Arthur Miller, 1915-1962, by Christopher Bigsby
Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in Jewish Harlem, the son of immigrants from the shtetl, enjoying comfortable family wealth until his father’s business collapsed. The key events in forming his political outlook were the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Cold War — and the slow-to-dawn truth about Stalinism. The ever-present corollary is ‘New York Jew’. At the outset of a biography encompassing the man and his work, Christopher Bigsby points up Miller’s recurring debt to the classical Greek theatre, ‘where a society could engage with its myths, its animating principles.’
Tall and strong, Miller remarkably was never conscripted during the second world war. Wishing to join the Navy, he was classified 4F by the Selective Service Board because of a weakened wrist incurred playing college football and ‘a stiffening of the right knee joint’. His elder brother, Kermit, had enlisted in the infantry, emerging with a purple heart, a hero in more spheres than one: he had dropped out of New York University to help with the ailing family business and allow young Arthur to take up a scholarship at the University of Michigan. Miller’s love for his brother shines through the character of Chris in All My Sons.
From November 1942, by now a member of the pro-Communist American Labor Party, Arthur was working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. His FBI file was up and running, but Bigsby is adamant that Miller never joined the Communist party. Given his loyalty to the Soviet Union, this may not have been entirely to Miller’s credit — though the absence of a party card was later to frustrate HUAC and numerous other witch-hunters. Already deprived of a passport by the state department, Miller was finally hauled before the Committee in 1956 and cited for contempt of Congress.
With Death of a Salesman, his greatest Broadway success, more than 700 performances, one may feel that Miller found his own dramatic voice through stubborn hard work, whereas his rival, Tennessee Williams, was more readily in touch with his own genius. (Quipped Williams, ‘one can never have too many copies of any good notice except a rave for Arthur Miller’.) By contrast Miller’s sense of humour required laboured excavation, as in the joke about changing noses in After the Fall. In his own view both Death of a Salesman and Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire signalled the end of an era of compassion, of a sense of pity for those who failed, to be replaced by the strident, censorious patriotism of the Legionnaires who picketed theatres.
A feature of this encyclopaedic study of the first half of Miller’s life is the excellence of the writing and the trans-Atlantic acuity of observation. Bigsby is always at home in Miller’s America. Exploring the theatre reviews, the fierce debates surrounding All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Bigsby confronts the American Committee for Cultural Freedom’s loathing for Miller, a resentment exacerbated not only by Miller’s commercial success and rapidly burgeoning international reputation, but also, perhaps, by the innocent rectitude of the playwright’s unwaveringly ‘American’ espousal of ‘un-American’ causes. When he followed the Party line he made it sound like the Miller line.
If The Crucible (set in rural Massachusetts in 1692) is taken as Miller’s response to McCarthyite hysteria, then Commentary’s writers were quick to point out that whereas witches never existed, Communists did. In other words Elia Kazan, the brilliant director of Miller’s first two plays, had been justified in turning informer and naming names to HUAC, though he knew it could ruin lives and careers (but not his own). Bigsby’s extended defence of Miller’s gut rejection of Kazan’s apostasy is an intellectual triumph.
The execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on 19 June 1953 brought The Crucible audience in the Martin Beck Theatre to its feet in a no doubt orchestrated minute’s silence. One can add that the Rosenbergs loved theatre and were palpably addicted to role-playing; during a prison conversation Ethel yearned to see The Crucible — she had heard that the audience applauds when a character declares he would rather burn in hell than become a stool pigeon.
Were there a prize for ‘A Biography in Context’, this one would carry the day, but on the downside Bigsby allows his narrative to sprawl through peripheral detail. He knows too much not to pass it on. A few areas of darkness are visible. For example, Miller’s first major Broadway success, All My Sons, was soon staged at the Vachtangov Theatre, Moscow, but what Bigsby has to say about this revealing episode comes down to four fact-free lines. All the Soviet critics of A. I. Remizov’s production, starring the young Yuri Lyubimov, regretted that Miller had resorted to the traditional American ‘family drama’, which was why, complained the man from Izvestiya, ‘we don’t see the toilers of America, who have the moral right to appear in the role of denouncers of this rotten society’. Without exception the Moscow critics mentioned that All My Sons had ‘suffered persecution’ in what they called ‘the American zone of occupation of Europe’. After a run of several weeks in Sochi and Moscow, the knockout blow was delivered in the 1 December 1948 issue of Vecherniaia Moskva, where the scathing Al Abramov relegated Miller to the decadent company of O’Neill and Faulkner. Ironically, the play was taken off shortly before Miller was photographed alongside Shostakovich at the fellow-travelling Waldorf Conference in New York.
In 1956 Miller married Marilyn Monroe, mistress to Elia Kazan among others, whom he had met five years earlier. Life magazine called it ‘the most unlikely marriage since the Owl and the Pussycat’ — one of America’s ‘foremost intellectuals’ had met up with ‘one of the country’s foremost foremosts’. Miller’s exchange of telegrams with an exasperated Billy Wilder about Monroe’s behaviour while shooting Some Like It Hot is a gem. The couple’s last, increasingly desperate, attempt at symbiosis was to be the aptly named film, The Misfits (script by Miller, direction by John Huston, drink and drugs, neurosis and keeping everyone waiting by Monroe). Bigsby’s book stops in the year of her death, 1962, when Miller was only 47 and with After the Fall yet to come. Although he offers a number of cross-references between that play and the most traumatic episodes of Miller’s life, it is frustrating not to be offered the full works on what amounted to a radical departure in Miller’s theatrical technique as well as the summation of an era.