“The Action and Its Significance:
Miller’s Struggle with
Dramatic Form

Orm Överland

“There are two questions I ask myself over and over when I’m working,” Arthur Miller has remarked. “What do I mean? What am I trying to say?” The questions do not cease when a play is completed but continue to trouble him. In the introduction to his Collected Plays Miller is constantly asking of each play: “What did I mean? What was I trying to say?” These questions and the playwright’s attempts to answer them are directly related to his account of how he planned and wrote his next play.

The process of playwriting is given a peculiar wavelike rhythm in Miller’s own story of his efforts to realize his intentions from one play to the other. Troughs of dejection on being exposed to unexpected critical and audience responses to a newly completed play are followed by swells of creativity informed by the dramatist’s determination to make himself more clearly understood in the next one. This wavelike rhythm of challenge and response is the underlying structural principle of Miller’s introduction to his Collected Plays. Behind it one may suspect the workings of a radical distrust of his chosen medium. The present essay will consider some of the effects both of this distrust of the theater as a means of communication and of Miller’s theories of dramatic form on his career as a dramatist.

Arthur Miller is not alone in asking what he is trying to say in his plays, nor in being concerned that they may evoke other responses than those the playwright thought he had aimed at. From the early reviews of Death of a Salesman critics have observed that a central problem in the

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Arthur Miller's All My Sons
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Modern Critical Interpretations iv
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • The Question of Relatedness 5
  • Thesis and Drama 15
  • Joe Keller and His Sons 19
  • The Living and the Dead in All My Sons 27
  • Miller, Ibsen, and Organic Drama 33
  • The Failure of Social Vision 47
  • All My Sons and the Larger Context 63
  • "The Action and Its Significance- Miller’s Struggle with Dramatic Form 77
  • Two Early Plays 91
  • All My Sons 101
  • Realism and Idealism 107
  • The Dramatic Strategy of All My Sons 113
  • Bad Faith and All My Sons 123
  • Chronology 135
  • Contributors 137
  • Bibliography 139
  • Acknowledgments 141
  • Index 143
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