Swans Commentary » swans.com February 14, 2005  



Arthur Miller
One of our Greatest Political Artists


by Louis Proyect




(Swans - February 14, 2005)   Arthur Miller, one of our greatest political artists, died at the age of 89 on February 11, 2005. Although none of his other plays received the critical acclaim of "Death of a Salesman," his reputation could rest on this one work alone. Whatever his sixteen other plays, including "The Crucible" or "The Price," might have lacked in craftsmanship they more than made up for in terms of political and social insight. For Miller the ultimate goal of a work of art was to provide some kind of lesson for humanity. If some critics in this age of postmodernist irony deemed that old-fashioned, Miller was content -- as we on the left should be -- to adopt the stance embodied in Dante's: "Segui il tuo corso e lascia dir le genti." This dictum, which Marx cited in the opening pages of Capital, means "Go your own way and let people talk."

Although his father was a wealthy garment manufacturer, the Depression would reduce the family to poverty. Like fellow New Yorker and Jew Howard Zinn, Miller eventually went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a hotbed of labor radicalism. Like Zinn, Miller never joined the Communist Party but was content to speak out against injustice on his own. Zinn's medium was history and Miller's was the theater. Both knew who the enemy was and refused to be cowed into political submission, standing up to witch hunters in the 1950s and '60s. Now with efforts afoot to launch a new McCarthyism against dissidents in the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Mohammad S. Alam, the heroic example of earlier resisters should serve the movement well.

In 1949, just as the Cold War and McCarthyism were taking shape, Miller took Broadway by storm with "Death of a Salesman," a play that attacked the capitalist system without naming it as such. His Willy Loman is the tragic figure of the modern age. Unlike the Kings of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, this Loman -- a low man both figuratively and literally -- has very little to fall from his place at the beginning of the play and the rock-bottom that awaits him. His tragic flaw is not so much hubris (or pride) but in a naïve belief that anybody can make it in American society. As a salesman he is the critical link in the circulation of commodities. With nothing going for him except a smile and a willingness to put up with rejection, the salesman can climb his way to the top. Loman falls eventually because he is growing old and losing a step. In a climactic scene, when he discovers that his boss has no use for him any more, Willy cries out "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away...a man is not a piece of fruit."

Although some intellectual journals dismissed the play as Marxist propaganda at the time, there has never been another play that has so dramatically captured what it means to become economically redundant. Although Miller was obviously influenced by the Great Depression, the play resonates with the downsizing phenomenon of the more recent past. It also captures the anxieties of what it means to be an aging worker in a dog-eat-dog society in good times or lean.

On the day of Miller's death The New York Times reported:

Made to carry more of the burden of their retirement many retirees say they feel that a social compact between workers and employers - a set of expectations established over the second half of the 20th century - is being dismantled.

Not only are many discovering that they cannot afford to retire, they are also finding themselves in a labor market in which companies facing tough competition seem intent on controlling costs partly by ridding themselves of higher-earning older workers. "I spent 25 years with this company," Mr. Lemoine said. "When we were hired at Ma Bell there was this premise that the more dedication you gave the company, the more they would take care of you."

Shortly on the heels of "Death of a Salesman," Miller wrote "The Crucible," a play that was nominally about the Salem Witch Hunt but was widely understood as an attack on McCarthyism. In Miller's autobiography "Timebends: a Life" he recalled that at one performance the audience "stood up and remained silent for a couple of minutes with heads bowed" after the main character had been executed. They clearly connected this with the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg that had taken place that day on June 19, 1953.

Three years later Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) himself. Since he was a well-established playwright and since he was married to Hollywood superstar Marilyn Monroe it was expected that he would generate publicity for the red-baiters. Miller wrote in "Timebends" that they offered to cancel the hearings in exchange for Monroe being photographed shaking hands with the HUAC chair. Miller not only nixed the photo session, he refused to name names. For this act of courage and principle he was rewarded with a prison term for contempt of congress.

Besides sharing intimate relations with Marilyn Monroe, Miller and director Elia Kazan shared radical politics. By the time the witch hunt was in full swing, Kazan had recanted his former beliefs and named names to HUAC. Kazan had decided that his career was more important than anything and identified 17 CP'ers he had worked with in the theater, including Clifford Odets. All of these names were already known to the FBI and HUAC, but they were not that interested in the names themselves but in destroying the will to resist among the radical and artistic elite.

Evidently Kazan was not a man given to half-measures and took out a full-page ad in The New York Times justifying himself. From that point on he became a pariah among the Hollywood and Broadway left. At a 1999 press conference on the eve of Kazan's acceptance of a lifetime achievement Oscar, Norma Barzman said, "He ruined and destroyed their careers, their families, their lives."

Miller and Kazan had once sought to make a film called "The Hook" which was set on the Brooklyn waterfront and that had a militant trade unionist hero struggling with mobsters in the dockworkers union. When Fox Studio boss Darryl Zanuck read the script, he was taken aback. Although Hollywood was not in the business of making militant trade unionists the heroes of any film, they were that less eager to do so in 1951 during the depths of the witch hunt. He turned the script over to the FBI for review and they told him not to make the movie because it might foment unrest on the docks and hamper the war effort in Korea.

In 1954 Kazan made "On the Waterfront" which is both a reworking of the material in "The Hook" and a self-justification. Marlin Brando plays a longshoreman who "rats out" his mobster friends in the union before a congressional committee. Everybody understood that Kazan saw himself in this character. Despite the fact that this is one of the greatest movies ever made, it is troubling to think of it in this light.

Miller went on to write his own waterfront play that was in effect an answer to "On the Waterfront". "A View from the Bridge" is a play about longshoreman Eddie Carbone's incestuous desire for an orphaned niece raised as his own daughter. His actions, like Kazan's, violate the community's unspoken "code of honor."

Although Miller's creative talents began to decline in the 1960s, he never stopped being a vigorous spokesman for peace and social justice. He spoke at the first Vietnam antiwar teach-in at the University of Michigan in 1965, his alma mater. That year he also accepted the presidency of PEN International, a group that defends the rights of writers against repression. The New York Times obituary reports:

He was fond of recalling an appeal he received in 1966 to send some sort of message to Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who was about to take over the Nigerian government, to save the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who was facing execution. Mr. Miller wrote that when the general saw his name he asked "with some incredulity whether I was the writer who had been married to Marilyn Monroe and, assured that that was so, ordered Soyinka released."

"How Marilyn would have enjoyed that one!" he added. Mr. Soyinka went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

Arthur Miller was a powerful force in American theater and politics. For more than a half-century, he spoke forcefully about issues of war and peace and social injustice without worrying about how that would be accepted by the wealthy and the powerful. He would not bend to McCarthyite repression, nor would he tailor his art to conform to the more fashionable but apolitical standards dictated by the critical establishment. For the artist and the activist of the left, it would be difficult to imagine a more inspiring figure.

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Published February 14, 2005