Why Arthur Miller Is Important

By Bigsby, Christopher; Albee, Edward et al. | The Arthur Miller Journal, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Why Arthur Miller Is Important


Bigsby, Christopher, Albee, Edward, Brantley, Ben, McNally, Terrence, Brater, Enoch, Murphy, Brenda, Langteau, Paula T., Abbotson, Susan, Otten, Terry, Roudané, Matthew, Marino, Stephen, Livesay, Lewis, Dominik, Jane, Polster, Joshua, Palmer, David, Zinman, Toby, Cobb, Michele, Gleitman, Claire, The Arthur Miller Journal


Editor's note: The following is a collection of commentary from notable Miller scholars, playwrights, theater critics, and theater professionals whom I invited to reflect on Millers significance as we mark the centenary of his birth in New York City on October 17,1915.

I have a Google alert for Arthur Miller and am thinking of canceling it. Every day my inbox fills up with news of productions around the world. It is especially bad this year. Theater directors and media alike have a fondness for anniversaries. They invite a backward look, a revisiting of works that at the time seemed to speak to the moment but which astonish by their continuing relevance. We have seen a world premiere of Miller's screenplay The Hook along with innovative stagings of his classic plays. British, French, and German television are making documentaries. BBC radio is preparing programs. Anyone vaguely knowledgeable about Miller has been writing program notes, delivering talks, advising companies. It is easy to forget the disregard and worse he suffered even for those early works as the American Legion picketed Salesman and it and All My Sons were banned from occupied Europe as anticapitalist. Easy to forget the contempt with which American critics received After the Fall and simply missed the boat with Incident at Vichy, The Price, The American Clock, The Archbishop's Ceiling.

The ideological battles that once swirled around works of art now seem merely quaint but at the time could be poisonous. More remarkably, there were a number of American critics who never ceased dismissing him as a lightweight, a simple realist, resistant to experiment and an unrepentant critic of the American way. Even as his works were enthusiastically embraced abroad they were seen as irrelevant to those whose models were the new European theater or those groups rebelling against what they saw as the orthodoxies of drama with its stress on text and its fondness for the familiar architecture of presentation. But all the time Miller was finding his way to truths felt on the pulse by audiences who responded to the human situations he created as to the moral issues they engaged. He insisted that he never wrote political plays in the narrow sense except that all of his plays were political if we mean by that that they engaged with issues that linked the individual to society and society to the individual.

His stress on the past may have been inspired originally by his admiration for ancient Greek theater and the work of Ibsen, but it was integral to his view of life. There is a reason that denial and betrayal were fundamental themes, and high on the list of those denials and betrayals was a refusal to grant the significance of the past. He could not abstract the individual from past actions or society from its culpabilities. He was a natural existentialist. He was, though, interested in guilt only if it could be transmuted into responsibility. John Proctor in The Crucible wishes to believe he can stand aside, only to learn the price of doing so. His characters are prone to shout out their names because they wish to declare and identify an integrity that in truth they had failed to evidence. They look for meanings but too often in the wrong place.

Every production is reinterpreted not only by directors, actors, and designers but by audiences who translate what they see in terms of their own experiences. He is an American playwright, but Colm Toibin has said that writers don't have passports. Certainly Miller, who had his own removed, saw his plays travel freely. They do so still and each night or matinee when the curtain falls and the house lights go up people sit in momentary silence, as they did on the first night of Death of a Salesman, stunned and moved by what they have seen. Nor do they forget it with the years. This is his centenary. It will soon pass, but his plays will not, being reimagined, reinvented, and embraced by every generation, in every country, not as so many relics from a bygone age but as urgent messages about who we are and the world in which we live. …

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