Finishing the Picture: Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

By Goldstein, Laurence | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Finishing the Picture: Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

Goldstein, Laurence, Michigan Quarterly Review

When I became the editor of Michigan Quarterly Review in the spring of 1977, one of my first acts was to contact Arthur Miller and ask if he would sign on as a Contributing Editor of the journal. Arguably the most distinguished alumnus of the University of Michigan, Miller had steered interviews with him to MQR during the previous fifteen years, and I hoped to formalize and extend the working relationship. After he agreed to serve in this new position he sent me an occasional memoir or one-act play or piece of reportage. His Hopwood Lecture titled "The American Writer: The American Theatre" appeared in the Winter 1982 issue. I was always grateful for his contributions, which helped to make the journal visible not only to Miller's worldwide legion of admirers but to two generations of readers who had been exposed to one or more of the major plays and to decades of publicity about his political, marital, and artistic activities. A few months before his death he sent me "The Flight to Newark," which follows this essay. Miller was a stern moralist, but he was also a humorist, and the comic exasperation triggered by airport protocol in this anti-travel essay clearly arose from more than the two Kafkaesque experiences he documents here.

After 1977 he directed more interviews to MQR as well. Few writers of the twentieth century more cheerfully agreed to sit for interviews than Miller; he enjoyed expressing his opinions and retouching his life story, which fascinated him with an intensity that fully occupied his imagination and glows through all his writing. Timebends, his autobiography, is the official self-portrait, but he depicts himself compulsively and meticulously in the variety of genres he undertook in his professional career: not only stage plays but radio plays, screenplays, television drama, journalism, short fiction, the novel, essays on the theater and society, even poetry. A man with a robust, ever-changing ego, Miller constantly discovered new materials in his own experience worth exfoliating for the page in dramatic or discursive form. "We are all becoming," he told an interviewer in the Spring 1977 issue of MQR who asked him to rank his fellow playwrights. He did not like terminal or absolute judgments; he was an artist of the provisional and the conditional, like most authors devoted to narrative.

He did complain in a general way about what he called in Timebends "the bullshit of capitalism." That complaint informs and nourishes his signature play Death of a Salesman, which put the postwar world on alert that commerce and commodification, the idols of the tribe, threatened fundamental human values. Attempts by hostile critics to read the play as nothing more than another 1930s proletarian drama about working-class heroes and victims fell short of the truth. The play was full of bitterness about the failure of this nation to resist the triumphant postwar social and economic machine grinding the human spirit into piles of cash. Miller spelled out the lesson in an interview in the Fall 1998 special issue of MQR celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his seminal play: "The politics of America is implicit in the whole of Salesman. The Salesman is close to being the universal occupation of contemporary society-not only in America, but everywhere. Everybody is selling and everything is for sale." Did that sweeping statement include Arthur Miller? Of course. He insisted on his inescapable guilt as he documented the tradeoffs and compensations involved in his own scaling the heights of Broadway, becoming rich and famous, marrying the most glamorous woman in the world, fighting off the invidious stereotypes that dogged him and pigeonholed him down through the years.

Miller told me in 1991, on the occasion of a ceremonial tribute to MQR in New York, that he felt full of energy and had abundant plans for future projects. And certainly the list of his writings for the period 1990-2005 is truly astonishing, beginning with The Ride Down Mount Morgan in 1991 and his novella Homely Girl in 1992 and culminating in his final produced play, Finishing the Picture, in 2004.

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