State of the Art

Happy birthday, Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller cast a humane if often pessimistic eye on America’s problems in half a dozen great plays.
Arthur Miller cast a humane if often pessimistic eye on America’s problems in half a dozen great plays.

If I listed the five most important American playwrights of the 20th century in chronological order, I’d have to go with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon and August Wilson.

Unlike the others, Miller and Wilson wrote more frequently about issues: class, race, the inexorable effects of the past on the present, the inevitable failure of the American Dream. And nobody did that better than Miller, who was born 100 years ago today.

“The Penguin Arthur Miller,” which collects 18 of his plays, has come out this fall to commemorate the author, who died in 2005. (He wrote 36 pieces for the stage, counting revised works, plus radio plays and screenplays.)

Lynn Nottage wrote the loving introduction. You might think her an unusual choice, because she’s the opposite of Miller in many ways: an African-American woman half his age whose works delve into fantasy or intentional exaggeration in a way he did not. Yet she recognizes a kindred spirit in the man who attempted to deal with universal social questions in the context of troubled families.

Miller has no peer at writing a certain type of character: the long-broken person (almost always a man) with a hidden weakness he conceals from others, until some sudden pressure forces him to crack wide open with disastrous consequences.

That could be Joe Keller, the munitions maker in “All My Sons” who sold defective goods to the government; John Proctor, the New Englander in “The Crucible” whose failure to admit adultery leads to danger during the Salem witch trials; or Eddie Carbone, the New York longshoreman in “A View From the Bridge” who can’t suppress or admit to illicit feelings for his niece.

It could absolutely be Willy Loman, the title character in the American drama I find most moving. Here’s a clip of Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich in Volker Schlondorff’s fine 1985 film of “Death of a Salesman:”

Miller made art from his own life, examining his problematic marriage to self-destructive Marilyn Monroe in the 1964 “After the Fall.” (Variety ran the headline “Egghead weds hourglass” when they got hitched in 1956.) He made art from the headlines, writing “The Crucible” in 1952 during the anti-Communist frenzy fueled by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Mostly, though, he made it from the raw material of his nation. During the period of prosperity that followed World War II and extended to the early 1960s, America presented a happy facade to the world. Cracks in the plaster showed up in the arts, from film noir to the rise of paranoid science fiction to the sharp angles of hard bop in jazz.

Miller provided the loudest, clearest and most articulate voice on the American stage that something was wrong. Prosperity didn’t include everyone, and making the world safe for democracy didn’t make the survivors whole. Our greatest enemies were within, from politicians who lied to us and pitted us against each other to internal demons who left us weak and willing to trade decency and self-awareness for financial security.

His most iconic work traveled to the United Kingdom, Germany, India and even China, prompting Miller to write the book “ ‘Salesman’ in Beijing.” He directed that 1983 production, keeping the original setting of 1949 in New York City, and saw that the Chinese public perfectly understood the relationship between the pushy father and unhappy elder child. “One thing about the play that is very Chinese is the way Willy tries to make his sons successful,” he wrote. “The Chinese father always wants his sons to be ‘dragons.’ 

Specific, yet universal. Timely, yet timeless. That’s true only of the greatest writers, and Miller was one.

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