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A Portrait of Arthur Miller


[clock] 37-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2000

In the 1970’s I wrote two literary biographies, one on Katherine Mansfield, a short-story writer from New Zealand who died early at the peak of her career; the other on Wyndham Lewis, an original novelist, great painter and incurable outsider who died blind and neglected in 1957. As I began to consider a new subject, my biographer’s antennae quivered at the thought of Arthur Miller. His opposition to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950’s had earned him lasting political prestige. His plays were a staple of the American theater repertory, and he’d also written classic film-scripts of his own work. Though his normal, commonsensical, intellectual life rarely made headlines, in the late 1950’s he had been married to Marilyn Monroe, a conjunction that made heads spin at the time and now seemed the stuff of myth. I was full of respect for him, and curiosity as well.

In September 1980 I wrote to sound him out. I couldn’t help noting in my letter the similarities between his early life and mine. We both came from Jewish families, grew up in New York, had a father in the coat business, were adored by our mothers (who slept late while the maid served breakfast), were taught by Irish spinsters in public schools, rebelled against piano lessons and Hebrew school, and graduated from the University of Michigan.

Not surprisingly, Miller didn’t want to be distracted from his current work by contemplating the shape and pattern of his entire life. He did not want a sleuth to comb through his private papers for unwelcome revelations. Nor did he want to give away material and ideas he still might use in his own writing. But he replied courteously and, as I learned to expect, modestly: “I would be loath to begin a project such as you suggest for several reasons. I am really writing more now than ever in my life and I don’t want to interrupt. I’ve never kept anything like an orderly file of all my correspondence, most of which, in any case, is hardly worth reading. And finally, I guess, I don’t think I’m all that fascinating”—though he was about to write his own autobiography.

This last remark might seem disingenuous. Miller’s life, lived at the center of American cultural history, had been a starring role, not a walk-on part. But he was making a distinction between the complex external events and his straightforward inner character. As an enormously successful playwright he must have had extraordinary ambition and drive, been innovative, even rebellious. He must have made personal sacrifices and taken infinite pains. Did he, in fact, retain the human sympathy and self-respect that had sparked his imagination and informed his greatest work? Was there a modest man, an ego under control, inside his creative personality? If so, he must be quite different, I thought, from the selfish, driven, often tragic artist that lies at the heart of most literary biographies. This distinction made him all the more interesting to me.

My letter began our relationship. He asked me to send him my book on Mansfield and read it attentively. “Though I usually distrust biographies,” he wrote, “to the point of avoiding them whenever possible, yours I believe. . . . She is one of those tragic persons launched on a short trajectory, the self-consuming rocket.” He invited me to visit him in Connecticut, and in June 1981 I made the first of nine visits, extending over the next 17 years.

Arthur had bought this rustic house in 1956, a retreat from Manhattan and the theater, but close enough to New York to keep an eye on the city. Down a country lane, surrounded by 40 acres of woods and meadows, it was set on a rise above a swimming pond. He came out to meet us, six feet tall, as straight-backed as a soldier, his white hair crowning his tanned bald head and his Jeffersonian face, familiar from many press photographs. He was as unpretentious as his house, a comfortable place with oriental rugs on the floor, colorful sofas, books overflowing the bookcases and scattered around the rooms. He had a carpentry workshop and separate studios for himself and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath. As we walked through the grounds he pointed out the plants and vegetables in their garden, and moths laying eggs in the grass.

Arthur was a powerful physical presence. I was aware of his large capable hands, his denim workshirt, his shorts and muscular legs, his bare feet in moccasins. He mowed the huge lawn himself, replaced the cement on the patio and made his own furniture. He was proud of his new custom-built Finnish woodstove, made of soapstone; and had been using the left-over material to carve building blocks and had assembled them to look like miniature stage sets and a modern city filled with skyscrapers. He cut a lot of wood and for him trees had distinctive characters: he showed me his “wolf-tree,” which dominated and devoured all the other trees around it. It had seeds that flourished only if they drifted far away.

Though he tried to “hide out” in Connecticut, many people came to see him, and he had some illustrious neighbors: Alexander Calder, Richard Widmark, Dustin Hoffman, Philip Roth, and William Styron (on whose court Arthur played tennis). Norman Mailer had once lived nearby. In this quiet, seemingly remote place he seemed more a countryman than a sophisticated New Yorker.(In 1984, when Arthur was in China, a fire from a defective oil burner destroyed the main house, along with his books and personal possessions. Fortunately , his studio was unharmed and his papers were safe. His insurance was excellent and, though it took six months to restore everything, the new house was much better than the old one. He called it “one of the best fires I ever had.”)

He probably earns more money from books and plays than any other serious writer. His plays, produced all over the world, are staged more frequently than those of any other dramatist save Shakespeare.(Though his agents, he told me, were lucky to collect half of what was owed in Asia and Africa, in Europe and South America he did well. He sometimes has five plays on in England in one year.) He had a new Mercedes and a Rabbit convertible in the garage, and we talked about driving into Manhattan. He was pleased to have found a cheap place to park, but liked it even more when he was chauffeured into town for a premiere and could sleep on the way back. He had one of the new wireless phones, run off a battery, which he carried around while he did the chores, and was delighted by the convenience when it rang and actually worked.

Rich he must be, but he didn’t act rich, didn’t seem in the least acquisitive or flashy. Fame, too, had a price. Ruefully, he told me his nice-guy reputation inspired ten to 20 letters a week from strangers, asking for, even demanding, large sums of money for all lands of needs—school tuition and medical expenses. Though his face is not so famous that he stands out in the crowd, he had recently been stopped in the street in New York by a man who recognized him and insisted that Arthur help him publicize a new theory about light refraction. The light in the man’s own pale gray eyes was disquieting, and Arthur had gotten rid of him with difficulty.

The table was set for lunch out in the sunshine, and as we sat down Inge appeared, in a hurry to drive across the countryside to New Haven. She was taking a course in Chinese at Yale in preparation for their long trip—she to take photographs, he to direct Death of a Salesman in Beijing. Thin, birdlike, and dynamic, Inge welcomed us warmly, said goodbye to “Arr-toor” and departed in a cloud of energy. We had smoked salmon, a rich salad and home-made rye bread. Arthur’s Austrian mother-in-law, round, placid, and charming, had baked a superb strudel.

Sitting across the table, Arthur looked strong and handsome. He’d injured his knee in a youthful football game and been rejected by the Army in World War II. Recently, he’d fallen off a ladder and broken his ankle.(With it still in a cast he’d sailed up the Nile in Sadruddin Khan’s yacht to see the Pharaonic monuments.) Just before a trip to South America a tear in his retina almost blinded him. During a seven-hour emergency operation, performed the next day, the surgeon took the eyeball out of the socket and fastened a “buckle” around it to keep the tear from spreading. Though Arthur continued to be bothered by mist in his distant vision and had to rest his eyes in the afternoon, the operation saved his sight and gave him 20/20 vision with glasses. Apart from his ankle and his eyes, he was in remarkably good shape for a man of 66.

Tilting back his chair, pushing back his glasses and jutting out his lower jaw as he talked, Arthur was warm, friendly, even paternal. At ease with himself, if not with the world—for he could be surprisingly severe—he made me feel immediately at ease, as if I had known him forever. It was hard to imagine him ever playing the temperamental artist or pompous great man. A social being, who seemed to like visitors, he spoke genially and naturally about everything, though it was tacitly understood that I would not interrogate him. I didn’t associate such repose with writers. His plays dramatized universal themes, common to all men in all languages: unconscious fears, domestic and political conflicts. His reputation was secure, he showed no arrogance. He was actively engaged in writing and getting his new plays produced, yet he didn’t seem competitive. He talked all afternoon, listened attentively and asked me to come back on my next trip east.

II

On my second visit we exchanged life stories, as people getting to know each other do, and Arthur talked more extensively about his past and present. His father, he said, had been barely literate but prosperous, his mother a high school graduate. They had lived comfortably in Manhattan, with servants and a chauffeur. When Arthur was 14, his father lost everything in the Wall Street Crash and never recovered his business or his wealth. He moved the family to Brooklyn and, cushioned by his remaining jewels and property, drifted slowly into poverty. This was the crucial experience of Arthur’s life—the Depression, the ugly side of capitalism made manifest—which devastated the lives of his family and friends, but inspired his poignant portrayal of Willy Loman. For the rest of his life he would sympathize with those who were exploited and then found themselves used up and discarded.

Arthur married for the first time in 1940, Mary Slattery, a lapsed Catholic classmate at the University of Michigan who became a school psychologist. In 1956 they had a bitter separation, and he had not seen her for 20 years. Reflecting on the houses he had lived in (so important to a writer, whose home is his workshop), he told me that after his first success in the theater he had bought a Brooklyn Heights brownstone for $32,000 and lived there with his wife in the early 1950’s. She had recently sold it for $650,000.

He bought the present Connecticut house, his second, when he married Marilyn Monroe. I pictured him in my mind’s eye in all the photographs of the period, when the flashbulbs popped incessantly and Arthur Miller’s face appeared next to Marilyn’s in Picture Post and Photoplay. At 41, in the prime of his life and achievement, he was thinner then, tense and bespectacled. He didn’t seem to go with the fluffy, artificial, lipsticked timebomb he had married. I thought of the photos of the group on location for The Misfits in the Nevada desert—Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Monroe, all doomed to die within the year—and Arthur, watching his screenplay develop as Monroe unraveled. Sitting in the lush quiet of the garden, I said surely this place must have made Marilyn happy.”Nothing could make Marilyn happy for very long,” he flatly observed.

He spent so much on her treatment that he had to sell his literary manuscripts to the University of Texas.”Wasn’t she rich, couldn’t she pay for her own doctors?” I asked. He explained that, on the contrary, she was broke. She’d signed a seven-year contract with Fox that kept her on the same low salary after she became famous and earned them a fortune. Her photographer Milton Greene had formed a joint corporation with her, literally owning 49% of her. Arthur prevented him from getting majority control, but eventually Marilyn had to pay $100,000 to get rid of him.

From talk of Marilyn it was a short step to Norman Mailer, Arthur’s bete noire, and to all the books about her “by trashy writers who never took her seriously.” I then realized why Arthur was so sceptical about biography. He was particularly severe about his once close friend and collaborator Norman Rosten, who wrote the screenplay for A View from the Bridge, and called his book on Marilyn “superficial, vulgar and self-justificatory.” (Rosten had begun his career by winning a Yale Younger Poets prize, but never fulfilled his promise.) Mailer’s bizarre Marilyn (1975), a fantastical fiction masquerading as biography, claimed that Miller lived off her earnings, though Mailer could easily have found out the reverse was true. Mailer invented witty and satiric remarks, directed against Miller, and put them into Marilyn’s mouth. Arthur considered suing him, but finally decided that would only help promote the book. At this point he was more disgusted than angry.

Arthur also thought the theory that the Kennedys had Marilyn murdered was absurd. She was probably sexually involved with them, but they were unlikely to have told her anything incriminating. In any case, she was loyal, and they had no reason to kill her. As for Arthur’s own relationship with Marilyn, which he did not talk about, I had the feeling that his happiness must have been brief, and that he’d spent most of his time trying to help a talented, wounded woman. Abused by so many men on her way to the top, she’d had several abortions and miscarriages. When they met, she was suffering from depression and addicted to prescription drugs. The odds were against them, the decision to marry her an impulsive gamble for someone as self-controlled and self-respecting as Arthur Miller.

Inge Morath, by contrast, was and is eminently sane, strong, capable, and self-reliant. Always warm and welcoming—not the self-important dragon-guardian, like some literary wives—she is a cultured and sophisticated European intellectual, critical and alert. Her career and travels mesh with Arthur’s, and she admires his work without lionizing him.

On a later visit I mentioned that the publisher of my Hemingway biography had asked for an author’s photograph. Inge responded immediately and enthusiastically. She brought out several cameras, told Arthur to continue our conversation so we’d have more natural expressions and took several rolls of pictures.

Arthur has two children from his first marriage and one from his third. His son, Robert (born in 1947), who lived in California and worked in television, was a driving force in the recent movie of The Crucible.To raise money for this project, Arthur had sold in advance the rights to show the film on network television and HBO.Sixty directors, including Arthur Penn, had turned the film down because it had to be made in 30 days and none of them thought it could be done. Arthur’s agent, Sam Cohn of International Creative Management (ICM), reputedly the best in the business, had grave doubts they’d ever sell such a serious work in the age of “bang-bang” films. Finally, Robert asked if he could have the rights for six months. Within a few weeks he sold it to Twentieth Century-Fox and was made executive producer. John Briley, the scriptwriter of Gandhi,had done a screenplay. Arthur didn’t like it and did one himself, writing half of the 140-page script in two weeks. He also went to Los Angeles to consult about the cast and director, and had wanted Kenneth Branagh for the leading role.The Crucible was Arthur’s great money-maker. Even before the film came out, the play had sold eight million paperback copies in America and was Penguin’s best-selling book.

Arthur’s older daughter, Jane (born in 1944), was married to a sculptor and lived in New York. In the early 1990’s she and her husband built a house near Arthur’s on land he gave them. He was proud of Rebecca, his daughter with Inge, born in 1962. Beautiful and talented, educated at Choate and Yale, she learned three languages and graduated cum laude.Two of her paintings appeared on the covers of the English editions of Arthur’s Collected Plays, and she had several exhibitions in New York. She had a successful career as an actress, writer, and director, and justifying Arthur’s belief that an actor did not need formal training of the Lee Strasberg kind. In 1996 Rebecca married Daniel Day-Lewis, son of the poet C. Day-Lewis and star of the movie version of The Crucible.

III

Arthur’s life has a creative rhythm. He usually works for a few hours in the morning, then reads, does farm chores and carpentry, answers letters and (in the summer) swims in his pond in the afternoon. He used to have a secretary, but gave her up when he had to follow her schedule, not his. He switched to a computer for his autobiography, Timebends, and found it effective for revisions. He usually writes slowly, and is preoccupied with the dramatic expression of his ideas.

Over the years Arthur often talked about his plays that were being revived. The idea for an early social protest play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), came from Mary Slattery’s rich and successful cousin in Ohio who hanged himself at the age of 28. Arthur had alternate endings: in one the suicide was caused by fate, in the other by self-blame.Focus (1945), his novel about anti-Semitism, was published by an innovative firm, Reynal and Hitchcock, which folded when Hitchcock died young. Since Reynal supplied the money and they were not dependent on sales, they did as John Lehmann had done and as New Directions does today, publishing only books theyliked to read.

Arthur’s achievement came early in his life—though not quite so early as that of Fitzgerald or Hemingway—and many theater critics in the 1980’s seemed to assume that his work was somehow “over,” that there are no second acts for American writers. But the constant revivals show that his early plays still resonate, still matter. His first great success in the theater, All My Sons (1947), became popular in both Israel and Egypt after the war of 1967.Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who sat next to Arthur at the opening, told him it could have been a contemporary Israeli play. Some of his countrymen were also profiteering from arms sales while others risked their lives in the air. To the Israeli audience the play was not of mere entertainment and, as a mark of respect for the solemnity of the occasion, they did not applaud at the end.

Arthur said he wrote the famous scene in The Misfits (1961) in which Roslyn flirtatiously plays with a ball and paddle in a bar, but Marilyn did some improvising and gave it final form in the movie. He liked and admired John Huston, the director. He described him as tall, gangling, lively, macho, and adventurous, an expert with horses —an important skill in the movie—both sensitive and brutal. A good writer, with discriminating taste, he was less interested in the finer points of acting than in the composition of the scene.

The masterpiece of Arthur’s late years is undoubtedly Timebends(1987). In a letter of April 1987 he said he was surprised and pleased with its reception: “I dreaded that its serpentine form . . .would put people off, but incredibly Book-of-the-Month has taken it,” and it was translated into 15 languages. Arthur had complained to me of the lack of historical background in the American reviews. My own review did not discuss the political side of Miller’s life, but I noted the book’s dominant themes: “the origins of creativity, the dangers of fame, the temptations of the flesh, the corruption of Hollywood, the commercialization of Broadway and the betrayal of American idealism .” I explained that I was writing for William Buckley’s conservative National Review—a magazine that would normally ignore the book—and that was not the place to discuss the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950’s.

The plot of the ironically titled film Everybody Wins (1990), originally called Almost Everybody Wins, was based on his one-act play Some Kind of Love Story (1984). In a New England mill town a woman in her mid-30’s hires a private detective, an Irish ex-Chicago cop, to free a convicted murderer she knows to be innocent. The story explores the woman’s multiple personalities which, for the detective, make all reality provisional. Though Arthur originally wanted Jack Nicholson for the leading role, the movie was made with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. Though he’s been in and out of the film business for years, Arthur remains psychologically detached from it. Movie stars who accumulate $50 million, he wryly observed, “become strange.”

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991) portrayed the confrontation of a wife and mistress around the hospital bed of a man who has had a car accident on an icy road. Arthur said it concerned the point at which an unpleasant but attractive man recognizes he’s made a moral transgression. The play, like so many of his late works, is a mixture of the personal and subjective, the realistic and fantastic. He’d written more than a thousand pages of dialogue over a period of nine years before he knew where the play was going and could finish it—an interesting aside that tells us something of Miller’s capacity to follow his urge, stick with an idea, and patiently develop it. The play was performed in London and Williamstown, and by the Public Theater in New York.

Arthur gladly signed all his books for me, and four of his inscriptions were illuminating. He wrote that Situation Normal(1944), his early book of military reportage, was “the first trigger pull.” In the Country (1977), a charming book about Connecticut, with photos by Inge, he called “This by now rare book and a favorite.” He described the inspiration for Everybody Wins (1990) as “Things sometimes go whizzing off by themselves.” And he linked the two settings of The Archbishop’s Ceiling and The American Clock—an unnamed East European country (presumably Czechoslovakia) and the United States—by describing them as “two dangerously shaky, promising countries.”

When I was writing the life of Scott Fitzgerald and describing his ill-fated career in Hollywood, I discussed the art of the screenplay with Arthur. He agreed with me that Joseph Mankiewicz was a much better screenwriter than Fitzgerald and had helped him by revising the script of Erich Remarque’s novel Three Comrades.In 19811 had enthusiastically suggested that Arthur write a screenplay of Joseph Conrad’s Victory—one of my favorite books. The system, he replied, did not encourage even an established dramatist to write for the movies. A major studio might pay him to do a script, but unless he owned the rights, the director could change it at will. In today’s climate, it was highly unlikely such a film would ever be made. Arthur could also raise the money privately, but it would be risky. Investors expected to earn a 20 percent return, the cost of making a film like Victory would be too high, its audience too small. And the star would always be more important at the box office than Conrad or Miller.

IV

Arthur didn’t like teaching or lecturing, though he’d done a fair amount of both. He found Columbia students lively, those at Harvard and Yale surprisingly dull. He was pleased when a Columbia student paid him a compliment by calling him truly “plugged in.” At the Harbourfront Writers’ Conference in Toronto he addressed 4,500 people in Symphony Hall—the first writer to speak there since 1938, when Thomas Mann lectured after his arrival in North America. When I tried to lure Arthur to the University of Colorado, he recalled that he’d once attended their World Affairs conference and been given hospitality in a house where the marriage was clearly breaking up. He was unwilling to return to Boulder because being lionized was boring, and he dreaded the petty squabbles about the right to monopolize him.

While on the subject of the academy, he remarked that none of the biographical or critical books about him was any good, and that several of them were unreliable. Benjamin Nelson (1970) had mistakenly said Arthur’s mother had been a schoolteacher. James Goode (1963) had missed the real story of The Misfits.His Japanese bibliographer, Tetsumaro Hayashi (1959), had hopelessly confused him with a cinematographer of the same name and made a hash of the attributions. Arthur was especially critical of the Yale professor and New Republic drama critic, Robert Brustein. He had no sense of the theater but enormous power to condemn a play, which was an expensive investment and had to attract an increasingly cautious audience. Two critics Arthur approved of were Harold Clurman, who’d co-produced All My Sons and directed Incident at Vichy, and was for many years drama critic of the Nation; and the younger English academic Christopher Bigsby, who ran the Arthur Miller Theatre Studies Centre at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Arthur always showed a friendly interest in my books, noted the good reviews, and was generous with praise and letters of recommendation . He even wrote a rare blurb for my life of Edmund Wilson, which read in part: “I found it a fascinating exploration of a period and the man who probably personified its critical intelligence and—most of the time—its artistic conscience. Drunk or sober, in or out of love, employed or not, Wilson was engaged with his time.”

When he praised my book, I seized the opening to raise once again the subject of his biography. He had a good excuse to turn me down—his personal papers, in seven big filing cabinets that he daren’t open, were in a terrible mess. I countered, helpfully, that a good scholar or librarian could do the organizing for him, and he admitted that Texas had done an excellent job with his literary manuscripts. But this wasn’t the real reason for his reluctance. After two unhappy marriages and a barrage of unfavorable publicity about Monroe, he couldn’t face it. Nor had he made any provision for a biography in his will, which Inge would execute. He thought his remaining papers might go to the Library of Congress or to the University of Michigan, where he got his start as a playwright. Though he was at work on Timebends when we had this conversation, he still maintained that his own life was dull. The big problem, he said, was to make sense, form, and meaning of it all. Leave it to me, I said, that’s what biographers do! He agreed that his potential biography was important and that it ought to be done properly. I suggested he let me interview his family and friends (before it was too late) and get started on a first volume that would take me up to 1949. Superstitiously, he shook his head, exclaiming, “That’s death!”

V

Just as the New York theater had changed for the worse in the course of Arthur’s career, so had the climate in publishing. He had had the same agent for nearly 40 years, and in that time ICM had been sold three times. They had two rooms full of his records, so he couldn’t leave them, even if he wanted to. But he did leave his publisher. Though Arthur’s books had sold in the millions, he complained of the way Viking was treating him. The company had been bought by Penguin, an English firm owned by a German multi-national corporation. Viking was run from London, with no one at the helm in New York. They had adopted a cost-accounting mentality and projected sales were estimated by marketing men who cared only for profits. His editor, Elizabeth Sifton, now lacked the power to push his work, and in this environment the author of quality books was no longer important. The day Arthur called Viking to discuss these issues, no one answered the phone for 30 rings. Neither the operator nor the secretary recognized his name.

He was furious that Viking didn’t advertise In the Country (1977) after it received a negative review in The New York Times Book Review.At the same time that Graham Greene left Viking for Simon & Schuster and Saul Bellow left for Harper & Row, Arthur left them for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which published Chinese Encounters,with photos by Inge, in 1979. But he was lured back to Viking with volumes of his Theater Essays and a second volume of his Collected Plays.He thought Viking’s design of “Salesman” in Beijing (1984) was good, but the paper for the photographs was poor and so was the marketing. Voicing a complaint of all authors, he said the reviews were favorable, but the book was not available in the stores. He published with Aaron Asher at Grove Press between 1984 and 1990, when he again returned to Viking, which brought out his last three plays.Homely Girl (1995), his novella, had a first printing of only 6,000, but there was a surprising demand for the second printing of 25,000.It was being made into a film by a French company.

Over the years I often asked his opinion of other writers. For him, the positive and negative qualities of Wyndham Lewis’ character cancelled each other out, and he found it impossible to sympathize with him. Describing how Lewis, Hemingway, and many other modern writers felt obliged to kill the father-figures in their fiction, he contrasted the European respect for the authoritarian father with the American desire to destroy the father and inability to assume his role. He thought this was partly why most English and American writers lacked the “staying power” of a Thomas Mann. He recalled how he met Mann at a performance of Death of a Salesman in the late 1940’s. Very formal in manner, Mann said in good but heavily accented English that he’d looked in vain for some philosophical statement in the play. Miller replied that he took pride in conveying his meaning through the action, without directly expressing a “message .”

He acknowledged Hemingway as a stylistic, if not personal, influence when he first started writing. In his view, Hemingway transformed the American idiom into a literary language and virtually every American writer, except for the Southerners who followed Faulkner, was influenced by him. Arthur didn’t know that Edmund Wilson had written eight plays and been married to the actress Mary Blair, who’d appeared in many O’Neill plays, but called Wilson “the best critic we ever had.” He described Wilson’s late mistress, the screenwriter and film critic Penelope Gilliatt (who’d been married to John Osborne), as not especially attractive and a very heavy drinker. He thought Wilson’s surprising connection with Lillian Hellman was based on mutual love of gossip. He blasted Hellman for her intellectual dishonesty—and felt she fully deserved the attacks by Mary McCarthy, Martha Gellhorn, and Diana Trilling. Hellman was also an imperious hostess on Martha’s Vineyard. When Styron invented an excuse to avoid her dinner party and she discovered the truth (at the store where they both shopped for fancy desserts), she didn’t speak to him for a year.

When he talked about writers, he seemed especially concerned with personal character, and he made shrewd judgments about the contrast between art and message, between the quality of an author’s work and his literary reputation. Wise and benign himself, Arthur was fascinated by good writers, like V.S.Naipaul, who were famous for being nasty. John Osborne and Philip Roth, desperate to antagonize their audience, were deliberately offensive in their work and behavior.(He was sure none of these nasties received as many begging letters as he did.) But he liked Roth (a summer neighbor) personally, was amused by his nasty side, and didn’t presume to judge him.

Describing a dinner with Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the Connecticut house of his translator Thomas Whitney, Arthur said the Russian spoke no English and only a little German, and the host translated for him. Imperious, authoritative, and dictatorial, he was unappealing but impressive. His didactic manner, inherited from Tolstoy, made him more concerned with message than with art, but his honest vehemence and personal courage gave him real power. Arthur praised his noble vision, but he felt living under his government wouldn’t be pleasant. He thought East European writers like Solzhenitsyn and Kosinski, more ideologues than artists, craved power for themselves even as they criticized the powers that be.

I was interested in Arthur’s appraisals of the contemporary theater, and asked him to reflect on the playwrights of his youth. He said the popular, melodramatic, and now neglected playwright, David Belasco, actually taught the influential Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky a good deal about theatrical realism. In the 1930’s Eugene O’Neill, who had been so great in the previous decade and lived until 1953, seemed completely dated and had dropped into oblivion. A Moon for the Misbegotten (1957), like many of his plays, had flat language and a stale plot. But his greatest work was the posthumously published Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956).

Clifford Odets had suffered the same fate as O’Neill. Though Odets had invented contemporary realistic New York speech, and was often imitated, he didn’t transcend his time and was now dull and dated. Odets knew Miller slightly, but resented him for eclipsing his star. Arthur disliked the long biography of Odets (1982) by the psychoanalyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson, and felt it was too long, doting, and subjective a book.

By contrast, he admired Tennessee Williams—with whom he had a passing acquaintance and who seemed to have mainly homosexual friends—and believed his works would last. Unlike Williams, Edward Albee had been relatively silent at the time of our interview. Both had had to find their way into a heterosexual world from the suppressed homosexual one.

Harold Pinter, a close friend, was by temperament always angry and embittered. But in 1993 he had a new play, Moonlight, coming out in London, which Arthur had read in typescript and thought was very good.Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) by David Mamet, one of the stars of contemporary American stage and film, had powerful language and theatrical effects, including crude and shocking language . But, unlike Arthur, brought up in the idealistic 1930’s, the much younger Mamet had by main force to create some kind of “moral vessel” into which he could distill his ideas.

Saul Bellow was an old friend. In 1956, when they were both waiting in Reno for divorces, they lived in neighboring cabins. Their common editor at Viking, Pascal Covici, suggested they go west together and keep each other company.(At that time the place seemed remote, and they were surrounded by Indians. A few years later, he returned to film The Misfits, and Reno was booming.) He was impressed by Bellow’s erudition, which Bellow casually tried to hide. Though part of the academic establishment at the University of Chicago, Bellow disliked the scholarly and academic world. In May 1986, after learning about yet another divorce, Arthur wrote: “I was sorry to hear about Bellow, had thought from reports that was a reasonable marriage, but I guess he will have to go on to the end writing new chapters.”

Like most writers, Arthur was fascinated by the manic character of Robert Lowell, whom he’d met in the political turmoil of the 1960’s. A wildly disconnected speaker, a terrible snob, sometimes crazy and cruel, Lowell also had a winning and sympathetic personality. When I sent my book Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle(1987)—which was dedicated to him—Arthur saw (as few others did) the significance of the interwoven chapters that I had used to structure the work: “I found that by reflecting Lowell’s illness in and among that group of writers a kind of epochal sense emerged, and in a way that was otherwise impossible one got the feeling that his illness was something more than personal.”

I was curious to ask Miller, a veteran insider, panel member and literary judge, about how prizes to writers were awarded. This topic made him smile with a gentle cynicism. Some prizes, he said, were finally given because the committee had failed to reach an agreement by five o’clock and, desperate for a pee and a drink, simply gave in to whoever persisted with his pet candidate. We got on to Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner’s Song (1980) and the prize awarded to a journalist who had falsified her stories. Basically, he said, prizes were useless. No one today would recognize 98 percent of the plays that had won the Pulitzer. He’d won it for Death of a Salesman, but not for The Crucible—considered too left-wing.

For years I had wondered why certain obviously great writers, Miller especially, did not win the biggest one of all, the Nobel Prize. Arthur agreed that many undeserving authors had won it, and thought that Graham Greene was the most overlooked contender. (He felt Greene’s artistic failure in Momignor Quixote [1982] was caused more by his preachy Catholic doctrine than by lack of literary inspiration.) Arthur told me how, during the run of one of his plays at the National Theatre in London, the publicity office heard a rumor that he’d won the Nobel Prize. As they started to exploit the story the rumor proved false. He had never expected to receive the prize, despite his worldwide success and the enduring appeal of his classic plays, but he’d heard that some writers (Octavio Paz, for example, who won it in 1990) had actively electioneered for it. He predicted a Chinese writer would get it soon. I added that coming from a major country that had never won the prize was a great advantage, and considered Margaret Atwood of Canada and Jorge Amado of Brazil strong candidates. Because political persecution was another important (and non-literary) criterion, I thought Salman Rushdie, Ariel Dorfman, and Vaclev Havel were also in the running. Arthur was amused by this Nobel racecard, but clearly wasted no sleep over it.

VI

The McCarthy period had cost Arthur a close friend and colleague, Elia Kazan. Unlike Miller, he’d named names before the HUAC, and the two had quarreled bitterly. Kazan’s A Life (1988) was full of gaps, lies, and self-justifications. He said that Miller had “walked away from” their film The Hook.In fact, Miller had refused to turn the gangsters into Communists, as the Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn and the Hollywood union bosses wanted him to do. The film was later rewritten that way by Budd Schulberg (another self-serving “friendly witness”) as On the Waterfront.Kazan, still racked by guilt about his betrayal of close friends, once stared at a fellow writer and asked: “you’re thinking about it, aren’t you?” He ascribed his behavior to some mystical racial memory. As a Greek in Turkey, Kazan said, he had to learn the art of survival. Morality, honor, and personal courage—or so his story went—were much less important than looking after oneself.

Far from doctrinaire, however, Arthur saw the moral and human complexities of these times. In 1996 I was writing a life of Humphrey Bogart, who in 1947 first opposed and then recanted his opposition to HUAC, and sought Arthur’s opinion of his behavior.(Arthur himself appeared before the Committee in 1956, when anti-Communist hysteria was at its height.) He thought Bogart had been misled by the Hollywood Ten, who’d been called before the Committee but did not tell him that they were in fact Communists. Bogart rightly feared the witch-hunt would end his career and Miller was “reluctant to judge him in this two-edged story.”

VII

Perhaps the most sensitive issue I discussed with Arthur, and to me the saddest, was the question of his literary reputation at home. American theater critics had savagely expressed the belief that since After the Fall in 1964 Miller’s plays—like those of O’Neill, Odets and Osborne—had abruptly declined. For many years Arthur has been in the unique position of being more appreciated, and certainly more performed, in England than in America. In June 1984, on a triumphant visit, he read from “Salesman” in Beijing to overflow audiences at the National Theatre and the University of East Anglia, where he received an honorary degree. He dined with the novelist Angus Wilson, and had a penetrating radio interview on the BBC’s “Kaleidoscope.” He contrasted the well-prepared English journalists with the Americans, who barely glanced at a book before the program went on the air and didn’t have a clue what questions to ask. The most intelligent reviews of his work appeared in the London Spectator. On his 80th birthday, in 1995, Oxford University awarded him another honorary degree.

We often discussed the difference between the American and English theater. He thought English directors, like Bill Bryden, tried to bring out the best in a play, while the more egoistic Americans wanted to put their personal stamp on it. He contrasted the elevated style of English acting to the limited realism of the Americans. Expressive actors, like Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Harvey Keitel, were very good at confrontational parts, but British players, trained on Shakespeare, had much greater range and skill. He particularly admired Anthony Hopkins in the National Theatre production of Pravda and the film The Silence of the Lambs.

Arthur emphasized the comparatively low cost of putting on plays in England. Cameron Macintosh, producer of the phenomenally successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, told him that New York theaters cost three times as much as the ones in London. The London production of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, with Glenda Jackson, cost $100,000.When the play came to New York, the backers had to pay $600,000 before the curtain went up. Noting that Lincoln Center was currently dark, he concluded that there was simply much greater opportunity for serious theater in England.

In the late 1940’s, he recalled, he’d visited his college roommate in Little Rock, Arkansas, and heard great backwoods storytellers, who attracted large crowds. NEC found out about them, but they refused to come to New York. The problem today is that such regional artists no longer exist; and even if they did, nobody would be interested. Literary and theatrical life has become purely commercial. Citing the recent New York closing of Pinter’s play, The Hothouse, which got rave reviews, Arthur said it was now impossible to make money on intellectually challenging drama. Theater tickets in New York now cost as much as a night at the Stork Club and customers expected the same kind of fun for their money. The serious audience has almost disappeared. During the last decade, however, the tide has turned strongly in his favor. The Tony Award for the revival of A View from the Bridge, its transfer to Broadway from a limited run at the Roundabout, and its national tour have led to a new appreciation of his artistic achievement.

Though Arthur has not lost his idealistic belief in the social importance of the theater, he is pessimistic about the future of books and plays in a world that regards every literary work as an investment, meant to generate cash. He laments the alienation of artists from society and from each other in the cutthroat, fearful atmosphere of today. In his view, the discontinuity in American intellectual life reflects the wider lack of a collective memory and a collective culture.

2 Comments

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Steven 's picture
Steven · 1 year ago

why did Arthur Miller choose the university of Virginia for Biff Loman? Nothing is just by chance.

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Terry's picture
Terry · 10 months ago

Miller likely disliked Penelope Gilliatt before he ever met her. She had negatively reviewed some of his plays and considered him an inferior playwright. Penelope was a great beauty. Wilson was an alcoholic and infatuated with Gilliatt, whom he considered the most brilliant of the hires made by William Shawn at the New Yorker in the 1960s.  He was infatuated with her mind and adored her. If one wishes to read a complete and comprehensive response to Miller's work, readers should look to the film and theater criticsm of the great Stanley Kauffmann. He wasn't much of a Miller fan, either.  Wonder if Miller would have called Kauffmann unattractive? The phenomenon of Miller's reputation rests largely inside the walls of academe. Serious critics like Gilliatt and Kauffmann, as well as very many others,  realized the inferior quality of his work, especially in comparison with other playwrights of the era, both in the U.S. and abroad. Miller, in his comments, reveals the stain of misogyny towards female critics. Maybe that's part of what prevented him from ever becoming a great playwright. 

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