Swans Commentary » swans.com February 14, 2005  



A Death In The Family
The Passing of Arthur Miller


by Charles Marowitz




(Swans - February 14, 2005)   For those of us who were brought up on the romance of the Group Theatre and a belief that a playwright had to be a socio-political animal in order for his esthetic to be entirely legitimate, the death of Arthur Miller on February 11th was like a death in the family.

Miller, although he collaborated with both Harold Clurman and Elia Kazan, was too young to have been involved in the Group-proper when the reverberations from that ensemble were rattling the 1930s America. But, for many of us, he was the playwright that was bred out of the bone of writers like Sidney Howard, Sidney Kingsley and Clifford Odets. Someone who looked the American Dream square in the face and unwaveringly drew attention to its zits and blemishes. For Miller, the drama was a scalpel which, operating deftly, could remove the tumors that threatened its moral well-being. By looking deep and hard into his own family history, he was able to fashion a work of art that crystallized the deceptions and callousness that turned Americans into bond-slaves even as it loaded them down with luxuries and comforts. The Depression was his greatest teacher and he never forgot the grim lessons it taught him. A society in which human beings were disposable was a society in which the pursuit of happiness was impossible.

"Death of a Salesman" has the distinction of being the only tragedy written by an American playwright in the 20th century. It has the durability that we associate with "Oedipus Rex," "Antigone" or "The Bacchae." It also has the distinction of being a critique of capitalism peppered with a hard, ironic humor; a combination of virtues not easy to achieve in a Broadway play.

Enthusiasm for "The Crucible" when it first appeared in the 1950s, had more to do with our support of its political stance than its reconstruction of a shameful period of American history. But through the following five decades, one came to value its language, structure and craftsmanship even more than the pins it was wearing. For newer generations who do not make the connection between 17th century Salem and the McCarthy witch hunts, it is still a powerful example of how a mirror on the past can be repositioned to reflect a contemporary evil, and one which now looms like an endemic defect in the national metabolism.

In the 1980s and '90s, Miller felt slighted by the public which had strewn laurels upon him in the late 1940s, and the later plays looked meager in comparison to the powerhouse works: "All My Sons," "Salesman," and "The Crucible." But curiously, Tennessee Williams, the other Titan of the '40s, suffered the same sort of diminishment.

Critics and spectators always expect the authors of masterpieces to keep on turning out masterpieces similar to those that first established their reputations. But if writers did that, they would be lambasted for being repetitive or self-derivative. If they branch out into unexpected areas (i.e., "A View from the Bridge," "After the Fall," "The Archbishop's Ceiling"), it's as if a long-haired beauty suddenly decides to bob her hair without bothering to consult those nearest and dearest to her. Almost everything that Tennessee Williams wrote after "A Streetcar Named Desire" had the stamp of the author's lyrical preoccupation with people who are damaged goods but still try to function with wholeness and purpose. In Miller's case, there was a diversion into nostalgia which disappointed many of his admirers who preferred him spiky rather than sentimental. Some artists peak quickly and immediately wane. Others build progressively as they mature. Still others, peak early, subside, and then remarkably resurrect in their later years as Edward Albee has done and, in my opinion, neither Miller nor Williams ever did. But rather than censure such writers for not fulfilling our expectations, we have to measure the length and breadth of the work for which we praised them in the first place. "Salesman" is a unique achievement in the annals of American drama and its formal resemblance to "After the Fall" only reaffirms the magnificence of the earlier work. "Streetcar," likewise, is imperishable and plays like "Vieux Carré," which rather than making us hang our heads, should remind us how the strands of the later work were brilliantly woven together in the former. If a writer turns out only one masterpiece in his lifetime, he's already ahead of the game.

Many playwrights profess unpopular political beliefs which liberals and lefties celebrate as "straight talk"; courageous positions fearlessly held. But Miller's cool, imperturbable attachment to humanist values put him in a class by himself. Our pride in him wasn't simply because he reaffirmed our social and political credos but that he did so with a calm but iron determination that made him, of all America's playwrights, the most Lincolnesque.

The death of such a writer, like the passing of all iconic artists, means little to nothing in terms of bereavement because the longevity of certain works of art are literally deathless. I will honor the memory of Arthur Miller by re-reading his plays and hoping for tasteful and exciting revivals of his best work. His death is as incidental as his life was ineradicable.

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Published February 14, 2005