When Arthur Miller died in 2005, most of the obituaries described him as a playwright of the first rank—though a few of the critical appraisals of his work that accompanied those obituaries were flecked with lingering doubts. Charles Isherwood’s New York Times
“appreciation,” for instance, was decidedly mixed. “Even in his finest work,” Isherwood wrote, “he sometimes succumbed to overstatement. . . . Themes, motifs, moral conclusions often glare from his plays like neon signs in a diner window.”
But Isherwood’s ambivalence was untypical of the praise lavished on Miller’s oeuvre at the time of his death. One critic, Steven Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle, went so far as to call Death of a Salesman (1949), Miller’s best-known and most frequently revived play, an “American King Lear.” In Europe, where he was and remains widely regarded as America’s greatest playwright, the tributes were, if possible, even more lavish. The British stage director Nicholas Hytner spoke for most of his colleagues when he declared that “plays like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge will always stand with the masterpieces of Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Sophocles.”
What was most striking about this chorus of enthusiasm, however, was that it reflected a sea change in opinion. Well into the 1980s and beyond, Miller’s work had been viewed with considerable skepticism, both by critics and by the public at large. Today, by contrast, it is generally taken for granted—especially in England—that he was a great writer. A sign of this emergent consensus is the publication of Christopher Bigsby’s Arthur Miller, an unabashedly admiring academic biography described by its publisher as “supremely authoritative.”*1
In fact, Bigsby’s book, contrary to the deceptive manner in which it has been publicized, is not a definitive biography but a hugely distended torso. The narrative comes to an abrupt end with the death in 1962 of Marilyn Monroe, Miller’s second wife, followed by a 22-page epilogue in which the second half of Miller’s life is tersely and evasively summarized. That Harvard University Press, Bigsby’s American publisher, should be seeking to pass off Arthur Miller as a full-scale biography is, or should be, an embarrassment to all parties concerned. But it is also understandable, for Bigsby’s book is a protracted act of something not unlike hagiography, and a hagiographer who grappled honestly with the whole of Miller’s long life would have a great deal of explaining to do.
One need not read far in Arthur Miller to catch its tone. The first sentence will do: “This is the story of a writer, but it is also the story of America.” That sentence also says much about the perspective of the author, who is a specialist in the field of academic inquiry known as “American studies” and who appears to be interested in presenting his subject less as an artist than as a representative figure of the American Left.
As it happens, Miller’s political views were eminently representative, though not in the way that many of his admirers might suppose. Today he is remembered for having refused to “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, an act of defiance that is now seen as heroic. But there was far more to Miller’s political history than his HUAC testimony. An adolescent convert to Marxism, he remained blindly loyal to the promise of Soviet Communism long after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. Not until Pearl Harbor did he finally abandon the Communist Party’s antiwar line, and after World War II he attended Communist cell meetings in New York and took part in the Communist-controlled Waldorf Conference of 1949. Years later Miller told Bigsby that he had “felt uncomfortable at the Waldorf Conference, . . . some of the Left/Communist positions made me very, very unhappy.” But his public statements at the time and for years afterward were indistinguishable from those of a full-fledged Stalinist, and there is no reason beyond his own retrospective word to suppose that he was anything other than that.
About all these matters Bigsby is candid—but he also goes to considerable trouble to explain them as “a product of the times”:
It was the fact of fascism, as it would be the wartime sacrifices of Russia, that kept [Miller] loyal to Marxism not merely when others had abandoned it, but when it had become dangerous to declare loyalties now at odds with a new and vindictive orthodoxy. . . . [H]e had too much emotional investment in the passions of the 1930s to acknowledge the betrayals at the heart of a dream.
As for Miller’s later years, it is sufficient to say that Arthur Miller makes no mention whatsoever of the fact that none of the plays he wrote after 1968 was favorably received in this country, or that his American reputation now rests almost entirely on Death of a Salesman, All My Sons (1947), and The Crucible (1953), his first three commercial successes and the only Miller plays that continue to be revived with regularity. Nor does Bigsby make any reference to the widely reported posthumous revelation that Miller concealed the existence of his fourth child, whom he institutionalized on learning that the infant, who was born in 1966, suffered from Down Syndrome.
Once again, the obituaries told much about the basis for Miller’s repute. “As a political figure, he was a progressive man, but never doctrinaire,” said Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America. “There was a simplicity, and humbleness, and decency in his work.” Hytner, who directed the 1996 film of The Crucible, went so far as to claim that Miller’s politics were the reason he had become more popular in England than America:
We have felt more comfortable with the uncompromising morality of his world view than his compatriots. America felt rebuked by him. Over here, we relish the ferocity of his arguments with the way things are. Many Americans have felt insulted by them. His refusal to meet them halfway was the magnificent stubbornness of the great artist.
Perhaps—yet Hytner’s self-satisfied tribute to the good taste of the British public overlooks the fact that Miller’s early plays were more than sufficiently popular in this country to make him a rich man, and have remained no less popular to this day. (The Crucible has sold more than 7 million copies in paperback since 1953.) Moreover, much of the harshest criticism leveled at Miller’s work during the years of his greatest success came from such left-of-center commentators as Mary McCarthy, Kenneth Tynan, and Robert Warshow, all of whom found his plays to be heavy-handed in the extreme. Tynan, for instance, famously wrote that The Crucible, in which Miller used the Salem witch trials as the basis for an allegorical portrayal of the HUAC hearings, “is disturbing because it suggests a sensibility blunted by the insistence of an outraged conscience: it has the over-simplifications of poster art.”
Even more devastating was Warshow’s indictment of Death of a Salesman:
Like many “great” American plays, it seems to me gross and ungainly, almost monstrous in its want of finesse, full of a self-conscious energy masquerading as profundity and a mechanical realism which hides a fundamental reluctance to give the real world its due.2
Bigsby, however, dismisses these unfavorable judgments as coming from members of the anti-Stalinist Left “whose politics were at odds with [Miller’s] own.” And it is certainly true that Tynan, Warshow, and their critical colleagues tended to overlook the sheer theatrical effectiveness of Miller’s early plays. Earnest and hectoring, they are as much secular sermons as works of art, humorless indictments of the moral emptiness of the American middle class, and in them he too often made the mistake of using florid, pseudo-poetic language (“Nobody dast blame this man”) in an attempt to heighten their theatrical intensity. On the other hand, Miller also understood the power of a “well-made” play to seize and hold an audience’s attention, and the plots of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible are sufficiently involving to conceal many—if not all—of their artistic defects.
Yet in the end it is hard to see Miller as anything other than a second-string tragedian, a sentimentalist who mistook ideas for art and windiness for poetry. Small wonder, then, that the commercial theater, with its bottomless appetite for the obvious, welcomed him as a modern master—and that many of the sharpest critical minds of his own time begged to disagree.
Why, then, do so many modern-day critics feel so differently about Miller? The answer, I suspect, is that they are willing to overlook his limitations as a writer because they share his political views—and, just as important, his view of what theater should do.
Politics is and has always been a legitimate concern of the serious playwright. But to the extent that contemporary English-language theater embodies political ideas, it is increasingly in the form of what I call the theater of concurrence, a theater whose practitioners take for granted that their audiences will agree with them in every political particular. Such playwrights assume—usually rightly—that the mere mention of a demon figure such as George W. Bush will be sufficient to elicit loud barks of self-congratulatory laughter.
Arthur Miller’s best plays were more subtle than that, but it is also true that they were vehicles for his political views, and that they often presented these views in a way that borders on caricature. This simplification was in large part responsible for their success at the box office. Once again, it is Robert Warshow who best encapsulates the source of their enduring appeal:
Mr. Miller’s steadfast, one might almost say selfless, refusal of complexity, the assured simplicity of his view of human behavior, may be the chief source of his ability to captivate the educated audience. . . . What this audience demands of its artists above all is an intelligent narrowness of mind and vision and a generalized tone of affirmation, offering not any particular insights or any particular truths, but simply the assurance that insight and truth as qualities, the things in themselves, reside somehow in the various signals by which the artist and the audience have learned to recognize each other.3
Anyone who spends more than an occasional night at the theater will likely be struck by the prophetic quality of this passage. To attend a New York performance of a “progressive” play like Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? or Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is not unlike attending a taping of a TV show whose audience responds reflexively to the repeated flashing of an applause sign. Miller’s plays flash the same kind of signals, and draw the same kind of response. The difference is that the critics of yesteryear, most of whom shared the political views of their contemporary counterparts, were nonetheless capable of setting aside those views and judging his plays not as political statements but as works of art.
Bigsby, by contrast, lacks that critical detachment. Not only does he admire Miller’s plays without evident reservation, but he clearly believes that those who disagree with him (myself included) do so solely because they disagree with Miller’s politics as well. In one of the most revealing passages in Arthur Miller, he implies that every bad review Miller ever received can be attributed to the lingering effects of the “collateral damage” wrought on his person by the “militant anti-Communism” of the 40s and 50s:
Susan Sontag, Robert Brustein, Richard Gilman, Philip Rahv, along with Walter Kerr, John Simon and others sustained an attack on him through the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. In 1984, the American Gerald Bordman would sum up his achievement in The Oxford Companion to American Theatre in a devastatingly reductive sentence: “Miller was a firmly committed leftist, whose political philosophizing sometimes got the better of his dramaturgy.” Note the tense—was. Note the year—1984.
One may take leave to doubt that a biographer capable of penning such a paragraph is capable of comprehending the limitations of a playwright whose real but modest gifts were far outstripped by his near-infinite pretensions.
1Harvard, 750 pages, $35.
2 Miller’s expository prose was, if possible, even more ungainly than his dramatic writing. In Timebends, his 1990 autobiography, he remarks that he sought in Death of a Salesman to “lift the experience into emergency speech of an unashamedly open kind rather than to proceed by the crabbed dramatic hints and pretext of the ‘natural.’”
3 “The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible: Arthur Miller and His Audience” (Commentary, March 1953).
Terry Teachout, COMMENTARY’S chief culture critic and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, out in December from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.