Academic journal article American Drama

Arthur Miller and the Art of the Possible

Academic journal article American Drama

Arthur Miller and the Art of the Possible

Article excerpt

While commenting on the difference between playwriting and screenwriting in his Preface to Everybody Wim, Arthur Miller used the following illustration to illuminate his point about the subtextual dimension of the theater:

   If a telephone is photographed, isolated on
   a table, and the camera is left running, it
   becomes more and more what it is--a tele
   phone in all its details ... Things go differently
   on a stage. Set a phone on a table
   under a light and raise the curtain, and in
   complete silence, after a few minutes, some
   thing will accrete around it. Questions
   and anticipations will begin to emanate
   from it, we will begin to imagine meanings
   in its isolation--in a word, the phone
   becomes an incipient metaphor. Possibly
   because we cannot see its detail as sharply
   as on film of because it is surrounded by
   much greater space, it begins to animate,
   to take on suggestive possibilities, very
   nearly a kind of self-consciousness.
   Something of the same is true of words as
   opposed to images. The word is not and
   can't be any more than suggestive of an
   idea or sensation; it is nothing in itself.
   ("On Screenwriting and Language" vi)

Indeed, in itself a word is nothing. If we believe the structuralists, a word is a symbol, a signifer or sign, a marker of meaning that points to something, some referent or vast reservoir of negotiable meanings beyond itself. The diacritical nature of language inevitably means that even small differences in sound and sense will produce tremendous variance in the determination and reception of meaning. Even more significantly, and perhaps more problematically, if we take a post-structuralist approach to language, a word points to an endless chain of linked signifiers, and given the arbitrary nature of the signifier and the system of which it is a part, this endless linked series of associations inevitably multiplies the potential meanings of every word and every sequence of words forming sentences in written texts. The nuance that every word takes on and generates in the reader's mind is affected by the nuances all these words have in combination with each other, and all of this is then complicated by unanticipated associations which generate a host of linked associations and impressions, which collectively form unexpected meanings as they stimulate the reader's imagination and even tap into the unconscious. Perhaps for this reason, then, Miller, almost sounding a little like a deconstructive theorist, characterizes the word as nothing, but for Miller in its very, nothingness lie the richness, density, and infinite possibilities of the word. After all, Miller tells us, "a description in words tends to inflate, expand, and inflame the imagination, so that in the end the thing or person described is amplified into a larger-than-life figment" ("On Screenwriting and Language" v). And that is the crucial part of the equation (or the playwright: how to generate, shape, and string together words; how to invent and hone theater language in such a way that what is created constructs metaphorically an impression of reality that is powerful and suggestive enough to stimulate an imaginative response within the audience. As Miller recognizes, the possibilities inherent within the whole dramatic event are limitless, for the fundamental indeterminacy of meaning--an indeterminacy that Roland Barthes says inevitably results from the plural nature of the play text as a discourse that can be experienced only in the art of production- poses no nihilistic threat in Miller's world. Such indeterminacy instead opens up the possibility for rich speculative and imaginative discovery and generates endless opportunities for creative and diverse interpretations--possibly, even, a reinscription of oppositions, both with his own work and in the life and condition of humanity he depicts in his art. Miller's comments on the limitless and constantly mutating accretions accumulating around the words spoken and objects presented on the stage not only call attention to the subtextual dimension of the theater, but also show why this very important feature of dramatic art makes the theater what Miller described in 1999 as "the art of the possible" (Echoes 312). …

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