Dimmed lights for Arthur Miller remind US of its forgotten genius

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They dimmed the lights on Broadway, and this weekend America is preparing for a season of mourning and retrospectives following the death of the American playwright Arthur Miller. Yet he, more than anyone, would have seen the irony in the grieving. He was beloved far more in Britain than he was in his own land.

They dimmed the lights on Broadway, and this weekend America is preparing for a season of mourning and retrospectives following the death of the American playwright Arthur Miller. Yet he, more than anyone, would have seen the irony in the grieving. He was beloved far more in Britain than he was in his own land.

Miller, who died aged 89 of congestive heart failure on Thursday night, was working until the end. But, aside from several writing projects on his desk, his most urgent concern was collaborating on a revival of his most famous work, Death of a Salesman, to be staged in May - not in New York, but in London.

While the classics of the Miller canon - notably Death of a Salesman and The Crucible - are still in the curricula of every schoolchild and remain favourites of dramatists across the country, in America, the playwright was considered a faded talent. Part of his fame, indeed, was almost of the 15-minutes variety, spawned by his marriage in 1956 to Marilyn Monroe, which ended after five years.

"Despite some degree of final recognition," the critic Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Post yesterday, "there was a fashionable, if unjust, general feeling that ... he achieved little of note after The Crucible four years later." Just as his later works failed to capture the imagination of his own countrymen, so did most of his personal milestones after Monroe. His third marriage was to photographer Inge Morath in 1962. They remained together until her death from cancer three years ago.

He was always a hero, however, to liberals in America, for his public excoriating of 1950s McCarthyism and the witch hunt of alleged communists. He refused to testify about friends and colleagues before the infamous Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials, was a barely disguised exposition of his disgust.

Miller made his embrace of Britain and his disenchantment with Broadway explicit in 1991 when he chose to launch his new play, The Ride Down Mount Morgan in the West End instead, starring Patrick Stewart. "There is an open terror of the critics [in New York] and of losing fortunes of money," he said at the time "I have always hated that myself. All in all, it seemed like we ought to do the play in London."

He once noted that Broadway almost killed his writing career before it had started. His first play, The Man Who Had all the Luck opened on the "Great White Way" in 1944. It closed after four performances. "Fifty years ago I quit for ever," he told CNN of that early flop. "I had a disaster with my first play. I resolved never to write another one."

He always said he was perplexed by the impact on audiences and critics of his greatest success. "I couldn't have predicted that a work like Death of a Salesman would take on the proportions it has," he said in 1988. "Originally, it was a literal play about a literal salesman, but it has become a bit of a myth, not only here but in many other parts of the world."

If Miller's history with his own land was troubled, the mood of reverence in America was palpable this weekend. "He was a planet and there aren't many of those. And his passing affects the gravity of all of our existences," said Brian Dennehy, one of several actors, including Dustin Hoffman, who had the chance to make the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman his own.

Comments