They Might Be Giants: When Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller Were Neighbours

By Robson, Leo | New Statesman (1996), May 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

They Might Be Giants: When Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller Were Neighbours


Robson, Leo, New Statesman (1996)


"Arthur Miller is to American drama what Saul Bellow has been to the American novel," Christopher Bigsby, a Miller specialist, wrote in 2004; and neither the comparison nor its implication of heroic achievement would have been taken as the least bit controversial. Miller and Bellow, a pair of second-generation Jewish immigrants, born in the same year, 1915, had brought new energy and purpose to forms that were suffering from the decline of a dominant figure--Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway--and had in return been consistently rewarded with badges, medals and honorary degrees. But when both writers died in 2005, less than two months apart, it was clear who was considered the greater loss.

Miller, who died first, in February, was by then exclusively associated with a faraway time, the two decades following the Second World War. This was when he wrote his best plays, starting with All My Sons in 1947 and continuing, two years later, with Death of a Salesman, his requiem to Willy Loman, who after a lifetime of graft is disposed of like "a piece of fruit". This was when Miller tackled McCarthyism --through an analogy with the Salem witch trials--in The Crucible, which premiered in 1953; when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to give the names of American communists. And this was when he married Marilyn Monroe, the star of The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and finally The Misfits, a script that Miller, barely a playwright at all during that period, wrote in order to console her after a miscarriage.

His fortunes turned in 1964 with After the Fall, which was widely regarded as an attack on his former wife, who had died two years previously. Directed by his old friend Elia Kazan, in their first collaboration since their rift over McCarthyism, the play marked the point at which Miller started being treated as a spent force.

By the time of his death, Miller's prospects of a healthy afterlife rested almost entirely on four old plays (the other being A View from the Bridge, initially staged in a one-act version in 1955 and extended the following year). There was also Timebends, his monumental autobiography, in which, over 600 pages, Miller provided a dignified portrait of his life and times; not just McCarthyism and Monroe but his apprentice reading of the ancient tragedians, from whom he borrowed, to quote his account of his narrative method, the "structural concept of a past stretching so far back that its origins were lost in myth, surfacing in the present and donating a dilemma to the persons on the stage, who were astounded and awestruck by the wonderful train of seeming accidents that unveiled their connections to that past".

In 2005, the influence of this structural concept was in decline. Neither of Miller's anointed successors, David Mamet and Tony Kushner, had produced a significant play in over a decade. Meanwhile, Edward Albee, who toppled the tragedy form favoured by Miller and Tennessee Williams with the absurdism of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had returned to Broadway after years of exile with The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?--and his own successors, among them Bruce Norris, Neil LaBute and Paula Vogel, were going strong. Bigsby has tried to argue that Two-Way Mirror, a two-part play Miller wrote in the 1980s, was "as radical as anything else going on at the time". But in matters of cultural reputation, the vague impression has more weight than the nuanced argument and the prevailing view was of Miller as a flyblown figure, whose later plays had little to offer to current practitioners.

And so what if his early plays were constantly being studied and revived? It wasn't his famous work that was in question. It was everything else he had done. Around the time of Miller's death, Kevin Spacey, in his new role as artistic director of the Old Vic, invited the film-maker Robert Altman to direct Miller's play Resurrection Blues, which had premiered in Minneapolis in 2002. …

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