I am not sure what we are upholding any more—are we good by merely saying no to evil? Even in a righteous ‘no’ there’s some disguise. Isn’t it necessary—to say—finally to say yes—to something?
— Quentin, After the Fall
Last Thursday, while reading a recent interview with Norman Mailer, I was struck by how unlikely it was that all of the novelists and playwrights who have worked their way into my dissertation had also managed to not only survive the 20th century, but to do so productively. No small feat considering the World Wars and the Red Hunts and the fickleness of literary tastes. Arthur Miller, of course, passed away the next day. He was 89.
I’m a few revisions away from finishing the Miller section of my project, and I’ve come away from the experience ambivalent about both his life and his work. I can’t find the exact quote right now, but I tend to agree with a comment made by Tony Kushner a decade or so ago, when he criticized Miller’s plays for their poetry-starved language. But, like Kushner, I’m still moved by so much of Death of a Salesman. You can’t not be moved by Salesman. It’s too perfectly plotted, too pathetically spot-on in its portrait of other-directed status-seeking and failure.
I like moments in Miller’s other work, too. That I’m still frustrated and angered (rather than bored) by the inevitability of Proctor’s death, even after reading the damn play 15 or 20 times, is some testament to the craft of The Crucible. And After the Fall, though more uneven than any other landmark American play, still pleases me by virtue of its ambition if too seldom its execution.
The Price is a perfectly structured character piece: two more brothers struggling with a father’s legacy, two more versions of Kermit and Arthur Miller, the good son who sacrificed his own dreams for the sake of the family and his younger sibling who found success only after leaving home. And I’m also really fond of a short play called A Memory of Two Mondays, an autobiographical piece about a young, would-be student who takes a job at an auto parts warehouse in order to save money for college. His (the young man’s, I mean) naive idealizing of blue collar workers is both genuine and admiring and condescending, and that tension makes the play one of Miller’s more insightful comments on America’s real political life.
Given a lazy afternoon and a stack of Miller’s work to choose from, I would probably grab The Misfits, which is a compelling read, particularly if you’re able to divorce your impressions of it from the film and from Marilyn. Not likely, I know. But try sometime. The Misfits contains some of Miller’s most artful language. It’s also the first of his works that I would choose to teach.
Miller positioned himself from the very beginning of his career as a left-leaning public intellectual. He wasn’t the first American playwright to do so, as some of the odes to him I’ve read this week have claimed, but he spent most of his life, I think, on the side of justice and often made real personal and professional sacrifices for the cause. His politics made him an enemy of the Right when he balked at the hypocrisy of anti-communist politicking, and an enemy of the Left when his “confused liberalism” (in the words of Eric Mottram) was deemed unsatisfactory at a time of revolutionary struggle. Miller, for his part, seemed most interested in simply understanding the human causes of human troubles. The work of the artist, you might say.