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The Playwright as Public Monument and World Citizen

Theatre Writer Book

Christopher Bigsby , , May 18, 2011
Theatre Writer Book by Christopher Bigsby At the opening of Christopher Bigsby’s second volume of biography of Arthur Miller the playwright is forty-six. Twenty years of drama are behind him. Two motifs run through the book. The first is the playwright as public monument. Carlos Fuentes even remarks that in profile Miller resembles one of the monumental carvings on Mount Rushmore. The place for the remark is the Arc de Triomphe, the month May 1991, the event the inauguration of President Mitterand. Miller is with William Styron and Elie Wiesel. Pablo Neruda and Hortensia Allende are not far off.

Over four decades this is a chronicle of the writer who is everywhere. He is invited to the White House to witness the signing into law of a piece of arts legislation. At the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention he is there, speaking against Vietnam. He is in Chicago’s Hilton Hotel after it has been smashed and invaded, the guests attacked by the city’s police gone wild. Terry Southern, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg are all present, even Jean Genet.

Not the least of the pleasures of this elegantly written biography is the journey through four decades of cultural and political history. His wife, Inge Morath, takes him to visit the concentration camp at Mauthausen. He attends the trial of twenty-two former Auschwitz guards and administrators in Frankfurt. In a Moscow hotel room he and a guest communicate via written pieces of paper. A meeting in Prague 1969 with president-to-be Havel is carried out under surveillance. In Turkey he and Harold Pinter meet a score of persecuted artists and outrage diplomatic niceties. There are testimonies before Congress, alongside Susan Sontag and John Irving.

This trajectory of the writer to fame is reminiscent of the lives of other writers. In the second part of Anthony Burgess’ autobiography he has foregone the times of struggle, financial, emotional, artistic. Travel, conferences, collective letters of protest make for an easier narrative than the solitary interior life of sitting at a desk. “In retrospect” Bigsby writes, “what is surprising is the sheer time and energy Miller devoted to the public world.” The private papers are filled with drafts and polemics on current issues; the engagement is constant.

The second motif is the critical ire, centred in Miller’s native USA. Theatre, and new work, is ever-present even if intermittent. The plays of the second half of his life are subject to withering blasts of criticism. In 2003 the Mayor of Jerusalem makes a public speech declaring that Miller reached his artistic peak fifty years before. At the first night of “After the Fall” James Baldwin walks out. Noel Coward calls him “adolescent and sodden with self-pity.” Susan Sontag attacks the conflation of marital stress with public persecution. “Intellectual weak-mindedness… belaboured” she complains, “trite…wretched.”

Time Magazine calls “The Price” “a museum piece…slack, jangled and flat.” The playwright himself, in a later article, is declared “obsolete.” Martin Gottfried agrees. “The playwright has had his day.” On “Clara” and “I Can’t Remember Anything”, the pair of one-acters that constitute 1987’s “Danger: Memory”, Frank Rich writes they are “gray”, the writing “studied and ponderous.”

If one aspect of Miller’s theatre experience dominates, it is the split between his European and American reception. “Broken Glass” (1994) is critically savaged when it plays in New York- “the world’s most over-rated playwright”. In Britain it becomes “one of the great creations of the American theatre.” With its theme of paralysis “the idea of being paralysed in the face of overwhelming forces we do not understand is the mark of our time.”

Andre Breton wrote about the value in art in capturing “reflections of the future.” If the mark of the great writer is to grasp the subterranean currents that most of us miss, then “the Last Yankee” (1991) has much that is haunting. Businessman Frick is discomforted by artisan Leroy. Leroy is a carpenter. Twenty years on a best-selling book in the US urges the acquisition of craft skills that cannot be deleted at a stroke like white-collar activities.

At the premiere of “the Last Yankee”, characteristically in London, a fifth character lies inert. She is a third depression victim in the play. Presciently, the World Health Organisation is now predicting depression to become the world’s most prevalent illness by the end of the decade. This character, Bigsby reports, was struck out when the play was performed in America.

The book is filled with sharp vignettes. Mario Vargas Llosa writes sagely about the use of language on his entry into the politics of Peru. President Nixon is there calling students “bums.” Bigsby himself takes Miller to see Mamet’s “Glen Garry Glen Ross.” The master playwright’s response? “He’s got a lot to learn” he said “throwing the programme in the trashcan.”

Accompanying photographs show Miller alongside Mandelstam and Brodsky,
Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. The last comparison is illuminating. Miller’s dramas are filled with policemen and judges. The plays resonate with the claim for justice. Private acts necessarily spill over into the area of public discourse. In a speech at Yale in 1998 Miller says “ultimately everything is political. Everything ends up being part of the way we govern ourselves”

Bigsby sees across the work one animating idea, “the necessity to create the values by which one lives and to take responsibility for them.” In an age where confession is held in high regard, it is a corrective authorial voice that says, as in “Incident at Vichy”, “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.” As Sheikhs and Presidents aim machine guns and artillery on their citizens, Manama, Misrata and Dera’a today, Minsk or Riyadh tomorrow, it is bracing to hear a character from “the Price” speak “And it finally makes you stupid; power can do that. You get to think because you can frighten people they love you. Even that you love them.”

Orhan Pamuk was host to Miller on his visit to Turkey in March 1985. In his collection “Other Colours” Pamuk writes of America and the West that “writers like Harold Pinter and Arthur Miler are its pride.” The playwright who conceives of performance as a fierce moral cockpit; we could do with more of his kind.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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