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The play’s the thing

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

Arthur Miller: A Life Martin Gottfried

Faber, pp.496, 25

The early life of Arthur Miller reads a bit like the first chapters of The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow: a precocious Jewish boy during the Great Depression, an influential older brother, an adolescent sexual awakening with a prostitute. Indeed, his life as a whole — in which he was to marry and divorce Marilyn Monroe, be found in contempt of Congress for refusing to name (fellow) communists and write his century’s greatest play — contains narrative, novelistic elements that cannot fail to compel: sex and celebrity, politics and theatrics, tragedy and Tragedy. In 1987, Arthur Miller turned it into a narrative work in the sprawling, creatively crafted memoir Timebends, the Miller’s Tale against which any biography will inevitably be compared.

However, as Martin Gottfried strongly suggests in this consistently enthralling work and first biography of Miller, Timebends cannot be the final word on the matter. An autobiographer will always ‘stand too close to the subject’ to gain a full perspective, which a critical biographer — especially someone kept at arm’s length by that subject, who although ‘willing to discuss his plays … would not talk about his life’ — is more likely to be given. Making a virtue of the necessity, Gottfried (a veteran New York critic) argues persuasively that a thorough examination of Miller’s work can provide a revealing account of the man behind it; that the plays are indeed the thing to which attention must be paid.

Arthur Miller: A Life, therefore, revolves around summaries of all the major works — and some of the more footling ones — from No Villain (1936) to Broken Glass (1994), alongside a detailed treatment of their personal genesis and theatrical, political and cultural context. So we learn about Miller’s tutor Professor Kenneth Rowe (author of the splendidly exclamatory Write That Play!), who impressed on his pupil the idea of ‘the past coming to life in the present and creating drama’ that itself was to receive such ground-breaking dramatisation in Death of a Salesman. We meet Miller’s theatrical collaborators such as the director Elia Kazan and the producer Kermit Bloomgarden (who apparently ensured the success of Salesman by refusing to consent to proposed revisions that would excise its innovative time scheme: ‘this shit I will not do’). This vivid, back-stage portrayal of the theatre world is the book’s particular strength, with Gottfried showing a real gift for telling cameo appearances and well-timed quotation. Two examples: (the director Jed Harris on the playwright Lillian Hellman, whom he was ‘dating’ for her connections): ‘So ugly I can fuck her but I can’t dance with her’; and ‘When I die I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris’s face’ (George Kaufman on Jed Harris).

Kazan, a representative figure of how the personal and political impacted on Miller’s theatrical life, plays a less artistic role in the book’s most thrilling, if most familiar, chapters. He became notorious for the fact that he ‘named names’ in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, something which Miller, a fellow sympathiser, famously refused to do. Gottfried focuses at length on this crucial time for Miller and charts how the two men, who were not on speaking terms, entered into a dramatic dialogue during the early Fifties — Miller with The Crucible (1953) and A View from a Bridge (1955) and Kazan with On the Waterfront (1954), which Marlon Brando only later realised was written by two informers ‘to justify finking on their friends’.

Kazan had earlier introduced Miller (‘the virgin in the garden’) to Marilyn Monroe (‘sexuality incarnate’), whose mesmeric presence dominates — appropriately enough — the centre pages of the book as it did the central period of Miller’s life. The story of how a constrained Jewish husband found adulterous, Oedipal release with a buxom Californian blonde — the beginnings of which read like a Woody Allen fantasy — has been told many times but is here rendered with mordant pathos typical of Gottfried’s assured prose. More significantly, its tragic ending is explored in the context of the astonishing production of After the Fall in 1964, a play that addresses the two seminal creations of the Fifties: the HCUAC and the myth of Marilyn Monroe. Written by Miller and directed by Kazan, it epitomises the relationship between Miller’s life and his art so profitably highlighted by Gottfried throughout and its superb treatment represents the intellectual climax of the book.

The Life cannot, however, finish there, as Miller’s life will not for another almost 40 years and 18 plays. Yet Gottfried, despite considering The Price (1968) to represent the end merely of the first ‘distinct half’ of Miller’s career, has clearly used up almost all of his best material and covers the remaining period in a little over 50 pages. Structurally, therefore, something of a long walk off a short pier, the book still represents a fascinating journey into the major years of America’s greatest living playwright.

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