Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Arthur Miller's Life Had Symmetry Rarely Granted His Characters

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Arthur Miller's Life Had Symmetry Rarely Granted His Characters

Article excerpt

If you didn't know who he was, you could mistake him for a retired longshoreman. Or lumberjack.

Arthur Miller, who died Thursday at his farm in Roxbury, Conn., was much more than a commanding physical presence. His writing reshaped modern American theater.

At the time his most celebrated work - "Death of a Salesman" - first overwhelmed audiences in 1949, he was only 34. But even then, Broadway recognized this as more than a significant dramatic accomplishment. It was considered revolutionary, because his classic commentary on the perils of following the American dream wove together realism and memory, and disguised broad societal themes within the ordinary lives of its characters. Mr. Miller's plays, which he continued to write until his death, were less elaborate than those of Eugene O'Neill, more approachable than those of Tennessee Williams, and more theatrical than those of Clifford Odets. His approach to social relevance mirrored that of Henrik Ibsen, but drew from uniquely American stories. And his plays continue to be rediscovered because they are both universal and timeless.

All great playwrights are more than their resumes. In Miller's case, his confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee and his tumultuous marriage to screen legend Marilyn Monroe will always stand out in his. But great playwrights also understand how to draw from personal events and experiences, so that these contribute to, rather than define, their theatrical characters.

Veteran stage and screen actor Eli Wallach, who starred with Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift in Miller's screenplay "The Misfits," rediscovered that quality when he appeared in the 1992 New York revival of "The Price." Wallach remarked to me then, that "People come out after seeing one of [Miller's] plays, and say 'That was my father. That was my uncle. That was me.' They never forget it."

When "The Price" was revived in 1999, I sat behind actress Edie Falco at a Wednesday matinee. At intermission, she confessed that she hadn't known this play. After the curtain fell, I asked her what she thought. She shook her head and said simply, "I'm speechless." Tony Award winner James Naughton directed that production, and told me after the show, "This was the only production I ever worked on where nobody ever for a moment wandered from the process. Every day in rehearsal, and every moment during performances: It all comes from our great affection and respect for Arthur Miller's work."

Knowing the intellectual pinnacles he reached would not prepare you for the personality of Miller himself. His wife of 40 years, acclaimed photojournalist Inge Morath, who passed away before Miller, once lamented to me, "People just don't realize how funny Arthur is."

Nor did they realize how unadorned his daily life remained, despite his iconic status. …

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