Arthur Miller, the American playwright, died on 9 February, aged 89, having battled with cancer, pneumonia and a heart condition.
Tributes were carried in the international media. Newspapers as far apart as the New York Times, the Boston Herald, the Daily News, in addition to the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Observer, were compelled to recognise Miller’s eminence in his field. It was a life that had seen the Wall Street crash, World War Two, the Holocaust, and the McCarthy era.
Miller was a literary colossus who penned some of the most revealing insights into the corruption of corporate practices and the concept of the ’American Dream’. Death of a Salesman, View from the Bridge, The Crucible and All My Sons, are just some of his works which are now classics.
Arthur Miller was born in New York City in 1915, the son of a prosperous garment manufacturer whose business was a casualty of the Great Depression of 1929-31. This experience fuelled his instinctive radicalism and began his politicisation.
Miller worked in a warehouse after graduating from high school until he saved enough money to move to the University of Michigan where he studied journalism and playwriting.
After the outbreak of World War Two, Miller moved to New York to pursue his writing. His first successful play, staged on Broadway in 1947, was All My Sons which dealt with a corrupt arms manufacturer, whose selling of faulty aircraft parts to the US air force during the war led to the death of servicemen.
This was followed by Death of a Salesman, which was acclaimed as a masterpiece, won the Pulitzer Prize and is now synonymous as Miller’s critique of the American Dream (or, if you’re Willy Loman, the American nightmare). It starred Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman and the then icon of the left, Elia Kazan, directed both plays. The two men subsequently played a baleful and crucial role in Miller’s later life.
The House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), originally set up by Congress to investigate Nazi activity in the US, turned to anti-communism under Richard Nixon’s leadership.
In the 1950s it became a tool of Senator Joe McCarthy’s rabid anti-communism, supported by right-wing republicans thirsting for revenge for Roosevelt’s New Deal. It tapped into a mood of anxiety, which was fuelled by the existence of Stalinist-dominated Eastern Europe and the emergence of communist China in 1949.
McCarthy’s witch-hunt targeted the motion picture industry as a so-called hot bed of sedition and communist sympathy. An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty swept post-war America. Hundreds of activists and radical liberals who had supported various peace campaigns which sprang up during and after the war were hauled in front of HUAC and asked the question: "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP)?"
If they took the Fifth Amendment, they were damned for contempt. If they answered yes, they had to apologise and give the names of friends and colleagues who had been at CP meetings. If no, they had to prove it. If they refused to name names they were in contempt of Congress, faced with jail and prevented from working in their own industry.
Appalled by this blatant violation of basic human rights, Arthur Miller began to write The Crucible, a play that would reflect the activities of HUAC. To research material he paid a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, the scene in 1692 of the most grotesque witch-hunt in American history. Ironically, it was while on his journey to Salem that he heard of Elia Kazan’s decision to collaborate with HUAC.
In his biography, Time Bends, Miller describes Kazan’s attempt to justify his decision: ’Listening to him I grew frightened. There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying: unless he came clean he could never hope, in the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America, and he would probably not be given a passport to work abroad either.
’If the theatre remained open to him, it was not his primary interest anymore; he wanted to deepen his film life, that was where his heart lay, and he had been told in so many words by his old boss and friend Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox, that the company would not employ him unless he satisfied the Committee…. I was growing cooler with the thought that as unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I attended meetings of the Communist Party writers years ago and had made a speech at one of them.’
In the early 1950s, Kazan made On the Waterfront, a film about the Mafia controlling the stevedores’ union on the New York docks. Budd Schulberg, who wrote the book and the screenplay, and most of the principal actors, including the aforementioned Lee J Cobb, were ’friendly witnesses’, collaborators with HUAC. In his own biography Kazan conceded that he made the picture to show that if the circumstances demanded it, it was OK to betray your friends.
In response, Miller wrote The View from the Bridge, also set in New York’s dockland. In contrast to the lionisation of Brando’s character in Waterfront, it attacked the role of the stool pigeon Eddie Carbone for his act of betrayal.
In 1956, Arthur Miller’s name was projected onto the pages of the world’s popular press when he married Marilyn Monroe and was found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name names to HUAC.
He describes his revulsion at the morals of HUAC when its then chair, right-wing senator Francis Walter, offered to drop the charge if he could persuade Monroe to be photographed shaking his hand. Miller and Monroe both refused.
According to Nicholas Hytner, director of the film adaptation of The Crucible, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Miller used to joke that, as a measure of the play’s timeless relevance, you could get an indicator of the level of international political persecution by counting the number of productions taking place around the world.
To demonstrate the truth of that observation, it was staged on Broadway just after the Patriot Act had been brought in.
During the 1990s, Miller expressed his disenchantment with the New York theatre by spending more time in Britain. In one of his last articles, he declares that the Broadway theatre has succumbed to glorious, glamorous show business.
He was right. Everything is about the bottom line. The theatre now parallels capitalism’s obsession with downsizing, delayering, streamlining, privatising, and other euphemisms for sacking workers or attacking wages and conditions.
Miller argued that his great plays would not now be staged on Broadway because they required ’too many people.’
Arthur Miller, while pronouncing and writing boldly about the political issues of the century, was explicitly political in his analysis of society but never joined a political party. David Mamet, director of Glengarry Glenross a film that parallels Salesman, in his New York Times tribute, suggests that there is an acceptance in Miller’s work that it is the ’human lot to try and fail’.
However, this is a profoundly pessimistic analysis. Whilst writing about the dark side of society, Arthur Miller constantly brought out and underlined humankind’s potential for nobility. To the end, he never lapsed into cynicism, or abandoned his vision of a more humane and just society.
Socialists can refer to his work as a means of popularly explaining the evils of capitalism, but also explaining how such evils can be eliminated by the socialist transformation of society. On that score, Arthur Miller’s contribution to this debate remains priceless.
From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi England and Wales
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