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Arthur Miller Empty Arthur Miller

Post  eddie Thu Apr 21, 2011 8:27 pm

Arthur Miller: 1962-2005 by Christopher Bigsby – review

The second half of Arthur Miller's life story leaves some important questions unanswered

Simon Callow The Guardian, Saturday 16 April 2011

Arthur Miller Playwright-Arthur-Miller--007
Playwright Arthur Miller with his wife, the photographer Inge Morath. Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

If not quite Boswell to Arthur Miller's Johnson, Christopher Bigsby knows more about his subject than anyone alive. He has followed the great dramatist at close quarters for nearly three decades, as friend, advocate, amanuensis, scholar. He stage-managed Miller's public appearances, especially in Britain, and he has been the diligent custodian of his sometimes embattled reputation; he has written four books about him, and for the last few years he has been writing his biography, the first volume of which appeared in 2008.

Arthur Miller Arthur-Miller-1962-2005
Arthur Miller: 1962-2005 by Christopher Bigsby

This second volume begins in 1962, which means that – in several senses – the great dramas are behind him. The first volume charted the extraordinary theatre successes (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge), the marriage to Marilyn Monroe and its collapse, the appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities committee and consequent withdrawal of his passport.

That volume ended with his marriage to the Austrian photographer Inge Morath, and the present one begins with it. The marriage, which lasted till she died, was the good news. The less good news was that Miller seemed to have lost his way as a writer. Nearly a decade separates A View from the Bridge and his next play, After the Fall (1964), a work in which – though he stoutly denied it at the time – he attempted to deal with his relationship with Monroe.

The fact that the play also addressed the question of the concentration camps and HUAC's reign of terror helps to explain the confused critical reaction to it. As it happens, he never again experienced the approval of the critics – in America, that is. In Europe, and especially in Britain, it was a different story, but for such a quintessentially American writer to be written off in his own country was particularly painful. Not only did they dismiss his new work, they seized the opportunity whenever they could to trash the old. The ferocity and absoluteness of their contempt for him is shocking. The New York Times was routinely vile about him ("Arthur Miller may be the world's most overrated dramatist . . . "), and their subeditors had a riot: above the dismissive review of his late play Broken Glass the headline screamed: "Play Features Flat, Lifeless Direction and Uninspired Performances." He was shaken by this rejection, but doggedly believed that his time would come again, and so it has proved. He called the Broadway of his time "the frightened theatre". It is hard to know what he'd make of the current Broadway theatre, but it's certainly no longer frightened of him or his plays.

The attacks are partly what happens when you set yourself up as moralist. "That Miller came to regard himself as a great thinker is one of life's terrible misunderstandings," said James Wolcott of Miller's personally unsparing 1987 autobiography Timebends, "the honest Abe Lincoln of American letters, ministering from his marble throne to the ailing soul of the republic". Since the success of Death of a Salesman, Wolcott went on, "he has been the travelling secretary of liberal humanism, a global delegate for peace and dialogue . . . Arthur Miller's sermonettes come straight from the gassy void."

In Europe, we didn't feel lectured: we applauded his efforts to make sense of the hideous conundrums of the 20th century and the paradoxes of his own experience. Even when, from the 1960s onwards, he struggled to find the definitive theatrical gesture for his confrontations of, among other things, the experience of the second world war, his own Jewishness, Vietnam, communism, depression and betrayal, we were fascinated by the attempt; his compatriots queued up to put the boot in.

Until the day he died, he was attacked in America from both left and right. Most often he was berated for his fellow-travelling communism in the 30s, but in his attempt to consult his own conscience on each individual issue, he laid himself open to charges of equivocation and inconsistency. There was scarcely an issue on which he failed to make a statement, and he came to regret many of them – his endorsement of the Hiroshima bomb, for example.

He was increasingly preoccupied with the past, as he roamed the world bereft of his former ideological certainties, a witness to decline, signing letters, joining protests, but more as a symbolic than an active figure. His presidency of the writers' organisation PEN, nobly meant, foundered somewhat on his ignorance of the work of most of his fellow writers, and coincided with the exposé of CIA financial backing.

He was received with respect by virtually every world leader, although it is hard to know quite how seriously they took his views. Bigsby recounts his participation in high-level conversations in Paris with the Vietnamese negotiator Xuan Thuy, who, after listening politely to Miller's elaborate proposals for a ceasefire, patiently enquired: "Would it not be simpler to cease the bombing campaign?" There is a hilarious account of his visit to Turkey with Harold Pinter, in which the two committed writers, solemnly denouncing its human rights transgressions, were summarily thrown out of the country at gunpoint. Pinter: "They were really making themselves extremely clear. They were saying 'Get out of here.'"

Miller carried on making speeches almost to the day he died, sometimes in stadiums of up to 3,000 people. At the age of 85, he gave the Jefferson lecture, elegantly mocking George W Bush and his spurious first term election triumph; at 87 he accepted the Jerusalem prize in a speech which denounced Israel's aggressive Gaza policy.

He carried on playwriting virtually to the end, too. Finishing the Picture, palpably and explicitly about Marilyn and The Misfits again (though again he denied it), opened in Chicago and earned him his final sniffy review from the New York Times: "does not provide much in the way of illumination". The hoped-for transfer never materialised, and the play died; its author followed two months later.

All of this is told, soberly and in copious detail, in Bigsby's pages. He tells an extraordinary story, providing a useful supplement (and occasional corrective) to Timebends. But something in the material fails to ignite. No one expected Bigsby to do a demolition job like Arthur Gottfried's 2003 Life. The problem is that there seems to be no particular stand at all. The facts are recounted but not interrogated. After extolling the beauties of Miller's marriage (and whenever Inge Morath makes an appearance the text goes weak at the knees), Bigsby tells us about Miller's affair with Edith Isaacs Rose about five years into the marriage – but he gives us no sense of its significance, or of how Miller felt about it.

Like most of us, Miller quite often failed to live up to his own high standards. Bigsby records a number of rather shabby actions on the writer's part – notably the abandonment of his Down's Syndrome son, Daniel – but draws no conclusions. More importantly – much more importantly – though the action of each play is recounted as it appears, and though the background to the writing and the production is described, there is no sense of the play's dramatic life, no questioning engagement with the piece, no attempt to see how it actually works (or doesn't). This means that we are unable to form a judgment on Miller's achievement. Of The Creation of the World and Other Business, which sounds, even from Bigsby's neutral description, like an absolute dog's breakfast, he mildly opines that it is "perhaps too self-conscious a fable". Are we to assume that the playwright always got it right and negative judgments were always wrong?

The result is that the book leaves us just where we were before we read it, no closer to knowing what kind of man and how good a writer Miller was. Despite the regularity of revivals of his work, the jury is still out on the subject. It is disappointing, because both as a close friend and as a distinguished scholar of Miller, Bigsby was exceptionally well placed to tell us.

Simon Callow's Pieces of Me is published by Nick Hern. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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