When Arthur Miller died in February 2005 at 89, The New York Times obituary wrote: “Mr. Miller grappled with the weightiest matters of social conscience in his plays and in them often reflected or reinterpreted the stormy and very public elements of his own life.”
Indeed, in many ways, the various chapters of Miller’s life and his views are well-known and available for all to see: His marriage to and divorce from Marilyn Monroe; his steadfast defiance against right-wing politicians in the McCarthy era; the thought he devoted to the ills of American society and humanity as a whole. He dealt with all this and more very publicly, in his plays, articles and interviews.
But Miller did not only write for the public. His personal archive in the University of Texas at Austin – which is only now being cataloged and slowly opened up to researchers, after a highly publicized sale in January – contains more than 170 boxes packed with hundreds of thousands of drafts, notes, letters and personal diaries that offer an alternative, more intimate look at one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights.
And even this archive does not contain everything. On Tuesday, Winner’s Auction House in Jerusalem offered another window into Miller’s ideas and areas of interest, but this time with an Israeli angle: Eight signed letters, four faxes and four printed-out emails written over the course of a decade, to his Israeli friend Meir Stieglitz. Written between 1992 and 2002, they show how sharp Miller was even in his later years, and how concerned he was with what was happening in the world in general, and in Israel in particular.
He wrote of “the horror” of the 1994 massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs; wondered, in 1996, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “extremism was for election purposes only”; and “mourned for Israel” amid the deteriorating security situation of the second intifada in 2002.
“I don’t know how to feel about the world,” he wrote his friend in April 1999. “At 83 I suppose I see it differently than I used to. Humans are perpetually seeking some ultimate formula to satisfy the need for self-regard; sometimes through art, more widely through war, exclusivity, dominance, revenge. Hairless apes. I find I can only nod feebly anymore when a new reason for murder has seized some people’s imagination. ... ‘Ah, yes here we go again’ is my basic response.”
Politics can kill
Stieglitz was living in Boston in 1987, where he was doing his postdoctorate on nuclear strategy in the modern age and game theory, under the direction of Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling. One day, not long after he’d had surgery for a leg injury that happened while he was playing basketball, Stieglitz was relaxing by the river when a man some 30 years his senior sat next to him and started chatting. “I saw very quickly that he was not a stupid man,” recalls Stieglitz. “We talked about Boston, about American history. I could tell he wasn’t local, so I asked what he was doing in town. And he told me he’d come to be interviewed on a television program. Then I asked him about what, and he told me he was Arthur Miller.”
After a while, Miller invited Stieglitz to join him for a drink at his hotel bar, where the pair continued talking. “Then he said the thing that really led to our friendship: That he’d recently returned from Russia and had met [Mikhail] Gorbachev,” says Stieglitz, adding, “I questioned him about it for half an hour.”
Stieglitz says their ongoing connection started due to his own expertise on nuclear issues and his staunch non-proliferation positions. Not surprisingly, Miller was a good conversation partner regarding geopolitical issues, and Stieglitz was able to further spread his universal doctrine through Miller’s circle. But it wasn’t until 1992, when Miller visited Israel, that their relationship grew more personal.
“When anybody who happened to pee next to him at Habima immediately wrote a three-page article about it,” says Stieglitz, “I was in the throes of an obsessive romance and it was a while before I was free to see him. I’d gone up to the Acre Festival. When I got back, there were two messages from him that he wanted to meet, and I went to pick him up. When he saw me he said, ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight and you look distracted. Is it because of a woman?’ I said yes, and he said he wanted to hear the whole story. And that’s how our relationship moved to another level.”
This greater closeness was also manifested in their correspondence. “The stuff about the woman is more fascinating than the stuff about politics, but unfortunately it is politics that can kill us en masse, while a woman can only do it one at a time,” begins a letter from Miller to Stieglitz in December 1992. “The problem with these women is that they consider themselves worthless and at the same time the center of the world with no imperative to give a damn about anyone else.”
Though Miller didn’t say so explicitly, Stieglitz is certain that by “these women,” he was referring to his second wife, Monroe, whom he divorced in 1961.
A few months later, in April 1993, Miller sounds more sanguine about romance. “So you have a lady! Good for you,” he wrote. “Ladies are much better for the health. You can always find emotions but you can’t always find order when you are desperate for it. Of course there is no solution, only mediation at best, at least for men who thirst for ultimates.”
Miller concludes the letter on an optimistic note. “Meanwhile, for all you know, the surges of feeling and the heated memories may be helping you by forcing you to willfully turn your attention to the macro problems. If I sound too positive it’s because as you get old there is less time for despair.”
Delight and disillusionment
Amid reports about his world travels, his plays, what his children are up to and how his garden is doing, Miller mainly ponders world politics with Stieglitz. He was particularly troubled by Bill Clinton’s presidency, especially in light of the war in the Balkans. “Like many others I am very disappointed with Clinton even as I recognize that he is caught between his weak constituency and the Right, which has absolutely no program but can still put on a show of patriotic strength.  The Bosnian catastrophe is probably the signifying event of the time – everyone knows it is evil and no one has the rationale to intervene in any creative way. It seems like an event without a principle – like a collision of asteroids whose broken fragments may fall on us and kill people, but what is to be done?” he wrote Stieglitz.
“Miller was in constant dialogue with the world around him,” says Miller’s biographer, Prof. Christopher Bigsby of East Anglia University, adding that social and political realities were his most burning subject – and therein lies his power and relevance as a playwright. “When he began his career, he thought that the stage was a place to have a conversation with America. In the end, he had a conversation with the world,” says Bigsby.
“What makes his plays relevant today? They would frequently address issues that were of immediate relevance at the time he wrote them: War profiteering in ‘All My Sons’; the witch hunt during the McCarthy period in ‘The Crucible,’ and again in ‘After the Fall’; illegal immigrants in ‘A View from the Bridge’; state surveillance in ‘The Archbishop’s Ceiling.’ Such issues have never gone away, but the plays were never polemical,” says Bigsby.
Miller also displays familiarity with events in Israel. In the same April 1994 letter to Stieglitz, Miller talks about the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. “I’ve thought of you often, most especially in recent weeks since the massacre. The horror is to see pictures of Jews – or people calling themselves Jews – kissing the grave of this mass killer. (I know he represents few Israelis),” he writes, referring to Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslim worshippers at the Hebron mosque. “But at the same time I can’t think of a national unit that has not cruelly destroyed ‘the other,’ the ones unlike themselves whose land they covet. We did it here to the Indians, of course, and the European states originated in the blood of the innocents. But this is 1994! In any case, not much changes in the career of humankind; the one thing you can be sure of is cyclical repetition, or at least the same kind of thing happening again and again if for different reasons in some cases,” he writes.
Miller was “delighted with the establishment of Israel and appeared on a public stage to celebrate it,” says Bigsby. However, he notes that despite being Jewish, Miller was not religious (“In fact, he was an atheist”).
“At last, he said, there was a state where not only were the bus drivers Jewish but even the prostitutes were Jewish. Much later, he became disillusioned, dismayed by the expansions of the settlements and made a point of expressing that disillusionment when he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize – saying he had witnessed the expansion of settlements initially with surprise and then with incredulity, seeing the assassination of [Yitzhak] Rabin as marking the beginning of an abandonment of Enlightenment values.”
Stieglitz says Miller “thought of Judaism as a humanist force, as a fundamental human value system. He would use Yiddish expressions I didn’t understand. He also perceived Israel’s sins in a Jewish context – Israel as the embodiment of Judaism in history – and what I saw as war crimes or wrongs of the occupation, he saw as a deep wound of Judaism. He returned from Israel very disappointed in 1992,” Stieglitz adds.
Dismissed by the critics
The passage of time is evident in the actual letters. The 1992 letters were written on a typewriter; in the late ’90s, some were sent by fax; and the last ones, from the early 2000s, were sent by email. In 1996, Miller writes about his 80th birthday, which was celebrated in many countries, and in 2002 he speaks about the death of Inge Morath, his wife of 40 years. In 1994, he writes about his daughter Rebecca – who last year released a documentary about her father, called “Arthur Miller: Writer” – working on the casting for her new film, and in 1999 he writes about his “brilliant and handsome” 9-month-old grandchild (her eldest son with actor Daniel Day-Lewis).
In the letters, Miller also occasionally comments on his attitude toward his work. In 1994, he wrote Stieglitz about his play “Broken Glass”: “After much work and agony I think it is really quite good, something I shouldn’t dare to say before the critics come in to stamp all over it. Actually, I care little about what they say; the important satisfaction for me is that I think the play is good and is beautifully performed.”
“Broken Glass” flopped on Broadway but was a hit in London a few months later. When Miller returned to the United States from the London premiere, he wrote Stieglitz again. “I am back from London now where the play is quite a success. Now it is time to be depressed, I guess, because this is how I am feeling. It’s partly that the prospect of trying to write yet another play – which is what I have been doing for half a century, or trying to do – strikes me as vanity. But I am bored unless I am involved with some piece of writing and that is what depresses me.”
“Miller had been treated with a certain disregard by many American critics for 30 years, even as he was hailed elsewhere in the world – particularly in Britain,” Bigsby points out, putting the letters in context. “He continued to debate American values in ‘The Last Yankee,’ which again had an excellent production in London’s Young Vic Theatre [in 1993]. And in ‘Mr. Peters’ Connections’ , he wrote a play about a man trying to make sense of his life and a world always changing,” the biographer adds.
“As I understood – and I’m not the best source – the cabin in the woods where he would go and write was his refuge from passing time,” says Stieglitz. “He stood tall and erect, and even though you saw right away he was not an athletic man, he had an inner stability. In a way, we’re both Stoics – this attitude of ‘Don’t whine in public’ being a crucial character trait. And for him, the place where, rather than become a stream that spills into the sewer, time becomes an opportunity to do something genuine – it was the cabin where he would write.”
“From where do you draw hope? I think I draw mine primarily from the prospect of creating something of beauty,” writes Miller in one of his letters to Stieglitz.
The letters eventually sold for $2,074, which was below the estimated sale price of $3,000 to $4,000.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now