Arthur Miller, essayist

After the first performance of The Crucible on January 22, 1953, Arthur Miller stood at the back of Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre as friends whom he had “known for years” refused to say hello to him. In watching the play they had been “called upon to believe something which the reigning powers at the time told them they were not to believe”, and they were in dread, Miller recalls, of being “identified with me”. The play had been conceived partly in response to the “paralyzing” phenomenon of “fascistic” McCarthyism, a subject on which Miller is a powerful commentator.

“The Crucible in History”, written in 1999, is among the best essays in this prodigious collection, edited by Matthew Roudané and published to mark Miller’s centenary year. The Crucible was about “the power of the inflamed human imagination, the poetry of suggestion, and finally the tragedy of heroic resistance to a society possessed to the point of ruin”. Having vacillated for many years about whether or not The Crucible was really “about” McCarthyism (often suggesting that this interpretation was merely a distraction), Miller uses the essay to set the play firmly in its context. He recalls writing the play in an impulse to respond to a “climate of fear”, a climate in which “it had come rather quickly to be believed that a massive, profoundly organized conspiracy was in place and being carried forward mainly by a concealed phalanx of intellectuals, including labor people, teachers, professionals of all sorts, sworn to undermine the American government”. He discusses the parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the “ideological war” of 1950s America: “in both was the menace of concealed plots, but most startling were the similarities in the rituals of defense and the investigative routines . . . in both eras . . . the charge itself, suspicion itself, all but became the evidence of disloyalty”.

Miller experienced first-hand the cruel and unusual vagaries of McCarthyist suspicion: FBI surveillance and the denial of a passport on the grounds that his “presence abroad was not in the best interests of the United States”. Before the making of the film version of Death of a Salesman, Columbia Pictures demanded that he “sign an anticommunist declaration”. It was then suggested that he substitute Communists for Brooklyn gangsters in the screenplay, and allow a short called The Life of a Salesman to be shown alongside his film, in which several professors argued that “selling was basically a joy, one of the most gratifying and useful of professions”, and implied that Willy Loman “was simply a nut”. In 1956, when he was due to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the chairman sent word that he would be inclined to cancel the hearing if Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife-to-be, “would consent to have a picture taken with him” (she refused). For refusing to name any of the “fellow travellers” he had met at “one of the two communist writers’ meetings” he had attended years previously, Miller was cited for contempt of Congress and given a year’s suspended sentence, a $500 fine and an entreaty to “write less tragically” about America. This, of course, he could not do. “The tragic process”, Miller wrote, is “as much a part of humanity as walls and food and death”, and while “no play will make it go away”, the job of the playwright is to address that process, “that the coiled thing in the public heart might die of light.”

Theatre, according to Miller, is the most “vulgar” of the arts, as well as “the simplest”; and yet it bears “an ancient burden . . . the moral illumination of society and the human condition”. Destined to struggle amid “the fog of unwelcome”, in which “the measure is either total success or total obliteration” – with no room for “the pretty good, flawed play” – theatre nevertheless has the power to “clarify the minds of thousands, still the whirling compass needle of their souls and point it once more toward the stars”. These views were originally espoused in the second edition of his Theatre Essays (1992), and are reprinted here as part of a tripartite introduction. As Roudané establishes in his own introduction to the Collected Essays, Miller cherished, above all, “the civic dimension of the theatre”. This vast assortment, spanning five decades, reflects the playwright’s lifelong conviction that “the theatre may promote social change within the polis and may promote a new found self-awareness that so often eludes his fated heroes”. From the opening essay, “Belief in America” (which explores the inherent social danger in an American soldier returning from war only to discover “a people without scars and without any commonly held understanding of why he had to go and what he accomplished by going”), to the last, “Subsidized Theater” (a reflection on the “artistically bankrupt” Broadway theatre scene), the Collected Essays is of a piece with the man Roudané calls “an engaged and engaging public intellectual”.

The essays are presented chronologically, in sections from 1944–50 to 1991–2000. The effect of this is to combine (somewhat headily) Miller’s theatre essays, his analytical musings on subjects ranging from the Nazi trials to Mark Twain’s Autobiography, his satires (notably “Get it Right: Privatize executions”) and his autobiographical reflections. The last include an eloquent response to the aftermath of a fire (“Thoughts on a Burned House”) and the riveting and hilarious “Kidnapped?”, in which he describes a meeting with the Sicilian mobster Lucky Luciano in Palermo not long after the war. The Collected Essays is, as Roudané intends, a series of “historical markers of a nation that prides itself on exceptionalism while often overlooking its tragic flaws”. It is also an extended “barbaric yawp”, sounding across the rooftops of theatre, literature, culture and politics, and embodying Miller’s own view that “a fine work is wedded to the time it takes to perform or read it”. Unfortunately, the book itself is rather unwieldy, meaning that its broadly appealing content is undermined by its lack of physical allure or accessibility – it is not an easy book to just pick up and read. It works best as a text to be dipped in and out of, as and when inclination strikes, but it looks and feels more like a lacklustre reference text for theatre scholars. This is odd, given that this is a centenary collection, and that the publishers, in describing Miller as “one of the most influential literary, cultural and intellectual voices of our time” who takes us on a “whirlwind tour of modern history”, have pitched the book at a general readership.

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