Miller's tale

The American Dream has always been Arthur Miller's great subject. At his best, he attacks it. But, w

Mr Peters' Connections opens with an old man falling asleep in an armchair. He begins to dream. Figures flit before him. He harangues them. They harangue him. The play, Arthur Miller says, "is taking place inside Mr Peters's mind". In an otherwise typically ravening review, Nicholas de Jongh wiped the blood from his lips and took a moment to praise Miller for venturing into expressionism in his eighties.

But Miller has long possessed a terrible weakness for the "think play". Mr Peters' Connections has a recycled feel to it. After the Fall "takes place in the mind, thought and memory of Quentin". It is Mr Peters' Connections, but written 33 years earlier - with the protagonist, hmm, about 33 years younger. Even the clutter of furniture on the set of Mr Peters' Connections has a familiar look. In The Price (1968), two brothers attempt to divide up their dead father's possessions in a room crammed with his bric-a-brac. There, the piled-up furniture is the literal debris of the past. One small tweak and, in Mr Peters' Connections, it becomes the metaphorical debris of the past, littering the landscape of his mind.

From the beginning, more or less, Miller has been obsessed with representing mental life, expressionistically, poetically or otherwise. He admitted that the hilarious germinal image for Death of a Salesman was "an enormous face the height of the proscenium arch which would appear and then open up, and we would see the inside of a man's head. In fact, The Inside of his Head was the first title. It was conceived half in laughter . . ." The trouble is, this particular head, Mr Peters's head, doesn't seem to have much inside it. It is like the Henry James novel as mocked by H G Wells: "A church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an eggshell, a bit of string . . ."

Thoughts of a dry brain in an off-Broadway season. As Mr Peters (or, rather, Miller) repeatedly exclaims: "There is no subject any more!" Simultaneously, he finds to his surprise that he wants to talk. "Why am I so fluent?" So - what is there to talk about? Well, for instance, the quest for perfection - the relative costs of penile enlargement, breast augmentation and breast reduction. (Breast augmentation and breast reduction: exactly the same, $4,400. Penile enlargement: $4,000 - $400 less. Why?)

This sort of rambling does at least possess the authentic tedium, the true pedantry of dream life. As Adrian Mole's mother so memorably put it, there's only one thing more boring than listening to other people's dreams, and that's listening to other people's problems. But in this play, the two are the same. The dream is the problem - the American Dream. Mr Peters makes this absolutely clear. "I had a dream, many years ago . . . I stepped out into the most perfect room I've ever seen . . . not a single thing out of place or painful to me. And I looked out of the window and the street was perfect. And I felt perfect, too . . . I begin to yearn for that house every now and then, until I realise - and with some surprise - that it never existed. And the subject, you said, was . . . ?" The American Dream, Miller's great subject, is at long last dead. So what is there left to write about? Well, you can always write about the interment, the obsequies. Which is what Miller does in Mr Peters' Connections.

The American Dream has always been Miller's great subject. This is what gives him his status. He addresses the problem that everyone wants addressing. The dream is peculiar to America's self-image; it is built into it. And it is incredibly potent. Why else did Marilyn Monroe marry Joe DiMaggio? World-class babe and world-class series. The dream changes form all the time. The subsequent marriage between Miller and Monroe was an alternative version of the dream team. Egghead marries Airhead. The philosophy is that dreams can come true. A piece of social history demonstrates this widespread belief perfectly. In 1923, a Frenchman, Emile Conde, patented a piece of string with 20 knots in it. Every morning, thousands of Americans ran each of the knots through their hands like a rosary and repeated: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better." Conde had struck upon the perfect commodity: mass-produced optimism. It is easy to see why a tremendous chord was struck by Death of a Salesman, a play about just this kind of dreamer.

And the truth is that Miller knows exactly how to tap in to the moods of the masses. It is what he wants to do. He tells this knowing little anecdote. On holiday in the Caribbean, Miller spotted Mel Brooks paddling in the sea. Brooks: "Well, what are you doing now?" Miller: "Well, I just wrote this play which we're about to put on. It's called The Price." Brooks: "What's it about?" Miller: "Well, there are these two brothers . . ." Brooks: "Stop, I'm crying!" Underneath the archness, the common touch persists. According to Miller, his plays "are my response to what was in the air, they are one man's way of saying to his fellow men, 'This is what you see every day, or think, or feel'". Willy Loman, for instance, voices the hopes of many Americans when he says "that's the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked".

However, Miller is at his best when he attacks the popular myth. The most potent scenes in Death of a Salesman are when Miller shows the American Dream for the sham that it is: the sickening moment when Happy refuses to recognise his father in the restaurant ("No, that's not my father. That's just a guy"); or Biff's lacerating analysis of the family's communal self-deception ("We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house! . . . Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!"). And then there is the scene in The Misfits when the four attempt to live out the "cowboy" version of the American Dream - lassoing wild horses with their bare hands - and see how horribly cruel the reality is.

Miller is truly great at self-deception. His most enduring characters are self-deceivers or plain fantasists: Procter (and everyone else) in The Crucible; Eddie in A View from the Bridge; Joe Keller in All My Sons. But the pity is, having brilliantly shown all these evaders and moral sidesteppers for what they are, Miller cannot help but sentimentally redeem each one of them. Usually, with their death. As he himself shrewdly put it: "To coin a phrase: there's nothing like death . . ." The characters are whisked into martyrology by their suicides at the last minute. And in soft-heartedly redeeming them, Miller also, irresistibly, redeems the American Dream. The pull of the popular is just too strong. After the fiasco of lassoing and then freeing the wild horses, Miller has Clark Gable "heroically" wrestle the last stallion to the ground single-handedly - without the others, without the car, without the plane. Then he lets it go. And then he drives off with Marilyn Monroe. She asks him: "How do you find your way back in the dark?"

"Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's under it; take us right back home."

Yes. We're right back home in the American Dream. That is Miller's problem - he is too aware of what his audience wants. Tellingly, he once burst out in an interview: "Look, I know how to make 'em go with me . . . it's the first instinct of a writer who succeeds in the theatre at all. I mean, by the time you've written your third play or so, you know which buttons to push . . . People are pretty primitive - they really want the thing to turn out all right." He then protests that this is not, in fact, what he wants to do. But, essentially, he does want the thing to turn out all right. Willy dies a hero. Alfieri blesses the noble, dead Eddie. Procter re-deems his "name" with his death. Joe Keller wipes out his sin by taking his own life. And so on. As Mr Peters says, "the main thing is . . . redemption".

This is Miller on the redemption of Eddie Carbone: "However one might dislike this man, who does all sorts of frightful things, he possesses or exemplifies the wondrous and humane fact that he, too, can be driven to what in the last analysis is a sacrifice of himself for his conception, however misguided, of right, dignity and justice." A terrible sentence - and pure populism. Tell it to the marines. This is what people respond to in Miller. He doesn't offend. Not only does he have the right politics, but he is a kindly playwright, a nice playwright. His reputation is secured because he is well liked. Yes, a man can end with diamonds on the basis of being liked.

Mr Peters' Connections is at the Almeida Islington until 2 September (020-7359 4404); All My Sons is in rep at the Cottesloe Theatre (020-7452 3000) until 18 October

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, So, who still wants to be a millionaire?