Old Grouchy-Grumps

Arthur Miller: a life

Martin Gottfried <em>Faber & Faber, 484pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0571219462

Milan Kundera wrote that history looks sunlit, clear and obvious only in hindsight. In retrospect, we do not see the fog of the time. Kundera's fog is an image for historical short-sightedness.

Martin Gottfried's biography of Arthur Miller, at its best and at its worst, immerses us in this uncertain fog. Here, we find an unfamiliar Miller - not the craggy giant of the dust jacket, but a man of fluctuating reputation, whose plays were repeatedly badly reviewed, especially in America. We meet "Old Grouchy-Grumps", as a disenchanted Marilyn Monroe described him.

Gottfried criticises Miller's autobiography, Timebends, as confusingly unchronological, as "a dizzying route of free association", as humourless and windy. But Gottfried's account of the events surrounding Miller's life is also confused. He scrupulously complicates the already conflicting evidence. I was rapidly lost by the discussion on the precise relationship between Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront and Miller's screenplay The Hook. Then there are the humourless, toiling synopses of Miller's juvenilia, which lie like sandbags at the beginning of the book. Not to mention Gottfried's effortful attempts to evoke Miller's early life: "If he was to have pocket money, this was the only way he was going to get it, and so he bicycled through the dark, gripping handlebars as icy as the streets . . ."

Things only really get going when Miller starts writing good plays. With All My Sons, and later Death of a Salesman, we encounter the creative process - what the plays owe to the playwright's own life and how they were first staged. References to Kazan's director's notes for these plays are particularly telling. Kazan's theatrical talent conflicts with his theatrical pragmatism. Initially, he loved Salesman, but tried to persuade Miller to eliminate the expressionistic "memory" sequences. Miller protested: "Once you begin unravelling that structure, the whole mechanism begins to shudder. If it's going to fail, let it fail the way I wrote it, rather than the way I rewrote it." To his credit, Kazan acceded. His best instincts were for stage detail and physical life. For example, at the point where Biff tells his brother Happy about his disastrous job interview, Kazan scrawled into the script, "So I took his pen." This isn't a director specifying a stage move - it is a contribution to Biff's psychology.

When Gottfried turns to Miller and Monroe, these details lead to some revelations. The common misapprehension is that Miller and Monroe cherry-picked each other, consciously or not, for each other's iconic status. In fact, Miller first met her when she was not famous at all. He was the Pulitzer-winning playwright. She was "a Hollywood provincial", "just another studio contract player", who had played a couple of bit parts - and was sleeping with Elia Kazan. The story is only half-told in Timebends. Kazan, it seems, deliberately set out to disrupt Miller's already frigid, strained marriage. Monroe was to be the catalyst. Kazan couldn't make a party until late, so he told Miller to take Monroe along. Miller spent the whole party mesmerised, sitting on a sofa caressing her foot. Finally Kazan walked in and saw "the lovely light of lechery in his eyes". So he let Miller take her home that night. Monroe, too, was smitten.

This anecdote reminds us what a minor player she then was. "She even tagged along when [Miller] and Elia went to sell The Hook to . . . Columbia Pictures. As a lark, Kazan passed off Monroe as his personal assistant . . . with props - eyeglasses and a stenographer's pad . . ." It was 1951. Nothing happened immediately. Miller did not spend another night with Monroe. He sensibly fled Hollywood to save his marriage. Kazan carried on sleeping with Monroe. Five years later, she and Miller would marry. By then, she was a star. Within four years, by 1960, their marriage fell apart - almost ten years after they first met. The relationship was much longer, more complicated and profound than the snapshot in the common consciousness. Gottfried gives us a real relationship, describing it objectively - as Miller can't. Seeing it from the outside, its destructive end seems all the more painful. On the set of The Misfits, Miller and a visitor were talking in the hotel suite when Monroe "slammed" through the door. "Thank goodness you've brought someone home," she said. "It's so dull." The guest thought Miller "looked as if he'd been struck".

Gottfried's own attitude towards his subject is by turns respectful and exasperated, morally affronted and impressed. He returns repeatedly, in pointed asides, to Miller's wilful moral short-sightedness - above all, to the desertion of his first family for Monroe. He is (understandably) exasperated by Miller's more pompous ideals. For instance, after the success of All My Sons, Miller took a $16-a-week job at a beer box factory in Queens - "a moral act", he claimed, "of solidarity with all those who had failed in life". Gottfried reports with thin-lipped glee that Miller "lasted one week at the box factory". Such flashes of dislike underwrite Gottfried's judiciousness. He isn't being hagiographic or partisan when he condemns the critics who all but hounded Miller from America.

This intense critical antipathy towards Miller is easily forgotten, especially in Britain, where his work has been more favourably received. But although it seems inconceivable, Miller did not have a play on Broadway for 14 years. After the Fall, written in 1964, marked the turning point - due largely to its thinly disguised portrayal of Miller's relationship with Monroe. (The actors satirically called the play Miller's High Life.) "He has created a shameless piece of tabloid gossip," spat the New Republic. The vitriol was disproportionate. As Gottfried puts it, Monroe's "death cried out for a guilty party and the likeliest candidate was this . . . playwright who evidently had the ego to beat his breast at . . . her graveside".

By the early 1990s, American critical hostility towards Miller "was not reasonable, only habitual, and his exile seemed complete". Gottfried's condemnation of this "abuse, disrespect and lack of gratitude" is all the more effective coming from someone who seems actually not to like Miller very much. His grudging praise, when it comes, is potent. The supreme example is his account of Miller's refusal to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Once Gottfried has recreated the hysteria of that era, it becomes clear just what an extraordinary act of bravery this was for the playwright. He gives credit reluctantly, pronouncing drily: "Perhaps it was true that nobody believed in Arthur Miller's moral heroism more than he did, but moral heroism it surely was."

Nina Raine is a freelance theatre director and playwright

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