There was a time in the American theater when ordinary people could collect quarters in a cup and, after some weeks, buy a ticket for a Broadway show. It was the decade after World War II, the cataclysm that put horror and hope on a seemingly equal footing. But American idealism had triumphed, or so it was thought, and New York was never better—especially its theater. José Quintero and Jason Robards were about to revive the reputation of our greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill. The haunting, melancholic lyricism of Tennessee Williams had seized our imaginations with “The Glass Menagerie” in 1945 and “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1948. But the social conscience of the time was challenged especially in the works of Arthur Miller, whose first hit, “All My Sons” in 1947, dealt with war profiteering. Over recent years, if you were lucky, you could have seen each of Miller’s masterpieces in New York again in splendid revivals. “A View from the Bridge,” which opened originally in 1955, was a Brooklyn version of Greek tragedy. Dealing with the clash of immigrant generations, it centered on a longshoreman’s obsession with his niece. The 1998 production by Roundabout Theatre starred Anthony LaPaglia (who won a Tony Award) leading a fine cast.
“The Crucible,” Miller’s most often produced play, opened in 1953 and stunned people preoccupied with McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) by recalling parallels with the Salem witchcraft trials of the 17th century. A more recent production in 2002, with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney playing John and Elizabeth Proctor, was even better received than the original.
But surely the most powerful of all was the landmark revival of “Death of a Salesman” in 1999, with Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz (both won Tonys) as Willy Loman and his wife Linda, roles originally created in 1949 by Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock (whose performances were then thought, with good reason, definitive). Audiences wept night after night, realizing again how ordinary people enslaved to false ideals of success can suffer, and inflict suffering, extraordinarily.
Miller was the poet of the ordinary man tested by forces beyond his control, meaning to do the right thing but often betraying his ideals. Of her husband, Willy, Linda Loman unforgettably says that he is neither successful nor a particularly fine character. “But he is a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”
Miller was still more the poet of the individual embedded in and responsible to society. Born in Manhattan in 1905 to a comfortable family whom the Crash drove to simpler quarters in Brooklyn, he came to view the Great Depression as the defining event of his time. His artistic imagination was charged when he read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with its insistent theme of universal, reciprocal responsibility.
Like Elia Kazan, he was deeply influenced by the social commitment of the Group Theater in the 1930’s. Speaking many years later of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Crucible” in the cathedrals of England and then of Poland, and of the emotional impact it had on actors and audiences alike, he said: “That made me prouder than anything I ever did in my life. The mission of the theater, after all, is to change, to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities.”
So when Arthur Miller died on Feb. 10 at his beloved farm in Roxbury, Conn. (purchased after the success of “All My Sons”), many in this nation naturally felt bereft. His playwriting had been interrupted for almost a decade after 1956. In that year he was called before the H.U.A.C. and, after refusing to inform, was held in contempt of Congress. The same year saw his celebrated, sad marriage to Marilyn Monroe—which Norman Mailer with nasty oversimplification called the union of the Great American Brain and the Great American Body. As if Miller could only think (he had actually been a fine athlete and was a great dancer) and she only tease (she had real comedic talent).
In 1961 Miller wrote the screenplay of “The Misfits” for Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Monroe, but she filed for divorce and died the next year. Miller almost immediately married the Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath and in 1964 returned to playwriting with “After the Fall,” which many, despite his fervent disclaimers, took to be a thinly veiled and objectionable self-justification of his relationship with Monroe. Soon, however, his ardent activism and social conscience regained the upper hand. His “Incident at Vichy” (1964) was fueled by the agony of the Holocaust. “The Price” (1968) was prompted by his opposition to the Vietnam War.
His later plays were typically more successful in London than in New York, though he could be as harshly critical of the West End as he was of Broadway. But he enjoyed a considerable success with the 1980 television dramatization of “Playing for Time,” Fania Fenelon’s story of musicians surviving Auschwitz. He directed a legendary production of “The Crucible” in Beijing in 1983, and in 1987 his autobiography, Timebends: A Life, was generally applauded. (“The quickest route to failure,” he noted there, “is success.”)
If Arthur Miller’s maturity and later years remain overshadowed by his early success, and if his language seems often stilted and moralistic (even Linda Loman’s great speech is somewhat awkward), the theatrical power and moral insight of his early work make him a beacon for us. By a lovely coincidence, as we mourn him, his last short story, “Beavers,” appears in February’s Harper’s. There a man decides reluctantly to kill a pair of beavers who threaten his idyllic woods and pond. But he puzzles still over the male beaver’s prodigious labor in felling trees, building a lodge and blocking the pond’s drainage.
The man “would really have been grateful had he been able to find some clean purpose to the stuffing of the overflow,” writes Miller. “And he fantasized about how much more pleasantly things would have turned out had there been not a finished pond to start with but the traditional narrow meandering brook that the beast, in its wisdom,” would dam up to make a pond. “Then, with the whole thing’s utility lending it some daylight sense, one might even have been able to look upon the inevitable devastation of the surrounding trees with a more or less tranquil soul, and somehow mourning him would have been a much more straightforward matter.... Would something at least feel finished then, completely comprehended and somehow simpler to forget?”
It is a story about the mysterious question of plan and purpose in life, nature’s and our own. Thanks to Arthur Miller, the question hits the heart harder than ever.