The well-made playwright

`I feel like I've come out of the shades and observed the future.' Clare Bayley meets Arthur Miller, the dramatist America loves to hate
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The Independent Culture
Outside Arthur Miller's white wooden Connecticut homestead, a large dog barks fiercely. It is old and has no bite, only a floppy, thumping tail to escort visitors to the door of the Great Man. The dog has grown old with its master (Miller turned 80 this year), and you can't help wondering whether the passing of the years has brought fresh insights, or merely blunted the playwright's intellectual teeth.

Through the glass panes of the back door, Miller can be seen sitting at his kitchen table, looking through some papers. It's hard to believe his age, either by his appearance, which is still lean, fit and attractive, or by his manner which, I am to discover, is acute and responsive. Miller has been living in this 18th-century farmhouse for 30-odd years now. Large picture windows look out over rolling, woody Connecticut, while inside is the comfortable accumulation of all that time: books, papers, paintings, the dining-room table he made himself from a cherry tree, a coffee table, lamps and a couple of straight-backed chairs, all of his own idiosyncratic design. Seeing this, it's hard to imagine how he would ever have been happy in the celebrity dream home that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for him and his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, but which was never built.

This is the home he has built with his third wife, the Magnum photographer Inge Morath. Now a vigorous, grey-haired septuagenarian, she is the woman who once saved a man from drowning by swimming a mile out to his capsized boat and towing him to shore by her bra-strap. Like Miller, she still works; she has a photographic studio in a converted cowshed adjacent to the dramatist's woodworking workshop, which in turn is next to their daughter's painting studio. Out at the back is another barn full of family castoffs - a rowing boat hangs on one wall, a doll's house is perched amid piles of heavy wooden furniture, an old pick-up is parked in the middle of it all covered in squirrel droppings. Having arrived here expecting to find an icon for a generation, it's a surprise to discover a contented grandfather.

Forty years ago, Arthur Miller was wandering the streets of Brooklyn searching for inspiration when his attention was caught by the graffiti "Dove Pete Panto?" ("Where is Pete Panto?"), a chilling memorial to the young longshoreman who attempted to lead a revolt against the Mafiosi running of the International Longshoremen's Association, and ended up in a cement block at the bottom of the Hudson River. The playwright's investigation of New York's waterfront culture led him to write A View from the Bridge in 1955. When David Thacker's latest production of that play opens in London tonight it will be seen almost as a historical drama, though it was written as contemporary realism. "Today's audience were not even born when it was written," muses Miller. "Of course I remember writing it but it's a strange thing that over time the thing becomes rather mythic. I feel like I've come out of the shades and observed the future," he laughs.

Miller's life almost spans the century, encompassing the Depression, the rise of Hitler, McCarthyism, Vietnam, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the age of mass media. It gives him an authentic sense of overview. Broken Glass, written last year and now in its sixth week in London, is set at the time of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Like his 1953 classic, The Crucible (currently being made into a film by Nicholas Hytner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis), Broken Glass draws contemporary lessons from historical events. "If you pick a contemporary dilemma it lacks an aesthetic distance, it engages your emotions on a journalistic level," Miller explains, "whereas sifting it through time one can find points of consistency, the feeling of a pattern that makes some kind of sense."

Making some sense of the world has been Miller's life's work. He now talks nostalgically of the 1930s as a time when it seemed possible that Marxism and art could transform society. "I used to think that wars must be declared by old men who weren't going to suffer directly. Of course, wars are started by vigorous, ambitious men with no understanding of suffering." In Timebends, Miller's magnificent, overarching autobiography, he writes that stupidity is the inability to empathise with others. "The one thing I think art really can do is to help create an empathic response," he says now. "But there is also art which can dull a person's empathic responses. I'm not easily shocked, but when I turn on the TV and every programme is about shooting people, yet there's no pain, no suffering, the people around continue their lives as if nothing had happened, that can have a dulling effect."

He talks with amused wonder about a cowboy poet he has heard about, a man who felt so badly about how he had mistreated animals and people that he turned to poetry. "How do you explain that?" Miller shrugs. "It all comes down to individuals. That's what interests me - why one individual is doing what he's doing. Generalisation is the death of art. It's in the details where God resides. If I could pray for anything, it would be to get more details."

He might also, you can't help thinking, pray for some more sympathetic supporters in his own country. His later work has been denigrated by American critics. Their classical structures and formal conservatism seem old-fashioned, their high moral tone irritates, even though at heart there is always a truly taxing moral dilemma, in an honourable tradition of liberal humanism. The attitude of the critics has perhaps hardened Miller's viewpoint. "I have gotten more and more impatient or uninterested in the making of a play into a likeness of life. I'm going toward its essence, while giving an audience a feeling of specific place, and time, and of a particular person. One way or another I try to arrive at the transcendental moment, when it seems to blaze up with extra-terrestrial life," he says, and smiles radiantly.

While he is interested in modish contemporary forms, he isn't about to jump on any bandwagons himself. "We enjoy the act of interruption nowadays. Instead of continuity, we enjoy discontinuity because it reflects the chaos around us, it seems to be more real. I don't mind that as long as it makes some kind of pattern for me that I didn't have before," he says with benign magnanimity. "But if it's just reproducing the chaos, well, I don't like that kind of naturalism."

In England his recent plays have been warmly, if not always rapturously received. The hostility of Americans seems disproportionate, as if they somehow still can't forgive him for failing to save Marilyn, or for refusing to testify to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee all those years ago. Here we take a more sanguine attitude; the very fact that he did shack up with Marilyn makes him something of a myth.

Yet he is a reluctant mentor. The authoritative, moral voice that comes through in his plays is not discernible in the person. His awareness of his own success is undercut by frequent reference to the rejection his work has suffered. And he expresses frank astonishment that after two failed marriages, he of all people should end up in a more than 30-year- old, conspicuously happy marriage. All he claims is to have made sense of his own life in his own time.

"At a certain point in your life you tend to skip over things which are pure repetition. You can carry on from there - there's a certain amount of waste motion. But that can lead to self-satisfaction and sheer laziness if you're not careful - you've seen old people being grouchy and complaining. You've gotta recall your own bewilderment and suffering, and restore your humility a little bit in a situation like that, otherwise you can become quite inured."

For Miller perhaps one of the ways of maintaining that humility is through his work. Having happily completed the screenplay for The Crucible, he is now struggling with a new stage play. This work goes on in private, in another converted shed in the garden, but which is isolated, away from the house and the family studios, and not open to visitors. At this stage, he can't say what the new play's about, except that it spans 60 years, and a frown darkens his brow when he talks about it. "The thing that takes for ever is getting that story straight. Shakespeare was lifting all those wonderful stories - by hell, you can write two plays a year if you've got the story. Right now it's like that block of apple tree in my woodwork studio. I don't know what it's going to be, I've no idea. But when I do know, I have the technique to deal with it."

Inge Morath appears at the kitchen door, asking if she can make cooking noises. "You can dance and sing if you want to," replies her husband breezily, and clearly it is time to leave. The pair of them see me off, through the kitchen where Inge is chopping up raw fish for a dinner party, past the kitchen table where letters from innumerable PhD students and aspiring playwrights await a response from the great man. That new play will have to wait another day.

n `A View from the Bridge' opens at the Strand Theatre tonight. Box-office: 0171 930 8800