, as I recall….far superior stagewise to characters wandering around stage talking about what happened 15 years ago.

Critical praise for the “rediscovery” of his earliest extant play The Man Who has All the Luck (1938) proves however that Miller continues to be America’s most over-rated playwright – it is Miller who has had “all the luck”. In this play, a young man is so ridiculously lucky (and this at the height of the Depression) that he feels guilty and even goes a little crazy. It’s completely false and contrived, and as always his “realistic” characters say things no human being would ever say. In this one, the young man wants to marry a girl. Her rich father objects, then is fatally run over by a car. He gets a chance to become a successful mechanic—a better mechanic comes along at the right time to help him do it. Etc etc

Miller’s guilt about doing okay during the Depression is revisited in A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), which is nothing more than a sort of patronizing reminiscence about the time when he worked in an auto parts warehouse and was able to save his money for college. The others around him “didn’t make it out”, and he gives us a sort of slice of life here, all the various characters who worked in the plant. Doesn’t add up to a play though. After the Fall (1964) literally revisits some of that guilt, and has business about his parents, as does The Price in which one brother is guilty about getting to become a doctor, leaving the other equally brilliant one to have become a cop. Miller is a condescending bastard though. If the brother who became a cop had anything in him, he would have distinguished himself by becoming some sort of investigator – you can’t tell me that someone with that much brains wouldn’t rise –or at least find his niche–in the NYPD. NOT realizing that is just the sort of worldview that characterizes many socialists. He seems to think the world owes you a break (and never ever provides one to anyone) and meanwhile YOU have nothing to do with it. If anything, the world provided Miller with too many breaks—I think he must have realized this and felt guilty about it. As a writer he was a mediocrity, and yet enjoyed a world stage for his most mundane, pedestrian thoughts. Surely, this is what gave him that ridiculous perspective…in his view, ability has nothing to do with results, because that was his personal experience. But I think he was the exception rather than the rule.

The movie The Misfits (1961) is an interesting deviation. Not only is it Miller’s one attempt to “go Hollywood” but he also seems to be exploring territory that one thinks of as being more Williams’ or Inge’s. Outdoorsy characters, AMERICAN Americans, and an emphasis on personal relationships. The characters are all sad and lonely, as in Williams, but of course Miller ties it in to the greater social context. The West has vanished, but this trio of men, each in his own way, is still trying to live as though it hasn’t and has consequently become a misfit. From hundreds of wild horses to be rounded up on a nearby mesa, there are now 6. The rest have become dog food…a far cry from the more elevated role the horse once played in our society. The girl all three of the men love (Marilyn Monroe, for whom the script was written) is also an outcast in modern society, for the opposite reason. She is sensitive…almost a sort of flower child. She hates violence, and yet it’s all around her. She hates to watch the Montgomery Clift character get thrown during the rodeo, hates to see the horses rounded up, etc. This is one of Miller’s most enjoyable scripts, but could have used cutting. It’s rather slow and plodding, and it was directed to be even more slow and plodding. Someone should remake it properly. I suppose people might think it’s heresy to remake a film containing the last roles of Monroe, Clift and Gable, yet it’s easy to see how a much better film could be made out of the script. (I had the great fortune to meet the great Eli Wallach a couple of times. He was a supporter of Theater for the New City, where I then worked. He was in his 90s when I met him).

More on After the Fall: a big tangled, self-indulgent jumble. If anything, it doesn’t trade on the story about Marilyn Monroe ENOUGH. If junk non-fiction proves anything it’s that audiences are fascinated by her life. Who gives a crap about Miller’s boring take on the subject? He probably bored her to death.

Notes on some of his later plays:

The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977)

The poor, limited bastard. So many other playwrights could have done so much more with this terrific idea for a play. It is a totalitarian country in the Soviet block, and a small group of writers have a conversation about a possible defection. All the while, they know there is a microphone planted in the ceiling. The omnipresence of the microphone, of being “watched”, has a metaphysical as well as a political dimension. It feels like “God”. However, here Miller hits the “ceiling” of the limits of his own secular humanist philosophy…it imposes a literalism on his imagination that causes everything he writes to resound with a dull thud. This play, in the hands of an absurdist, could give us nightmares. Miller’s got nothin’. FURTHERMORE, the possibilities of language, given the levels of meaning, non-meaning, false meaning, double meaning, irony, etc, called for by a situation in which every person is forced to monitor everything he says and decide whether he is to communicate honestly or for the benefit of the police—I say these possibilities (acknowledged by Miller in his own introduction) are beyond his ability as a writer. Who could tackle it? I don’t know—Tom Stoppard, maybe. The possibility here for a complex word game, a tremendous word puzzle, are tremendous. Miller can’t handle it. Also, he writes himself as a character into the drama, and it is just as embarrassing here as in After the Fall. The American character is a fifth wheel in the story. I suppose he serves a technical function, in that he can help smuggle the persecuted writer out of the country. But he doesn’t have to be there the whole time having boring conversations. Feels like completely self-serving crap.

The American Clock: A Vaudeville (1980)

Like the musical 1776, this play could be a definitive teaching tool – in this case to teach school kids the history of the Great Depression. Other than that, it’s not much of a play. In fact, one would be hard pressed to call it a play at all. Just a sweeping pageant outlining the Depression as a phenomenon, told from a variety of perspectives, one of which is quite clearly (and movingly) his own. It’s a worthy mating of author and subject. The Depression is clearly the defining event of Miller’s life. It’s repercussions on his family were traumatic for him and he sees everything through its prism, often clouding his judgment. He was one of those liberals who seemed almost gleeful at any sign of economic downturn, as a demonstration that their worst fears about the Republicans in power were correct and another Depression was around the corner. However, 26 years after the advent of Ronald Reagan (at this writing) many liberals continue to be wrong (on this point) and the only truly major economic disaster since the end of the Depression was the stagflation of the 1970s – the result of LIBERAL policies. (Note: these thoughts were written prior to the 2008 crash and the current crisis. I would naturally adjust them at this stage, though I think the pushback I expressed in 2006 is still more illuminating than the Hosannah chorus that normally greets most of Miller’s pedestrian thoughts). At any event, aside from certain approving references to Marxism, this play would be a decent teaching tool.

 

I enjoyed The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), a light comedy, of all things, a play with almost no big ambitions. It is revealing about the attitudes of the author, though—feels autobiographical. Morally relativistic, almost amoral. I think Woody Allen would be perfect for the lead in it.

The Last Yankee (1993)

I enjoyed certain superficial aspects of this play, namely the millieu…it’s about my people…the main character is a Yankee carpenter. For this reason, I’ll always have an illogical sympathy for the play…am even desirous to act in it, which is something that really can’t be said about most of his other plays (except perhaps The Crucible, despite its limitations). An interesting idea for a play. Two men have driven their wives into insane asylums. One of the men is the kind of guy who drives his wife crazy by being a “failure”; the other type has done the same by being the type who is “successful”. They visit their wives at the hospital, the former couple seem to pull together and work it out…the other doesn’t. It’s a decent idea, a decent arc, but the play feels unfinished and rushed…about a one-act’s worth of material here. His accompanying essay “About Theatre Language” impressed me more than his usual writing about the craft—he speaks with authority about Odets, Williams, Beckett, Pinter etc etc. Yet in the end it strikes me as a thinly veiled and even false declaration at the end of his life after years of criticism from some quarters that his work is stylistically on par with those other authors…that he could write that way if he wanted to, but (like Ibsen) he makes it his method to bury “style” in order to achieve a “style” of realism. I remain unconvinced. The man doesn’t have the natural chops, he has no choice in the matter, and that’s the end of it. Ironically, even as he argues for subtlety he builds this play upon a rather crude symbolism…making the hero a descendant of Alexander Hamilton and a carpenter, no less…then making his spiritual wife a Swede (can’t you be spiritual without being Swedish?)…and making the other wife’s pathetic moment of glory be a literal Fred Astaire tap dance, complete with can, top hat and tails. It all seems about worthy of a college sophomore. Also irritating is his gratuitous and even lazy insertion of racism by the play’s least sympathetic character…referring to “negroes”, though this word went out of fashion 25 years earlier. Like he felt an Arthur miller play needed some social conscience…so he tacked some on.

Broken Glass (1994)

An interesting little play—I really don’t have anything bad to say about it. It is a play of that “psychoanalysis” genre—like Equus or Three Faces of Eve, which manages to keep us in suspense along with the doctor as we try to get to the roots of the patient’s malady. Here, the patient has hysterical paralysis. The cause seems to be an obsession with the Nazis at the time of Kristalnacht (hence the title). But it proves to have sexual, personal roots. Her husband is a self-hating Jew who scares her. She is repressed, they haven’t had sex for decades. To add further interest and conflict, the doctor is a good looking stud who has had many extramarital affairs and is himself married to a shiksa. Very well designed and executed piece of work. The kind of well-thought thing he excels at, and here with plenty to intrigue and titillate us.

Mr. Peters’ Connection (1999)

A major self-indulgence, ranking with After the Fall. While Miller has always danced around expressionism, here he dives fully into it, literally transcribing a senescent dream onto the stage. What it means or why we should care is as vague as the events onstage. He is no Strindberg, though this feels like an imitation of the Dream Play. As in late Williams works like Camino Reale it feels like the artist trying on a hat he really likes but doesn’t suit him.