Jewish playwright Arthur Miller dies at age 89
Arthur Miller (1915-2005), as a writer who was investigated by his own government, coined a provocative word, the state of `unfreedom'.
In his 1987 autobiography "Timebends" Arthur Miller recounts his first encounter with drama on stage. It was a short but daring play, didactic in nature and presented as a warning to young and old alike of the evils of narcotics. Miller must have been a little boy when he saw the beautiful young heroine in a white evening gown lured into the opium den of iniquity and offered a pipe by two Chinese. He later wrote: "It was all I could do not to rush up to the stage and knock the filthy thing out of her hand."
Such an experience is to be cherished by a theatergoer. When I was a theater student, when I saw them coming to take Elisabeth Proctor away in "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller - performed on the Israeli stage in 1970 - it was all I could do not to rush on stage and tell them that a terrible wrong was being done and had to be stopped.
Miller was born in New York, in 1915, to a Jewish family that manufactured women's wear. He grew up during the Depression. In 1947 he wrote the first of a long string of successes, "All My Sons," in which the maufacturer of faulty plane engines, seeking a quick profit, brings about the death of his own son.
"Death of a Salesman," the tragedy of a simple man destroyed by the failure of the American dream, made Miller world famous and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. His involvement with a theater group with Elia Kazan, who directed his first plays, led to his meeting Marilyn Monroe, for whom he divorced his first wife. The Jewish American intellectual and Hollywood's blonde sex symbol married in 1956. They divorced in 1961.
After Miller could not find a publisher for his novel, he turned "The Man Who Had All the Luck" into a play, his first on Broadway. Not content to be merely a playwright who involves people emotionally in his story - however big an achievement that may be - he aimed to change the world. That was the kind of theater a playwright should strive for. He wrote: "For a play to [change the world], it had to reach precisely those who accepted everything as it is; great drama is great questions or it is nothing but technique."
And all his plays, from "All My Sons" onward, pose great questions, and do so with an excellent command of technique, well-honed and refined, which renews itself from play to play.
Theater critic John Anderson, who invited Miller for a drink after the opening of "The Man Who Had All the Luck," told him: "You've written a tragedy, you know, but in a folk-comedy style. You ought to try to understand what you've done." And Miller did. He saw himself, rightly, as a playwright who ranked with the Greeks and Ibsen.
Great drama, however, is not only a matter of great questions and technique. It is also about finding the right way to speak to an audience that accepts everything as it is, at a particular time. It is about "an image that would spring out of the heart, all-inclusive, full of light, a sonorous instrument whose reverberations would penetrate to the center of the miasma." And this metaphor can be found in "The Crucible," about witch-hunts in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. The play was written in the 1950s, some years before Miller himself was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Following this turbulent period, in which Kazan named names to the committee, and in which Miller's marriage to Monroe fell apart, the playwright wrote "After the Fall," based on his relations with both. In 1962 Miller married for the third time. His new wife was the photographer Inge Morath, with whom he collaborated on many projects. Miller and Tennesee Williams are considered the most important American playwrights of the second half of the 20th century.
Almost all his plays were performed in Israel, beginning with "Death of a Salesman" at the Habimah theater in 1951, with Aharon Meskin in the lead. He visited Israel several times, once attending a performance of "All My Sons" (with Hana Marron in the cast) on May 17, 1977, sitting next to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, on his last day in office. Miller quotes Rabin as saying "boys are out there day and night ... and back here people are making a lot of money. So it might as well be an Israeli play."
In 2003 Miller was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. In poor health, he did not come to receive it but in a video aceptance speech, he did not veil his criticism of Israeli policy. He voiced his hope that Israel would manage to steer its boat with a measure of humanity in the turbulent days following September 11.
The Jerusalem Prize is not awarded for artistic achievement alone. It is about more than writing and creating "art." It is awarded to a writer who has excelled in championing freedom and the rights of the individual. It is also about the courage to stand up and be counted. And Arthur Miller has done this: as an unwilling witness before HUAC; as the president of the PEN international literary organization, when he was responsible for bringing the Soviet branch into the organization; and in connection with many individual and unpopular (at the time) causes.
In describing his trials and tribulations with HUAC - never forgetting that this was not his personal plight, but something shared by all America - Miller writes: "It was a voice of state power, the voice of the club, the tribe, the spirit of unfreedom whenever organized society has existed."
Interesting notion: "unfreedom." The "un" is a prefix, from the Proto-Indo-European variant of "ne" or "not." Freely and widely used since Old English times with both native and imported words and often euphemistic (as in "untruth" for "lie"), it is used as a prefix of reversal, but I did not find "unfreedom" in any dictionary. Perhaps Miller coined it, taking his cue from the title of the committee that was investigating "un-American activities."
What is "unfreedom"? It is not the antonym or opposite of "freedom." It is freedom undone, undermined. It leads one to a deeper understanding of what "freedom" is, or should be. And "unfreedom" is the state inherent in societies that have engraved the word "freedom" on the coin of the realm - of democratic societies in which the state takes it upon itself to define what freedom is and to persecute those who do not conform to that definition.
Miller took a courageous stand in upholding the spirit of freedom in the face of a society whose elected representatives chose to spread the spirit of unfreedom. And it is difficult to stand for freedom in a free country, like the United States or Israel.
But Miller was never a zealot, nor has he ever been confident that he is totally right while others are totally wrong. "I could not long commit myself to anything I did not consider somehow useful in living one's life," he writes. This ultimate humanity is why his work, so very American, is so accessible to audiences in China (where he directed successfully "Death of a Salesman" and wrote a book about this experience), Russia, South Africa and Israel, to name but a few of the countries in which his plays have been performed.
Last, but by no means least, Arthur Miller has not enjoyed the luxury of the novelist, whose art can be recognized at some future time. A playwright has to succeed in the here and now, before live audiences and also in the future, before theatergoers who were not yet born at the time his play was created: Miller was always painfully aware of this. His first plays made their mark not in the repertoire of some repertory company - a concept alien to American culture, at least at the time he started his career - but on Broadway, and they were judged not only by the merit of his art, but also by his draw at the box office, by his success in bringing in paying audiences.
He wrote of the audience he was addressing in his plays: "It was an audience impatient with long speeches, ignorant of any literary allusions whatever, as merciless to losers as the prize-fight crowd and as craven to winners, an audience that heard the word `culture' and reached for its hat."
Audiences all over the world are one of the things playwrights have not managed to change in their efforts to change the world. A man is a "machine of denial," as Miller himself wrote, and audiences are ready to deny something presented before their very eyes, even if - or maybe especially if - it corresponds to their own personal experience.
There is a monologue by Linda in "Death of a Salesman" in which she speaks of Willy Loman to their son Biff: "He's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid."
This could aptly sum up Arthur Miller's great achievement in the world and in the age in which we live: He made us sit up and pay attention.