Great Critics (And the Rest of Us)

I was talking to a friend recently, encouraging him to post some of his film writing online, and he responded with a very simple, “Why?” He’s a bright guy, certainly bright enough to realize the value of critical thinking, literacy, analysis, etc. — all of those muscles that are exercised in the writing process. What he meant was, “Why add my voice to all of the noise when so many other critics say it so much better?”

I’m editing the first chapter of my dissertation right now, trying, as my director recommended, to insert more of my own voice into the “critical discussion” of Arthur Miller. Yesterday I made the mistake of pulling Christopher Bigsby’s latest book from the library shelf. Arthur Miller: A Critical Study (2005) will, I assume, be Bigsby’s final statement on Miller. At 500+ pages, it covers the playwright’s entire career, from the student plays he wrote at the University of Michigan through his last major work, Finishing the Picture, and also includes essays on Miller’s fiction and “Arthur Miller as a Jewish Writer.”

Bigsby has spent the last forty years proving himself again and again the best critic of 20th century drama. His first book, Confrontation and Commitment (1968), was one of the first — and remains one of the best — studies of the American theater during its transition in the 1950s and early-1960s from the social realism of early Miller and Williams to the more radical experiments of Edward Albee and LeRoi Jones, among others. Since then, he’s published books on Albee, Mamet, Stoppard, and Dada and Surrealism, and he’s edited ten or fifteen critical studies of modern American drama, contemporary English drama, the second Black Renaissance, and the radical imagination and the liberal tradition. And then there are the six major, Miller-related studies.

Here’s an experiment. I’ll literally open the book to a random page, skim quickly over the text, and grab a line or two.

On All My Sons:

Joe is an accommodationist. His public denials are matched by his private ones. When Kate asks if Chris has discussed marrying Ann his reply is “he didn’t tell me any more than he told you” (106), though we have just witnessed such a discussion. Having practiced private deceits, he seems to have internalized his own denials.

On The Crucible:

To be a young girl in Salem was to have no role but obedience, no function but unquestioning faith, no freedom except a willingness to submit to those with power over their lives. Sexuality was proscribed, the imagination distrusted, emotions focused solely on the stirring of the spirit. Rebellion, when it came, was thus likely to take as its target firstly those with least access to power, then those for whom virtue alone was insufficient protection.

On After the Fall:

Quentin survives on something more substantial than the thin gruel of irony. The democracy of guilt holds no attraction for him. He finds in Holga the figure of his redemption, acknowledging the past and the insights of others but committing to the future. He is no longer the victim of history, his own or the world’s, but prepared to live with the knowledge of freedom and the uses to which a flawed humanity will put it.

Reading Bigsby gives me two visions of my future. In one, I’m sitting in a book-lined office, working well into old age in a vain effort to write something as articulate and all-encompassing. In the other, I still have the books, but they’re at home. They’re my refuge from some day job. And when people ask me what I think about Arthur Miller, I tell them, “You want to know about Miller? Read Bigsby. He’s already said everything you need to know, and he said it better than anyone before or since.”