Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

It would be disingenuous for me to claim any profound love for Arthur Miller's work. Like most avid patrons of the theatre, I have seen "Death of a Salesman" staged -- in my case, if memory serves, at the old Northside home of the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. I struggle to convince myself that I have (or have not) seen "The Crucible" performed live, but in any event I have read it and seen the most reason film adaptation of it, which I recall was haunting.

But one thing that keeps coming through from his obituary in today's Times, something that won't be ignored, is his tremendous courage both as an artist and as a man. Consider this passage:

Writing plays was for him, he once said, like breathing. He wrote in [his memoir] "Timebends" that when he was young, he "imagined that with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do." He also saw plays as a way to change America and, as he put it, "that meant grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck."

Hyperbole? I wonder. Consider this: how many of you have read Shakespeare? How many of you have seen Shakespeare on stage or screen? How many of you have encountered less than subtle adaptations of Shakespearian works under different titles? "10 Things I Hate About You," perhaps? Or "O?" That merely names two recent ones. What about Star Trek III, which is laden with Shakespearian references? Consider that "The Crucible" is used, or at least was used in my adolescence, as a sort of teaching tool for the McCarthy era, notwithstanding that it is a wholly metaphorical treatment. And although the supremacy of dramatic theatre as a mainstream artform has long passed, the fact remains that plays, at least as much as movies, continue to draw tremendous attention, and garner tremendous controversy: Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" trilogy, for example, generated a great deal of national controversy, as did his more recent "Homebody / Kabul." Terrance McNally's "Corpus Christi" drew protesters and negative press nationally and internationally. Did any of these rival the pervasiveness of, say, the tumult surrounding "The Passion of the Christ?" Perhaps not. But that's a high bar indeed; the theatre continues to matter, even as it feigns marginalization. And it is hard to imagine American theatre without Arthur Miller.

Of course we cannot forget that Miller also wrote the screenplay for "The Misfits" as a sort of gift for his wife, Marilyn Monroe.

Although Miller's star faded in the seventies and eighties, as his plays failed to satisfy critics or draw large audiences, the ability of a play to galvanize a groundswell of disapproval was again demonstrated by the staging in 2004 of Miller's last play, Finishing the Picture, which sought to depict the making of "The Misfits," and in its portrayal of Marilyn drew a significant negative response.

I don't have to like his art -- though I do in moderation -- to appreciate all that he did for the stage, and for America. And one must admire him above all for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activites Committee, while so many of his peers and colleagues did.

Though our rugged individualist underpinnings suggest otherwise, ours is a society that loves its icons (the E! network flourishes for no other reason). Whether it was McCarthy, the false corporate idyll sold en masse to Americans during the prosperous period following World War II, or Miller's own late ex-wife, Miller never shied away from his commitment to remaining iconoclastic where his moral commitments so required. And that requires a great deal of courage. The world of American letters is indebted to Miller for that, if for nothing else. And it's touching to see a man die who in many ways accomplished precisely what, at a very young age, he set out to do.

UPDATE: David Mamet chimes in with a sweet remembrance.

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