Fifteen years ago I went to see a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at the Young Vic Theatre in London, where David Thacker was directing a number of Miller’s plays. At a time when Miller seemed to have been sidelined in his own country, his importance as a playwright of international standing was re-asserted on the English stage.
In discussion with David Thacker before the play, Miller read part of the opening scene of perhaps his most famous work, “Death of a Salesman”. In Miller’s performance the opening of his modern tragedy became a scene full of comedy and laughter. Listening, it seemed to me that Miller was a man who valued how laughter might free thought.
Miller had lived through and written from formative experiences in the “American Century”. These included the Great Depression (during which his father had lost the millions he had made out of nothing after his arrival as a penniless Polish immigrant in New York City), World War 2, the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, the specious glamour of Hollywood (which Miller encountered through his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe), and the anti-Stalinist upsurges in Eastern Europe in the century’s final quarter.
As well as writing “Salesman”, which laid bare in riveting and direct language the damage and human cost of what passed for the American Dream, Miller wrote “All My Sons” which exposed the profiteering behind the so-called “Good War”, and a fierce and humane riposte to a nation’s anti-Communist hysteria in “The Crucible”.
The last of this great quartet of mid-century works was “A View from the Bridge”, which was set among immigrant dockers and looked at love, trust, betrayal and what it costs to try to belong anywhere.
Beside many plays, Miller also wrote a novel, screenplays (including “The Misfits”), essays and an autobiography, “Timebends”.
His experimentally-structured late play “Broken Glass” examined the onset of Nazi genocide, and was produced while “ethnic cleansing” was again taking place in Europe.
For Miller the theatre was always a political place and a way to engage with the present, however obliquely he might appear to be approaching the society of his day. He said once that he believed a play could change America.
“I can’t imagine writing a play just to tell a story,” quotes the programme I bought that evening in 1990. “My effort is to find the chain of moral being moving in a hidden way…” And the links of that chain are causality, obligation and responsibility.
Miller was a tall man with a voice which seemed to me to be the sound of New York. His gaze was level and frank and he weighed each word. He took you seriously. He had, after all, faced up to the HUAC in 1956, named no names, and been convicted of contempt of Congress, though he wasn’t given a jail term (perhaps partly as a result of Monroe’s statement in his support). His conviction was subsequently reversed by the Supreme Court.
Miller stares out directly and soberly from the cover of the programme I bought that night, looking reality square. He wears a denim shirt, the American working shirt, and he had a right to wear it for he worked all his life with his hands.
Before he sat down to write in a single 18-hour stint the first act of “Salesman”, he built the studio where he would write. All his life he crafted wood, making chairs and tables, even a bed, from chosen timber.
Part of what seems to me to make his best plays so powerful is the degree to which they are so carefully crafted to work, from the choice of a particular word through the shaping of sentence and scene to the structuring of the whole. Each act of “The Crucible”, for example, ends on a kind of upward note of dread, the narrative drive intensified and impelled by the way speeches are constantly interrupted, broken off before complete, such is the urgency and growing anxiety across the sweep of the play.
Miller had a gift for compression, and for finding the energising metaphor which would give long resonance to the play as a whole.
The Salem witch-trials served him as a means to explore the USA’s 1950s anti-Communist hysteria from the inside, but the play also worked in China after the Cultural Revolution, and in Poland under Jaruzelski.
When I have taught it in school the play has always grabbed students, even students considered by some to be “incapable” of engaging with it.
The fine film version which Miller scripted in the 1990s helped prove such elitist attitudes false.
Miller changed the end of the film version from what he’d written for the stage. We see the three condemned by the Puritan court mount the scaffold. One starts to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the others join in, praying together until one by one they are shoved to their deaths.
The las,t strong voice, John Proctor’s, is cut off just ahead of the “Amen”, and sometimes students have been so drawn in by the torments and moral questionings of the protagonists, and of Proctor in particular, that it has not been unusual for some of them to say “Amen” out loud at this moment as if in solidarity.
Miller’s best plays challenge their audiences to examine what we live for, what our values might be, and how far we can uphold them in the face of various tyrannies: a heartless economic system thirsting for profit, religious fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, the social determinants of class and ethnicity.
Miller said once that all writers wanted “to leave a thumbprint on the world”.
He had works banned three times in the USSR during what he termed that country’s occasional “anti-Semitic convulsions”.
Although influenced by and interested in varieties of Marxism, he kept his distance from them.
It may be the case that he never wrote parts for women as deep and alive as those he wrote for men, and that he could lapse into the oracular or melodramatic. But in the breadth of his sympathy for the ordinary citizen and for the poor, in the critical and independent cast of his mind, and in his integrity as a person and an artist as well as for his life’s work as a writer, Miller seems to me someone to whose voice we should continue to attend.