The Millers' Tale

By Caute, David | The Spectator, January 3, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Millers' Tale


Caute, David, The Spectator


ARTHUR MILLER, 1915-1962 by Christopher Bigsby Weidenfeld, £30, pp.739, ISBN 9780297854418

Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in Jewish Harlem, the son of immigrants from the shtetl, enjoying comfortable family wealth until his father's business collapsed. The key events in forming his political outlook were the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Cold War -- and the slow-to-dawn truth about Stalinism. The ever-present corollary is 'New York Jew'. At the outset of a biography encompassing the man and his work, Christopher Bigsby points up Miller's recurring debt to the classical Greek theatre, 'where a society could engage with its myths, its animating principles.' Tall and strong, Miller remarkably was never conscripted during the second world war. Wishing to join the Navy, he was classified 4F by the Selective Service Board because of a weakened wrist incurred playing college football and 'a stiffening of the right knee joint'. His elder brother, Kermit, had enlisted in the infantry, emerging with a purple heart, a hero in more spheres than one: he had dropped out of New York University to help with the ailing family business and allow young Arthur to take up a scholarship at the University of Michigan.

Miller's love for his brother shines through the character of Chris in All My Sons.

From November 1942, by now a member of the pro-Communist American Labor Party, Arthur was working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. His FBI file was up and running, but Bigsby is adamant that Miller never joined the Communist party. Given his loyalty to the Soviet Union, this may not have been entirely to Miller's credit -- though the absence of a party card was later to frustrate HUAC and numerous other witch-hunters.

Already deprived of a passport by the state department, Miller was finally hauled before the Committee in 1956 and cited for contempt of Congress.

With Death of a Salesman, his greatest Broadway success, more than 700 performances, one may feel that Miller found his own dramatic voice through stubborn hard work, whereas his rival, Tennessee Williams, was more readily in touch with his own genius. (Quipped Williams, 'one can never have too many copies of any good notice except a rave for Arthur Miller'. ) By contrast Miller's sense of humour required laboured excavation, as in the joke about changing noses in After the Fall. In his own view both Death of a Salesman and Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire signalled the end of an era of compassion, of a sense of pity for those who failed, to be replaced by the strident, censorious patriotism of the Legionnaires who picketed theatres.

A feature of this encyclopaedic study of the first half of Miller's life is the excellence of the writing and the trans-Atlantic acuity of observation. Bigsby is always at home in Miller's America. Exploring the theatre reviews, the fierce debates surrounding All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Bigsby confronts the American Committee for Cultural Freedom's loathing for Miller, a resentment exacerbated not only by Miller's commercial success and rapidly burgeoning international reputation, but also, perhaps, by the innocent rectitude of the playwright's unwaveringly 'American' espousal of 'un-American' causes. When he followed the Party line he made it sound like the Miller line.

If The Crucible (set in rural Massachusetts in 1692) is taken as Miller's response to McCarthyite hysteria, then Commentary's writers were quick to point out that whereas witches never existed, Communists did. …

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