Academic journal article American Drama

Arthur Miller's Sojourn in the Heartland

Academic journal article American Drama

Arthur Miller's Sojourn in the Heartland

Article excerpt

The history of midwestern drama is one of identity masking and regional cross-fertilization. Quintessentially midwestern playwrights like Susan Glaspell and William Inge made their way East to pursue theatrical opportunities. In Glaspell's case, despite a staunch loyalty to her home region, fame came largely through her association with the Provincetown Players. In Inge's case, his four Broadway hits of the 1950's, three located in Kansas and one in Oklahoma, marked the playwright so strongly as midwestern that his surprisingly witty Manhattan comedy Where's Daddy? (1966) has been ignored.

Many mid-American playwrights conscientiously masked their regional origins, seeking to become simply "American." William Dean Howell represents one of the earliest, an author who emigrated to the Northeast, wrote some three dozen plays, but never set one in his home region. Mark Twain's Missourians are flamboyant in their outsider status, operating as cunning showmen in a hostile environment. For two decades on Broadway, Rachel Crothers set her plays in the Northeast, and mostly in new York. But late in life, with years of success under her belt, she began to "come out," first with midwestern characters and themes (Expressing Willie, 1924) and finally with a play set in Dubuque, Iowa (As Husbands Go, 1931). David Rabe, himself born and raised in Dubuque, is an extreme case of a Midwesterner who almost entirely masks his regional upbringing, with the barest hint appearing in the central characters of his Vietnam trilogy.

Arthur Miller offers a fascinating case-study for the cross-fertilizing influence of the Midwest. Born and raised in a Jewish neighborhood in New York, he was one of the earliest to reverse the typical Midwest-to-East migration, traveling to Michigan to study from 1934-38. Maxwell Anderson had spent a year studying at the University of North Dakota, his play White Desert (1923) resulting from that experience. Miller's experience was more foundational: he spent four years in Ann Arbor, won his first drama prizes, and discovered his theatrical voice in a part of the country not commonly thought to be dramatic. Before returning his focus to the Northeast, the early plays of Arthur Miller offer an enlightening glimpse into the Midwest's influence on at least one individual writer in his formative period.

In Timebends: A Life (1987), Miller reminisces fondly about his college days: "In the thirties Ann Arbor was regarded as a radical enclave in the heart of the Middle West" (94). In 1953, he was asked to "go back to Ann Arbor to report the changes since the thirties" (94). He returned again in the late sixties "to speak at the first teach-in: the whole university had closed down for three days to discuss the war and how to protest it" (99). Clearly, Miller has maintained an ongoing affection for and connection to his midwestern alma mater, a clear counterpart to the urban New York environment he grew up in.

In discussing the plays he wrote while a student at the University of Michigan, Miller mentions "using members of my family as models" and spending "many weekends visiting Jackson State penitentiary" for another (Timebends 91). In The Great Disobedience, the "first {play} I had ever researched," "I wanted to get out of myself and use the world as my subject" (93). According to Christopher Bigsby, "the rhetoric {of the student plays} lacks the control of his later work," and "there is also plainly a good deal more than a whiff of melodrama" (21). Yet they "bear the imprint of his Jewish identity as none of his published plays were to do until the 1960s" (Miller, Golden 212). Dominik asserts that the student plays "are, in essence, versions of the same story" of "trying to maintain their homes and their work in a futile situation" (110). These plays have not been published, but Miller clearly felt strengthened in his "conviction that art ought to be of use in changing society," having imbibed the environment of social activism around him as he discovered his playwriting voice (93). …

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