Playwright made famous by his 'Death of a Salesman' and marriage to Marilyn Monroe
Saturday 12 February 2005
Arthur Aster Miller, playwright: born New York 17 October 1915; married 1940 Mary Slattery (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1956), 1956 Marilyn Monroe (died 1962; marriage dissolved 1961), 1962 Inge Morath (died 2002; one daughter); died Roxbury, Connecticut 10 February 2005.
The pre-eminent American dramatist of the second half of the 20th century, Arthur Miller was also a representative man of his generation, who interpreted his native culture to audiences at home and abroad. Timebends (1987), his autobiography, is a compelling history of American society and politics in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. But even to the many who could never manage to attend a live dramatic performance, or wouldn't dream of doing so, Miller was familiar as the "intellectual" who in the same year married Marilyn Monroe and refused to "name names" to the House Committee on un-American Activities (HUAC).
Both the man and his work were as popular outside the United States as within it, if not more so. In 1983 that apparent tragedy of mercantile failure, Death of a Salesman, played to rapturous houses in Beijing, the heart of the largest state-controlled economy in the world. For the last three decades of his life, British producers, audiences and critics had been so much more alive than Broadway to his work that Miller devoted increasing time and attention to his work in this country. Yet his best-loved plays were as deeply rooted in his native context as he was.
Americans of Miller's generation were scarred by the Great Depression, which deepened just as they were leaving high school to look for a non-existent job, or a place in college that vanished family savings could no longer finance. The Depression stalks Timebends, and is confronted again and again in the plays: directly in After the Fall (1964), The Price (1968) and The American Clock (1980); indirectly in All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949) and A Memory of Two Mondays (1955).
With the ruin of his father, a prosperous manufacturer of women's coats employing nearly a thousand workers, Arthur Miller's older brother Kermit dropped out of New York University to help recoup the family's fortunes, while Arthur worked for two years in an auto-parts warehouse to save money to go to university, an experience later transformed into A Memory of Two Mondays.
The motif of two brothers, of whom one is obedient to family needs and the immediate demands of society, and the other is rebellious, adventurous, "lighting out" to freedom and eventual success, is not uncommon in American literature; it occurs in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, for example, where the scapegrace Tom is set against his prissy brother Sid. But clearly Arthur Miller found support for the idea in his own family history too. Certainly the pattern recurs in his plays. The Price, his most direct dramatic rendering of the family catastrophe, explores the complex inter-play of guilt, obligation and responsibility between Victor, the humble policeman who stays at home to help his ageing father, and Walter, who leaves for medical school and becomes a wealthy surgeon.
But other plays treat the theme with varying degrees of obliquity. The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972) culminates in the conflict between Cain and Abel. In All My Sons Joe Keller's guilt at having manufactured faulty aircraft parts is uncovered when one of his sons decides to marry the fiancée of the other, killed when his fighter crashes in the war. Of the two Loman boys in Death of a Salesman (1949), Happy has stayed behind to retrace his father's steps in business, while Biff has gone west to work on a ranch, only to return to confront Willy Loman's failure. Willy himself has been infected with the glamorous memory of his brother Ben, who boasts, "When I walked into the jungle, I was 17. When I walked out I was 21. And by God, I was rich!"
Miller's dramaturgical innovations were limited, for the most part, to physical stagecraft. Death of a Salesman employs a permeable set that allows characters like Ben to walk in out of the past, and makes possible the rapid fades in Willy's memory to happy scenes with his boys. In After the Fall the past traps and accuses the Protagonist, rather than setting him free in reverie, but the staging principle was similar: an abstract set with hidden entrance holes (or, in the 1990 National Theatre production, a spiral ramp) allowing actors to assume positions in the dark before being picked out in light as they come to mind.
The Ride Down Mount Morgan (1991) does with space what Death of a Salesman does with time. When the bigamist Lyman Felt comes to in hospital after a near-fatal car accident, he finds that both his wives have been notified of the emergency and, for the first time, of each other. Trapped, raging, anxious, cringing, loving talking to himself as much as to others he needs a mise-en-scène that will allow him the freedom to escape his cast and bed at will and eavesdrop invisibly on his wives and daughter.
Beyond that, Miller's drama could not be called experimental. If his plays sound and feel different from those of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, that is because he followed another line of American expressionism running through Elmer Rice and Clifford Odets. Whereas in O'Neill and Williams The Emperor Jones and Suddenly Last Summer are good examples heightened language and melodramatic events are polarised symbolically by the authors' ideologies, Rice's The Adding Machine starts with an ordinary situation, the boredom and frustration of an office worker, and allows the fantasy to emerge, convincingly, from the character's imagination. Vernacular dialogue continues across the gap between interior and exterior event, the two arenas being rendered as near simultaneously as possible on the stage.
This is just what Miller accomplished so movingly in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, which start out in apparent American normality, then gradually subvert it. The happier moments in both plays Willy larking with his boys as they wash the car; good neighbours chatting in the Kellers' back yard on a summer afternoon might have been animated Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell. But the assumption on which Rockwell's scenes were produced and received, that if everything is alright with the family it will be alright with the world, were undermined in Miller. Boys grow up, and begin to look at their father more critically. To protect the family unit, provide for its future, may mean to forestall bankruptcy by letting go a shipment of cracked engine blocks that will kill a lot of other father's sons in turn.
But to prepare for the shock, you have first to establish the normality. Miller's greatest gift was his sharp ear for the dislocations of ordinary American speech. For Miller, the confidence that he could write a play usually started not with a sense of its over-arching plot or the ideas it would illustrate, but with hearing how its characters would speak. If he couldn't hear it, he went in search of it, as when he went to Salem to study the records of the witch trials, with the result that his Puritans in The Crucible (1953), unlike Hawthorne's in The Scarlet Letter, sound like the real thing. Even after rehearsals had started, he was not happy with a play until (as he put it in Timebends) "we had found its voice".
So Maggie's instability in After the Fall is first signalled by comic non sequiturs (and a misplaced "whereas" a running gag in her dialogue) such as Marilyn Monroe might have used, if not in real life then in movies like Some Like it Hot. After someone has left her with an unwanted dog, she comments, "Well, he probably figured I would like a dog. Whereas I would if I had a way to keep it, but I don't even have a refrigerator."
Willy Loman's contradictory message to his boys comes out in this exchange with his wife:
WILLY: The trouble is, he's lazy, goddammit!
LINDA: Willy, please!
WILLY: Biff is a lazy bum!
LINDA: They're sleeping. Get something to eat. Go on down.
WILLY: Why did he come home? I would like to know what brought him home.
LINDA: I don't know. I think he's still lost, Willy. I think he's very lost.
WILLY: Biff Loman lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There's one thing about Biff he's not lazy.
Willy moves to the contrary opinion via a shift in register from his common speech to the borrowed lingo of American boosterism. It is a perfect paradigm of the play's action and Miller's method. The meaning grows out of the dialogue.
In his introduction to the first volume of his Collected Plays (1957), Miller told a self-depreciating joke about the reception of Death of a Salesman: "Probably the most succinct reaction to the play was voiced by a man who, on leaving the theatre, said, 'I always said that New England territory was no damned good.' "
In fact the response to Death of a Salesman was overwhelming, and it made Miller famous. Audiences were stunned; some people wept and forgot to applaud. Brooks Atkinson, the doyen of Broadway critics, judged it as "a superb drama" in the New York Times. "I cannnot urge it upon you too strongly," said John Chapman in the New York Daily News. Ward Morehouse in the New York Sun called it "a triumph in writing, in acting and in stagecraft". It won the New York Drama Critics Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
The effect was felt in Miller's personal life too. His first marriage, to Mary Slattery, began to break up. "The aphrodisiac of celebrity," as he was to put it quaintly, but honestly, "came and sat between us in the car." He went to Hollywood to make a film about crooked labour leaders on the New York waterfront, only to walk out on the project when the FBI and the unions wanted to change the villains to Communists.
In 1956 he married Marilyn Monroe. Miller was never easy with Hollywood the place or its procedures. Partly this was his easterner's shock at its bizarre confusion of cultural codes. Partly it was the New York dramatist's sense of competitiveness, the attitude that prompted theatrical people to say that Odets had "sold out" when he went west to write dialogue for the movies.
And the experience of making The Misfits (finally released in 1961) with his marriage to Monroe already foundering, was far from happy. Here he discovered that it was not just politicians and pressure groups who could interfere with the author's text, but actors and producers as well. But he also learned that film-makers had a craft of their own, very different from his. "I asked Gable if he had shown sufficient expression in the final shot," Miller remembered. "He was surprised. 'You have to watch the eyes. Movie acting is all up here' he drew a rectangle around his eyes with his finger. 'You can't overdo it because it's being magnified hundreds of times on the theatre screen.' "
In America, movies reach people in their millions, while stage plays can count on audiences of thousands at most, and those mainly around metropolitan New York. That is why the unions and the FBI began to interfere with Miller's work only when he began to write for Hollywood. That's also why the HUAC took such an interest in him only after his literary fame had been established and he had begun to court Monroe. The committee thrived on publicity. According to Miller, the chairman of the HUAC was prepared to cancel the hearing provided he could be photographed shaking hands with Monroe.
Miller's attempts to represent his relationship with Monroe prompted some of his best and worst writing. Timebends is exciting about the power of their early love, honest and harrowing about their break-up, but it keeps coming adrift in phrases like, "I knew I must flee or walk into a doom beyond all knowing." The same is true of After the Fall, where Maggie's mercurial temperament comes alive only to be smothered by Quentin's commentary, which begins in encounter-group, confessional mode and ends in portentous sermon-like rhetoric.
Not long before After the Fall opened at (and opened) Lincoln Center in New York in January 1964, Marilyn Monroe died, probably by suicide, on the other side of the United States. The critics took the play seriously, but complained of bad taste, as though Miller had planned it as her epitaph and his own exoneration. From then until the late 1990s his reception in New York could be described, at best, as "mixed". One reviewer thought Incident at Vichy (1964) lacked "dramatic flair". Time called The Price a "museum piece". The New York Daily News said The Creation of the World was "devoid of wonder, mystery or even the satisfying caress of fancy".
Instead of languishing, Miller reinvented himself, in his life as in his writing. He was married again, very happily, to the Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath, and after her death in 2002 began a new relationship the painter Agnes Barley, 55 years his junior. "I like the company of women," he said. "Life is very boring without them. Women are livelier than men and more interested in people. Men get abstract with their ideas."
He was made President of PEN International. He travelled to Eastern Europe for PEN, to China for the production of Death of a Salesman, to Russia, where he met Mikhail Gorbachev. The Archbishop's Ceiling, based on meetings with Vaclav Havel, Pavel Kohout and others in Prague, was a serious inquiry into the ethics of using other peoples' political predicaments as a basis for one's own imaginative constructs, and also (since the dissident writers on stage talk in a large room that may be bugged), a subtle study of how public speech gestures can infiltrate the most private conversations. The American Clock was a brilliant, free-form mosaic of the Depression. Two one-act plays, Elegy for a Lady and Some Kind of Love Story (1982), continued Miller's inquiry, begun in The Archbishop's Ceiling, into the reality of personal identity.
So the older Miller grew, the more inventive his plays became. For this, as for the revival of interest in his work, Britain can take some of the credit. Miller came to prefer working in and for the British theatrical environment. He liked British critics: there were so many of them, all proclaiming their prejudices, whereas in New York a few powerful pundits pretended to be upholding universal values.
British audiences were more plentiful and socially varied than New York's. The seats were cheaper; so were production costs. The American Clock at the National Theatre had a live jazz band and a real crowd onstage ("already half a million dollars in costs on Broadway," as he commented ruefully). The Archbishop's Ceiling failed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but succeeded in the Bristol Old Vic and the RSC production at the Barbican.
With his characteristic generosity, and liveliness of curiosity, Miller repaid the favour to his British supporters, taking to crossing the Atlantic to help with productions of his plays. Perhaps his happiest collaborations, after the good old days with Elia Kazan, were with David Thacker (a gripping revival of The Price at the Young Vic in 1990; the British premiere of Broken Glass in the National Theatre in 1994) and Michael Blakemore, who produced the first-ever premiere of a Miller play in London, The Ride Down Mount Morgan (Wyndham's Theatre, 1991). Miller also lent his name, and gave money, to establish the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia. On his trips to Britain he often took the time to help with productions, visit schools, and generally to make his gracious candour available to an admiring public.
Then, after long languishing, Miller's popularity began to revive in the States. Morgan opened in a New England drama festival in 1994, then moved to Broadway for limited sold-out run at the Public Theatre in 1998. In the last seasons of the century Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge and The Price were all put on again, winning Tony awards for best revivals and best actors. Maybe the attention given his work in London had begun to prompt a critical revaluation at home, but the revivals of both work and reputation must have had something to do with the opening so late in his life of an ambitious new play on Broadway in the spring of 1994.
Broken Glass was Miller's first-ever treatment on stage of an explicitly Jewish theme, although his early novel Focus (1945) had powerfully evoked the sense of what it felt like to be the target of a frenzied wave of anti-Semitism. It is 1938. Sylvia Gellburg has suddenly become paralysed from the waist down. Expert opinion, such as it is, takes the illness to be hysterical. She sees pictures in the papers, of old men who look like her grandfather being made to scrub the Kurfürstendamm with toothbrushes. She reads about the broken glass of Jewish shops all over the German streets.
Her husband Phillip begs her not to "get involved" with all that; after all, it's happening 3,000 miles away. He is a property appraiser, buttoned up in a black suit, proud to be the only Jew in an old, established Wasp firm. His name is "Gellburg", not "Goldberg", as he proclaims early in the play from the Finnish. As his wife's emotional condition worsens and the plight of the German Jews becomes less and less ignorable, so also are Phillip's illusions about his job and his marriage stripped away, layer by layer. If elsewhere in Miller's drama the public theme grows out of the private, here the outside world pierces the inside from the start, like a piece of broken glass. The Kristallnacht is also the glass broken at the moment of a Jewish wedding. As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review, the play has "a poignance so rare these days that it's almost new-fashioned".
In 1998 Miller's Mr Peters' Connections opened on Broadway and in 2000 in London at the Almeida, produced by Michael Blakemore. The play is retrospective in structure, almost as though written as an afterthought. Much less ambitious than Broken Glass, it consists of just one long scene, during which a retired Pan-Am pilot searches for "the subject" in a series of dialogues going on in his head with various characters some alive and actual, others long dead, one existing only as a projection of Peters's prejudices. Perhaps the kindest description of the piece would be relaxed and loose-jointed. It is certainly funny in parts.
In 2002 his Resurrection Blues, a satire on how the media would cope with the Second Coming of Christ, opened in Minneapolis; critics called it "bitter" but audiences liked it. Last year came Finishing the Picture, clearly based on his experiences on the set of The Misfits, and with echoes of After the Fall. Kitty, the mentally unstable star of a film five weeks behind schedule, and married to a screenwriter, has "ghosts sitting on her chest", says one character. "Ghosts of things she's done." Miller had started it 20 years before and "then I stopped in despair". It wasn't until after Morath's death that he returned to the play.
Arthur Miller dramatised the American century. He was a big man in every way: physically, personally, emotionally, intellectually in the years his life spanned and in the imaginary world he created.
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