“A lecture delivered at St. Francis College, in Brooklyn, on October 16th, 2015”
Imagine a boy of six travelling alone across a continent and then an ocean, a boy from a small town in Europe who suddenly finds himself in a city of which he had heard but which had been spoken of in a language that would become alien. This is a boy whose parents thought him intellectually damaged and who never sent him to school. As a result he never learned to read and late in life could still not understand that the world was round. Then imagine that he becomes enormously successful before losing almost everything in an economic cataclysm while remaining a true believer in a dream of wealth, in a promise broken but ever renewed.
This man, however, engendered a son who would challenge his beliefs. In a country which lays claim to the future, brushing the past aside as Indians once trailed tree branches behind their ponies to conceal their tracks, he would insist on the moral logic of the past. He would create works in which fathers and sons were in contention. And this son of an illiterate father would write words which stirred the mind and pierced the heart. He would stage the drama of those who were the victims of their own misdirected passions as they would be of a society too ready to betray its ideals. He would write of those concerned above all to invest their names with meaning, even as their actions would threaten to erode the integrity in which they needed to believe even as they sensed that they had failed in some way that they hesitated to confront.
This man, Arthur Miller, would write of denial and betrayal, of the need to transmute guilt into responsibility. He would create characters who moved and occasionally stunned audiences who recognised the private truths presented to them as later they would acknowledge the public dimension of those truths because for him private and public have a permeable membrane, the individual never abstracted from the world which shapes him or her and which, in turn, they have the power to shape if only they realised as much, an existential truth that would run through his work.
And when he stepped outside his own fictions he would demand responsibility of others, challenge those at home and abroad who thought to place limits on freedom, to constrain the imagination. And when he was not writing or defending those oppressed by ideologues, he was shaping wood from the trees he had himself planted, creating objects both functional and pleasing, signing them as he would the plays which shared precisely those characteristics. And when he died he left behind a poem which invited others to look for him in what he had made, and so we do which is why we are gathered here in a part of that city to which his father had once come in fear and hope and where he himself began to write believing that in doing so he would be entering into a dialogue with America, for what else is theatre but a conversation in which we, the audience, bring our own experiences, our own sense of what is true, to suffer a shock of recognition but also a sense of transcendence which comes from being led into a world in which the everyday shines with a new significance as Gerald Manly Hopkins observed in another context, like shining from shook foil.
In March of 2001, Arthur Miller delivered the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was held in the Kennedy Centre before an audience of 2,500 people which consisted in part of Congressmen, Senators, a Chief Justice and the Washington elite. This, you will recall, was just after George W. Bush was elected, or if not exactly elected then offered the presidency by the Supreme Court. That March both the House of Representatives and the Senate were in the control of the Republican Party. Plus ça change. Before delivering his speech, he had received a call asking him to tone it down. He refused. As he said to me, ‘I’m eighty-five, and I don’t care.’ The man who hired him was subsequently fired. Why? Because in his speech Miller ridiculed politicians, more especially Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and he did so by seeing them as actors desperate to present themselves as other than they were. This was politics as performance from a man who was not unknown for offering performance as politics.
Of course, he accepted that, ‘acting is inevitable as soon as we walk out our front doors into society,’ something his own plays had acknowledged from the very first, from All My Sons, in which a man re-casts himself, playing the role of someone unjustly accused, and on to Willy Loman whose profession as a salesman requires the invention of a persona. Willy is a man with a script to deliver and a costume to wear along with a smile and a shoeshine. He even performs for his wife, returning from his fruitless and debilitating dramas in New England, where he ‘killed them dead,’ to stage himself to her as the success he wishes to see himself as being even as that character begins to collapse. He has lost his audience as a salesman, husband and father and who is he when he has lost that, not least because his identity has become synonymous with his performance. As a salesman, Willy Loman is an actor who settles for being ‘well-liked’ rather than loved which is the essence of his tragedy as well as itself a part of the fiction he presents. Jonathan Franzen has remarked, ‘liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving … if you … imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked … you see a person without integrity, without a center … If you dedicate your existence to being likable … it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are.’ Willy is offered love by his family but is wedded instead to the public view of himself which is why he is astonished when for a second he realises that ‘the boy loves me.’
What does he sell, something that unaccountably bothered a number of critics who thought Miller’s failure to tell us a sign of the plays inconsequence. Apart from anything else, he sells a version of himself to his wife, to the woman in the Boston hotel room, to his son, to his clients but most of all to himself. He dies to sustain a fiction which is in some degree a national fiction, a dream of becoming through performance. He stages his death, a suicide which is to seem an accident or the insurance policy will not pay off. Willy Loman’s problem was that he thought performance and reality were the same thing, that he was his social role which is why the play is called Death of a Salesman, not The Death of Willy Loman. He dies as a salesman, still selling a bill of goods, the dream that has destroyed him and yet which he wants to sell onto his sons, one of whom, Happy, is already an actor, laying claim to a role that is not in fact his own, building a narrative that gifts him a meaning his life apparently does not. The other, Biff, has travelled back because he has in part bought into a part of his father’s dream feeling that he has not got anywhere, sharing the discontent that is his father’s heritage and that of his society. Happiness in his culture is not a state; it is to be endlessly pursued, a green light across the bay. Failure to succeed in a private and public drama is in some way not to have lived at all. For Miller, the salesman ‘is close to being the universal occupation of contemporary society … Everybody is selling and everything is for sale.’
In The Crucible, young women perform a drama for the benefit of members of the court who become an audience invited to suspend their disbelief, except that they are already inclined to believe in a theological drama which pitches good against evil, a religious melodrama presented as social, political and legal truth. This performance is stage-managed, directed, and performed by Abigail in a society in which reality is defined by a belief in the existence of witches and those who would deny it dismissed as subversives challenging the law. In Puritan New England anyone who fails to follow the text is no longer performing the prescribed role, and there is a price to be paid for dissent. There is always a price to be paid for dissent, and Miller paid it, as did those he would one day seek to aid.
In A View from the Bridge two illegal immigrants must masquerade as what they are not even as Eddie Carbone has to deny the truth of his feelings, playing the role of a concerned surrogate father even as something else drives his actions. Acting, in other words, is a part of who we are but as a Tennessee Williams character remarks, ‘there are no lies but those thrust down the throat by the hard-knuckled hand of need,’ which accounts for the compassion with which, even in the midst of the personal and public betrayals of HUAC, Miller presents the informer as a tragic figure in A View from the Bridge.
The offence, as far as the critics of his Jefferson lecture were concerned, lay in his disrespect, his partisanship. His was an act of lese majesté. While he accused Al Gore of going through several changes of costume ‘before finding the right mix to express the personality he wished to project’ Bush was simply a bad actor who had to learn ‘to cease furtively glancing left and right when leading up to a punch line, followed by a sharp nod to flash that he has successfully delivered it.’ ‘Nixon, he said, ‘was acting during all his waking hours, his entire working life a recorded performance.’ Johnny Carson once remarked of him that, ‘I hear that whenever someone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty.’ He was not alone in his hostility. President Harry Truman remarked that he was a ‘no-good, lying bastard,’ adding that ‘he can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and even if he caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.’ ‘I am not a crook,’ said the crook Richard Nixon, staring into the television camera with all the conviction of a practiced actor, a role in which it is, perhaps, feasible, he had taken for the truth. As he was to say later of his involvement in the Watergate scandal, ‘I was not lying. I said things that later on seemed to be untrue.’ As Hamlet says, ‘seems. I know not seems.’
As to Reagan, he had long since failed to distinguish reality from fantasy, confusing his actual life with roles he had played in the movies, or, as Miller observed, simply movies he had seen. Meanwhile, ‘the closest thing to a deliberately rehearsed passion’ Miller had witnessed, he informed his startled audience at the Jefferson lecture, which by now resembled that in The Producers as the cast swing into a rendition of “Springtime for Hitler,” was ‘the organized mob of Republicans banging threateningly on the door of a Florida vote counting office and howling for the officials inside to stop counting. Watching this outburst,’ he said, ‘I could practically hear the rehearsal.’ ‘It seems to me,’ he said, ‘that when one is surrounded by such a rolling mass of consciously contrived performances it gets harder and harder for a lot of people to locate reality anymore,’ a statement which might, of course, be seen as bearing on theatre itself and which was not only a concern of his late plays, though several of those did, indeed, focus on this question. But, then, I suspect most of us have experienced the anxiety that someone will one day tap us on the shoulder and suggest that we have only been playing the role of grown-ups, that the title ‘professor’ suggests a significance to which we can in truth hardly aspire, that we are all too conscious of the knowledge we don’t possess, the books we haven’t read, that we play a role. Or is it just me?
Hilary Mantel, in contemplating her own characters in A Place of Greater Safety, her novel set at the time of the French Revolution, asked how far those in the spotlight of history are ‘owned by themselves or the public’ and ‘what happens to people when they are manufacturing their own legend, day by day – when they become self-conscious.’ For her, too, there was a parallel with the actor. How far, she wondered, does the persona extend? At what point does the mask grow onto the face?
It is not hard to see why the lecture was denounced, though those who did so had their own political positions. It was attacked by the Jewish World Review, whose founder was on record as saying ‘it is hard to understand a religious person who votes Democrat,’ and by William Buckley’s conservative National Review, which described it as ‘appalling, a disgrace.’ Of course, Miller accepted that performance was the essence of theatre and, indeed, of social life. He was merely regretting the degree to which it had become central to the selling of politicians, a confusion of realms. The theatre, he accepted, fabricated everything ‘from the storm’s roar to the fake lark’s song, from the actor’s calculated laughter to his nightly flood of tears.’ But though ‘the actor lies; with all the spontaneity that careful calculation can lend him he may nonetheless fabricate a vision of some important truth about the human condition that opens us to a new understanding of ourselves,’ what Edward Albee called ‘lying in the direction of truth.’ I am interested, though, in the degree to which he was throughout his career, but especially perhaps in his later plays, fascinated with the implications of the performing self, this man who was once married to Marilyn Monroe, an actress who performed the role of Marilyn on screen and sometimes off. But then, as I suggested, we do, indeed, all perform, switching effortlessly from accent to accent, depending on the social circumstance, from role to role as we address different audiences, at one moment a wife at another a lover and woe betide any who confuse the two performances.
Actors exist to perform, becoming through performance. They literally em-body the words written on a page or improvise as a means of understanding who they are to become. It is interesting to watch at rehearsals as some actors perform at the read-through, committing themselves, linguistically if in no other way, while others simply read the text, sometimes uninflected and certainly without whatever it is that lifts words from the page, as yet the only audience being those involved in the production. There can be a curiously competitive element to the read-through and subsequent rehearsals, a performance only tangentially related to that for which they are gathered. Who has the greater power – the one who is first off-book and can therefore shape the performance of those who are not, or the one who delays and necessitates changes by those who have exposed themselves before meanings have fully emerged? I watched such a competition in the rehearsals of the American production of Broken Glass, the chief culprit being Ron Silver, who would later withdraw from the cast.
What then is the American, this new man?’ asked Crévecoeur, a question that has never been answered because it is a country where people go to re-invent themselves, re-stage themselves, as Gatsby did, as every immigrant hopes to do. They went to become something else, to take on a new role in a national drama of becoming. Sometimes, along with the new role, appropriately enough, went a new name. ‘You can change your name,’ says Hester Prynne to Dimmesdale, urging her lover to draw a line across his past. How many Jewish actors masqueraded, performed, as goyim: Edward G. Robinson, Hedy Lamarr, Al Jolson, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, George Burns, Walter Matthow, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Eliott Gould, Natalie Portman, Kirk Douglas, Winona Rider, not to mention Bob Dylan and Barry Manilow, who has masqueraded twice being not only Jewish but gay. That they should feel constrained so to perform says something, of course, about a society that was presumed to prefer performance to reality. But you didn’t have to be Jewish to change your name. It was an American birthright. ‘It is always morning in America,’ as a Reagan television advertisement declared. You can always start again, assume a new role, in a supposedly secular country that is deeply Christian you can be born again. America’s belief in the self-made man is not merely an ideological commitment, it is an existential declaration. The actor becomes a national paradigm and transformation through performance a bright possibility and a dark temptation. Jay Gatz emerges as Jay Gatsby whose own past roles may simply have been just that and who performs the role he believes Daisy Buchanan wishes him to play. Richard Whitman becomes Don Draper in Mad Men, though losing himself somewhere along the way in so far as performance may threaten the authenticity for which there is a natural yearning.
There is a sense in which all theatre is metatheatre. We are inevitably reminded that it is a performance. How could it be otherwise when the whole apparatus of theatre is on show as we enter an auditorium with plush seats or hard benches, see a curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz, in the form of a director, stage and costume designer, is preparing his or her artifice? We clutch our programmes which tell us the real names of the actors who are about to insist they are someone else. The curtain rises, the After Eights are noisily passed, a cell phone bleat is silenced once the owner has sorted through a handbag seemingly containing half the contents of the known universe, and figures who an hour before painted their faces and rehearsed their lines in their heads, step forward in a simulacrum of life. We know it for a performance and yet we know it for a truth.
An actor is Protean. One of the central characters in Two Gentlemen of Verona, a deceiver, is actually called Proteus. So adept are actors at dissembling that in Rome they were not allowed to run for the magistracy since they would put politicians, mere amateurs at lying, at a disadvantage. Need I say, Richard Nixon was an enthusiastic actor at Whittier College and thereafter for the rest of his life, though not lying in the direction of truth.
In the 1960s, there was a rebellion against this central truth of theatre. Actors stepped forward and gave their real names. At times they stripped themselves naked as if that could be a guarantee of truth, believing that the body speaks truth, a conviction that I suspect men and women through the ages have discovered to be erroneous. The reason for this was in part that there was enough deceit in the political and commercial world without the actor becoming complicit, but language was central to Miller and performance theatre tended to evidence a suspicion of that, not least because of a consciousness of the uses to which it was put. One group chose to treat The Crucible as a found object until Arthur Miller, through his lawyers, pointed out that he hadn’t lost it. Later, he regretted his action, the more so as he became ever more interested in life as performance.
Miller was not a fan of performance theatre or the avant-garde in general. He met Dylan Thomas, a fellow inhabitant of the gloriously anarchic Chelsea Hotel. When my daughter stayed there she opened the door to her room only to discover a drama group rehearsing there. Thomas described a visit that he and Miller made to a play performed, as he recalled, ‘in a cellar, or a sewer … in the middle, [Miller] said, “Good God, this is avant-garde … In a moment, the hero is going to take his clothes off” … He did.’ Later, Miller wrote, but never published, a parody in which actors begin naked and slowly dress while the audience members make sexual advances to one another, a comment on the Living Theatre some of whose actors did indeed seek to break down the barrier between audience and performer in a manner which today would probably have led to a court appearance. What was wrong with performance theatre, to him, was that it side-stepped rationality, distrusted language and, indeed, the writer. He went to see the musical Hair, which opened Off Broadway in 1967 and then moved to Broadway in 1968. It appeared to him to celebrate liberation of the body and the mind, to pose a generalised sense of revolt, without addressing the political realities of Vietnam. After all, the pivotal moment in that war, the Tet offensive, occurred in January 1968. He also thought that performance theatre lacked an interest in the past except as myth. For Miller, the past was ‘the seedbed of current reality, and the way to possibly reaffirm cause and effect in an insane world.’ He was aware, though, that his own culture ‘had deemed amnesia as the ultimate mark of reality. Gore Vidal agreed, referring to the United States of Amnesia. For Miller, to deny the link between past and present, between cause and effect, is not only to deny social responsibility, it is to deny the basis of morality. His own plays, he noted, ‘are refracting the past all the time, because I don’t really know how to understand anybody only from his present actions. We need the past to comprehend anything.’ As he once told me, you can no more escape the past than you can the beating of your own heart. His interest in performance took a different form.
In Playing for Time Miller adapted Fania Fenelon’s memoir of playing in the Auschwitz women’s orchestra. Fenelon was a half-Jewish cabaret singer who ended up in Auschwitz. She, like her fellow musicians, was Sheherazade, performing to live rather than living to perform. The music was true, if simultaneously a mockery of those who were marched to work and ultimately to their deaths as they played, but they were obliged to please the killers who were their audience. The contract between performer and audience was thus compromised, tainted at source. They were playing their instruments but equally playing the normality of an orchestra appealing to those with the sophistication to judge the harmony they sounded in an environment in which the only harmony was that of a common suffering and potentially common death. They were performing in two ways. They performed their music but also the role of an orchestra.
The prisoners find some solace as they retreat into the music they play but its discipline, their pride in professionalism, can be a means of denying the reality of their position. They are, perforce, collaborators, their music being enrolled in the cause of the annihilation of others. Indeed the Nazis went out of their way in the camps to dress the set of their dark drama, from the sign over the entry gates promising that work will set those who pass through them free, to railway terminals, terminal in every respect, sometimes complete with hanging baskets of flowers. Victims were directed to showers. All this was performance. This was a theatre not as a pathway to truth but annihilation. The stage was set, the performance rehearsed and practiced, performed ultimately for those in Berlin who had both written the script and were an appreciative audience.
In the play version Miller chose to emphasise its theatrical nature. There was to be no set. Changes in locale were to be made in full view of the audience as were changes in costume. Why this approach? Perhaps in part because of a felt need for discretion, an acknowledgement of the sensitivities of the subject and hence the necessity to forgo the benign deceptions which are the essence of the theatrical contract. Perhaps also, though, because the benign deceits of performance may be contaminated.
The Miller play in which performance becomes central to the plot, as to the characters, however, is The Archbishop’s Ceiling, set in an unnamed east European city – in fact Prague. Indeed Vaclav Havel claimed to be one of the characters. The context for the play is one with which we have recently become all too familiar with revelations of the widespread surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ but which had a particular edge at a time when Richard Nixon in the White House was recording himself and the CIA was bugging Washington hotels in the United States. At the same time, in eastern and central Europe there was no guarantee that conversations could be private, as Miller had learned on his visits to Russia and Czechoslovakia. Some of the time Nixon obviously played a role for the invisible microphones and those who would one day listen to the recordings. His was a performance, his lines carefully calculated. At other times he plainly forgot they were there as he inadvertently built a case against himself, playing a leading role in his own demise, an exquisite irony which maintains its appeal and which, I suppose, would qualify him as a tragic hero were it not for the fact that we are talking about Richard Nixon..
The Archbishop’s Ceiling is a play in which a number of writers are gathered together in an old archbishop’s palace, now home to a writer who had been imprisoned by the state but whose true loyalties are not necessarily clear. One of the country’s leading writers has had his manuscript stolen and may be about to be arrested. The question is will it be possible for their host to intercede? Meanwhile, there may or may not be microphones concealed in the ceiling and, as with Nixon, for some of the time they all perform for what they assume to be a hidden audience while for some of the time forget their possible existence. Vaclav Havel himself discovered a microphone in his chandelier and returned it to the police on the grounds that it was their property. No wonder he thought he was a character in Miller’s play.
There is plainly a politics to this play but Miller’s interests go beyond this. As he asked, ‘When are we talking to whoever we are talking to, and when are we talking to authority, whether it is the authority of the university, or the city administration … or the actual government?’ He added, ‘there were two listeners in every conversation: one was the person you are talking to, the other was some authority or another. So how do you wriggle through that maze and what is left of you, finally, when you have wriggled through it? Can you identify yourself any more? So the nature of human reality began to come into play.’ Could you even, he asked, ‘speak of sincerity any more, since everybody had to engineer his speech in one way or another, even with the best of motives.’
So this is not just a play about central Europe. Beyond the question of surveillance, it is about the way the language we use shapes the people we are. What do we think when we defend theatre subsidies on the grounds of the money tourists bring into the country? What do we think when we stress the extent to which a university education is about career potential, adjusting not only our language but ultimately ourselves to what is perceived to be a reality.
This is a world in which performance has replaced being, a world in which people lie, the state to maintain its power, the individual to protect him or herself against that power. What is real? It becomes ever more difficult to know. As Miller remarked, ‘”We’re all impersonators in a way. We are all impersonating something, including ourselves … We have all become actors.’ (269 bio) ‘Our country,’ a character remarks in The Archbishop’s Ceiling, ‘is now a theatre.’ Miller saw the same thing in America as privacy ceded territory to public performance. Ahead lay reality TV in which people offered themselves up for bugging, with concealed cameras staging their lives as soap opera. There is a CCTV camera for every ten people in the UK and we all appear on them 300 times a day and this is not counting cameras on phones. Images from such cameras have become staples of television programmes in which we watch mini-dramas played out for our entertainment as police pursue speeding drivers, a shop lifter secretes a frozen chicken. Life as spectacle. Even war has become a spectator sport as cameras in the nose cones of missiles dramatise the ending of enemy lives, often to a smatter of applause from press conferences convened to show the efficacy of so-called smart bombs not always, however, quite smart enough to distinguish friend from foe, insurgents from Reuters journalists. If you watch the video released by Wikileaks which shows those in a helicopter gunship killing civilians, it has an epigraph from George Orwell: ‘political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ A camera becomes a weapon. The scene is replayed as the record of a victory by the killers and as an indictment by others, a tragedy whose inevitability is performed before us, the audience. Those paraded in orange jump suits in Guantanamo or against a desert backdrop by Isis are part of a conscious ritual, scripted, staged and offered to a viewing public as secure in their anonymity as those who sit in bases in Texas and Nevada controlling drones which can kill at the press of a button thousands of miles from their victims. Remember President Obama and others gathered around a screen and watching, in real time, the killing of Osama bin Laden as though the curtain had just gone up and the actors had begun their play. All that was missing was the After Eights. As the detective in Miller’s “Some Kind of Love Story” remarks, ‘I’ve got to stop looking for the red tag that says “Real” on it,’ or as Fitzgerald had said of Gatsby that early on he had ‘a hint of the unreality of reality.’ And that was what increasingly interested Miller. Was it any longer incredible that a crucifixion could be televised, as in his play Resurrection Blues, complete with relevant commercials advertising the virtues of underarm deodorant.
Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, features a performance within a performance. It is set in the Mapes Hotel in Reno where The Misfits was being filmed. At its heart is Marilyn Monroe, herself not only an actress but a conscious construction who had, like Gatsby, sprung from her Platonic conception of herself. In Blonde, a fictionalised version of Monroe, Joyce Carol Oates quotes Jean-Paul Sartre’s observation that ‘Genius is not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.’ ‘Marilyn’ was a mask that became coterminous with her being. Performance and substance became coeval.
Much the same could be said of The Misfits itself, the film in which she was, in effect, asked to play herself, objecting when required to deliver lines that did not reflect what she saw as the reality of her life. Lee Strasberg, of the Actors Studio, called in to help her as she became ever more difficult to deal with, remarked that, ‘It’s much more difficult to play yourself than someone you’ve never met.’ (my bio 622) As Marilyn remarked, ‘Maybe I was playing me too much … how he saw me before we broke up.’ (CB 624) As she said, ‘When I married him … one of the fantasies in my mind was that I could get away from Marilyn Monroe through him, and here I find myself back doing the same thing. … I just couldn’t face having to do another scene with Marilyn Monroe.’ (CB628 but see note).
Film tends to see realism as a source of authenticity, the sheer size of its images, its denial of any possibility of interaction with the audience, structuring responses. Performances are frozen. No matter how many takes there may have been — and with Marilyn there were many — there is only one on the screen, one which will remain the same this year, next year and as long as the film survives. In the theatre performances are, as we all know, modified by audiences. Different productions, with different actors and directors, refract the text differently, underscore the status of theatre as a shifting conversation in which the text is in truth the whole production. Performance itself, though, is irrecoverable. Certainly a filmed or video- recording missesits essence
The body is there, only the soul has fled. Now you can see productions on cinema screens hundred or thousands of miles from the theatre in which they were recorded. Even if live, they are resistant to audiences. Actors hear and see no response. At the end audiences are unsure whether to applaud for there are no actors to register their response. That is the essence of performance. It is what has kept Miller’s plays alive.
In Middle English, the phrase ‘to perform much time’ meant ‘to live long.’ Too live and to perform can be seen as synonymous. That is the sense in which Miller suggested that we are all performers, performing even to ourselves and to the very end. As the English novelist Sybil Bedford remarked, ‘when one’s young … one does things because they are not for good; everything is a rehearsal … to be put right when the curtain goes up in earnest. One day you know that the curtain was up all the time. That was the performance.’
It was Thomas Mann who remarked that ‘a man lives not only his personal life as an individual but also consciously or unconsciously the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.’ Of few people did that prove more true than of Arthur Miller. But it turned out that it was not only his own epoch, and his own contemporaries, that he addressed and reflected. The centenary of his birth has been marked by a cascade of productions around the world. I am thinking of un-subscribing from my Miller Google Alert as my inbox overflows every day like the porridge in Fantasia. And those productions are not greeted as relics of another age. Audiences and critics alike comment on their contemporary significance. These are plays which live on the pulse. Earlier this year, the London production of A View from the Bridge won the Olivier Award for Best Revival. It also won Oliviers for the actor who played Eddie Carbone and for the director. It will be revived at Lincoln Centre next year. But of course Miller was not only a creator of plays and novels, he was a man who threw himself into the political and ethical debates of his times which turn out all too often to be the political and ethical debates of our own.
Arthur Miller’s friend, the peace campaigner William Sloane Coffin, supporter of the Civil Rights movement and fierce opponent of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, once observed that, ‘I feel strongly that Oliver Wendell Holmes was right. Not to share in the activity and passion of your time is to count as not having lived’ but he added, ‘St Augustine said … “Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside yourself.”’ Miller often stood beside him in his battles for justice during the Vietnam war and was himself inclined to ‘resist much,’ also rejecting the notion that evil is wholly external to the self. As he has a character remark in After the Fall, ‘to maintain our innocence, we kill most easily.’ America, perhaps more than most countries, has a predilection for feeling itself uniquely innocent. As Ronald Reagan remarked in his State of the Union Address in 1984, how ‘can we not believe in the goodness and greatness of Americans? How can we not do what is right and needed to preserve this last, best hope of man on earth?… We will carry on the traditions of a good and worthy people who have brought light where there was darkness.’ In 2001, George W. Bush, of blessed memory, said, ‘I know how good we are,’ even as, through his policies, he tried his best to prove the opposite, declaring torture legally valid while covertly flying those seized from the streets of foreign countries and imprisoning them without trial in Cuba on land legally sovereign American territory and therefore subject to American laws, the laws thus abrogated.
For a number of years, Arthur Miller was the President of International PEN in which role he secured the release of a number of writers. In 1966, in relation to the meeting of PEN International he wrote about writers imprisoned not only in the Soviet block but also those around the world, in Mexico, Nigeria, Brazil, Spain. He once remarked that, ‘I am sometimes referred to as a moral playwright, and when I am I tend to look over my shoulder to see who they are talking about. It makes me uneasy, as though my competence were being questioned. You make points in the theatre for all sorts of things but knowing right from wrong is distinctly not one of them.’ As President of PEN, however, he was clear as to his role.
In 1984, under the auspices of PEN, he famously, visited Turkey with Harold Pinter on behalf of PEN to investigate the persecution of writers. It was there that he met a young writer assigned to accompany him on the grounds that he spoke English. The young man’s name was Orhan Pamuck. It was a meeting that would play its role in politicising him. As he said subsequently, ‘before long I had taken on a political persona far more powerful than I had ever intended,’ even as he was aware that, ‘someone who has been a victim of tyranny and oppression can suddenly become one of the oppressors.’ Even the Jews have their Jews. Pamuck was later put on trial, his books were burned and he was the target of assassination attempts. His crime? To make a statement about the Armenian genocide. His statement read, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” PEN International rallied to his cause, as did writers around the world. The trial subsequently collapsed. His commitment began with his meeting with Miller. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Politics is seldom straight forward, especially in America which offers itself to the world as a template for democracy while Illinois politicians are barely elected before they are processed into prison. In fact the governors of nine states have been found guilty of federal offences. It is currently the 19th least corrupt country out of 177, not a boast you tend to hear much about in State of the Union addresses. The UK is the 14th least corrupt Hooray for us. (if you’re interested, Denmark and New Zealand are the least corrupt, but their economies are based on pigs and sheep and in the case of Denmark a perverse interest in herrings). The comedian George Carlin has remarked that honesty may be the best policy but it is important to remember that, apparently, by elimination dishonesty is the second-best policy, a policy plainly adopted by another American president when he declared, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’ When it comes to freedom of expression it may surprise you to know that in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the UK comes 33rd out of 180 countries in the press freedom index. The USA is 46th though. Russia comes 148th. Arthur Miller, who had lived through the suppression of free speech in the 1950s gave us his version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, as a reminder of that fact.
When The Crucible was staged in New York, six months on from 9/11 and five from passage of the Patriot Act, Miller saw it as, ‘a play about paranoia and hysteria.’ The Patriot Act authorised the indefinite detention of immigrants, the searching of property, telephone, email and financial records without court order and the seizing of library records so that it would be possible to see what American citizens were reading. To their credit, librarians resisted. Beyond that, though, The Crucible’s portrait of a man who stands up against the orthodoxy of the day and suffers accordingly has never lost its relevance. It is a play which dramatises the ease with which we watch others persecuted and simply stand by as if it had no relevance to us, until it reaches out to touch us. It stages the price that can be paid for resisting authority, for rejecting the narrative offered by those with the power to enforce it. It presents the uncomfortable truth that neighbour can turn against neighbour, as they did in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, as they are in the Ukraine, in Libya, Iraq, Syria. Miller’s plays have never lost their relevance.
When Arthur Miller died, an Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Memorial Lecture was established. The first was delivered by the Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk who insisted that ‘when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free.’ For Israeli writer David Grossman, who also delivered an Arthur Miller lecture, ‘As soon as we lay hands on the pen, we already cease to be a slave’ ‘Literature,’ he said, ‘ is one of the few places where we can allow ourselves to explore tenderness or sympathy for the other.’
And that, of course, is one of the methods, functions and perhaps justifications for literature. In literature, barriers of gender and race dissolve. Writers cross national boundaries, imaginatively and literally. For the Irish writer Colm Toibin, writers don’t have passports, though unfortunately there have been times when that was literally so as governments stripped writers of their passports, the very sign of citizenship, the fate, of course, of Arthur Miller.
Salman Rushdie, who also delivered one of the lectures, reminded his audience that Ovid was banned from Rome, Mandelstam died in a labour camp and Lorca was murdered in Spain. He might have added a whole litany of imprisoned writers, including Wole Soyinka in Nigeria and Joseph Brodsky in Russia. As it happens, both were released as a result of the efforts of Arthur Miller who had himself faced the prospect of prison for holding opinions at odds with those of the state.
Carlos Fuentes was banned from the United States for a number of years, the FBI maintaining a 170 page dossier on him. It was Miller who secured his entry in 1966. The Colombian Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez was banned from the United States for decades, a ban finally reversed by President Clinton who had been caught reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in a class at law school. Marquez responded by defending Clinton in the Monica Lewsinsky affair. Tit for tat, if you’ll excuse the expression.
Writing to Batuz, the artist, philosopher and activist, inventor of the wonderfully named Société Imaginaire, in 1990, Arthur Miller insisted that at this stage of his life he could serve better by concentrating on his plays rather than trying to move the world through letters and speeches. It was an admission that, though for most people he was the author of a series of major plays which may have had their political implications, for much of his life he had been active in the political realm, signing protests, making political speeches, joining organisations, sponsoring events, fighting to release those imprisoned for challenging power. Many of the issues he has engaged with over the years, though, have now passed into history. Vietnam is behind us, the House Un-American Activities Committee concluded in 1975. The plays, though, continue.
Miller’s theatre was not polemical, except at the very beginning when, as a Marxist, he wrote plays for the trade union movement, but he did write plays that staged the private consequences of public actions and the public consequences of private actions. ‘Everything,’ he once remarked, ‘ultimately is political. Everything finally ends up being part of the way we govern ourselves … I don’t write political plays in the sense that I’m writing some kind of argument … they are about people seen, I hope, in a totality of which the society is a part.’ If any American playwright, if any American writer, addressed the tensions of his time, and in a sense exemplified them, it was Arthur Miller. If any American playwright insisted, in his work, on the struggle to sustain a sense of personal integrity in a context in which compromise was offered as a rational and desirable alternative, it was Arthur Miller. If any writer saw the freedom of the writer, and through that the human rights of all, as central to his work, it was Arthur Miller, a man who recognised the ambivalence of performance but found in performance an avenue to truth.
When he died, a local woman, a neighbour, remarked, ‘Just because he had progressive ideas and dared to challenge authority, they called him a communist. What he was, was deeply devoted to moral responsibility and social justice.’ It is now 100 years since his birth and 10 since his death. The words on his grave tell you all you need to know of him. They read, ‘Arthur Miller. Writer.’
1. Arthur Miller, On Politics and the Art of Acting, The Thirtieth Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, 26th March, 2001. http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/arthur-miller-lecture
2. Jonathan Franzen, Father Away (London, 2012), p.7.
3. Colby H. Kullman, “Death of a Salesman at Fifty: An Interview with Arthur Miller,” Michigan Quarterly, 37, 4, Fall 1998.
4. Hilary Mantell, Harriet Walter, Timberlake Wertenbaker, ‘The Lives of Others,’ The Royal Society of Literature Review, Spring 2015, p.9.
5. Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller: 1962-2005 (London, 2011), p.156.
6. Murray Briggs, Arthur Miller in Conversation with Murray Briggs (New Haven, 2000), p10.
7. Epigraph to The Blue Touch Paper, David Hare (London, 2015).
8. Ben McGrath, “The Light of Sunday,” The New Yorker, December 1st, 2003. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/12/01/the-light-of-sunday
10. White House Press Conference, October 11, 2001.
11. Arthur Miller, Speech to Union Theological Seminary, 10.7.86
12. Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller: 1962-2005 (Cambridge, 2011), p. 349.
13. Peuwsen, Peer (2005-02-05). “Der meistgehasste Türke”. Das Magazin (in German) (Tages-Anzeiger). “Man hat hier 30 000 Kurden umgebracht. Und eine Million Armenier. Und fast niemand traut sich, das zu erwähnen. Also mache ich es.”
14. Corruptions Perceptions Index 2013. http://www.transparency.org/cpi2013/results
19. Arthur Miller in Conversation with Murray Briggs, p.8.
20. Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller: 1962-2005 (Cambridge, 2011), p.516.