Brutal Broadway Playwright Arthur Miller Laments Drama's Demise

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AS THE AMERICAN theater's longest-running living playwright, Arthur Miller is a prophet not without honor - except on Broadway.

At age 78, Miller continues to write and turn out plays despite a commercial New York theater that has become increasingly resistant to drama, especially the drama of social and moral responsibility that Miller favors.

"Broadway is basically a place for musicals and light comedies," the playwright said the other day during an interview in his East Side apartment. "I suspect it doesn't make any sense economically anymore."

Miller even looks a little biblical these days, a shock of unruly white hair surrounding a bald head. He's wearing a crisp white shirt unbuttoned at the top and a pair of baggy tan pants held up by suspenders. The voice is gravelly but not unfriendly as he expounds on the demise of the street where he hasn't had a major hit in a decade.

"The cost of everything on Broadway is beyond belief," he says, settling into a straight-back chair in the living room. "It has become too much of a business and less of an art."

Yet no other living writer has had such a lengthy career on the New York stage. Miller's resume spans 50 years, from a short-lived play called "The Man Who Had All the Luck" that lasted only four performances in 1944 to his latest effort, "Broken Glass," which opened in April at the Booth Theater. The play received respectful if mixed reviews and has struggled to survive.

"It never occurred to me that I might be on Broadway again because it is not very hospitable to serious plays," Miller says. And Broadway doesn't begin to tell the story of Miller's popularity outside of New York, and especially in England.

"His plays are performed constantly," says Bridget Aschenberg, Miller's longtime agent. "One can't put a figure on it because there's not a day goes by anywhere in the world where his plays aren't being done."

In the United States, his classics such as "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible," "All My Sons" and "A View from the Bridge" are staples of high school, college and community theater groups as well as professional theaters, Aschenberg says.

Consider a newer work, "The Last Yankee," which premiered last year in New York at Manhattan Theater Club and later had a run in London at the Young Vic and in the West End.

According to Aschenberg, the play already has been done by 12 American regional theaters, ranging from the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland to Stages in Houston to the Gloucester Stage Company in Gloucester, Mass. At last count, foreign rights have been sold in 15 countries from Japan to Bulgaria to Iceland.

Yet it is in New York where Miller has the most difficult time. "The Price," his last new commercial hit, was in 1968. A critically acclaimed revival of "Death of a Salesman" took Broadway by storm 10 years ago, but it also had the potent box-office clout of Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman. Yet new productions of "A View from the Bridge" and "All My Sons" flopped.

Worse still, minor Miller plays of the 1970s and '80s, such as "The Creation of the World and Other Business" and "The American Clock," closed quickly on Broadway.

Critics chided Miller for what they said was his old-fashioned politics and heavy-handed dramatics. It's a glum period that he now speaks about somewhat philosophically.

"When I was coming up in th 1940s, Eugene O'Neill was ignored and his language considered outdated," the playwright says. " `Nobody spoke that way anymore,' people said. He was gone for a decade and a half before he became popular again."

Gerald Freedman, artistic director fo the Great Lakes Theater Festival and a Miller champion, says, "Arthur does have a moral conscience. I hate the remark that he wears his message on his sleeve. Why is it embarrassing to say, `I care,' and speak it directly? …