Show Hide image

A hero of his time

<strong>Arthur Miller (1915-1962)

</strong>Christopher Bigsby

<em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 739pp

Fans of Arthur Miller will greatly enjoy this biography and - surprise, surprise - the rest of us will, too. Though littered with solecisms, it is, on the whole, intelligent, lively and full of hard, bright facts, far more entertaining and useful than any of its subject's grandiose, plodding and sentimental plays. Of course, "useful" is a relative term - while Miller's dramas may not help theatregoers understand themselves or the world, they have been indispensable to those desperate for a big, strong, straight playwright who stands for truth, justice and the American Way. Great was the consternation in the Sixties at an article in the New York Times that wondered why the three greatest living American playwrights were homosexual. I still chuckle recalling its effect on an academic friend, who said: "There's Tennes see Williams and Edward Albee and - who's the third? [We didn't yet know about Thornton Wilder.] Not" - and here he clutched his brow in horror - "Arthur Miller!"

One does not look to Christopher Bigsby - author and editor of numerous Miller tomes, director of the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies, and Miller friend for two decades - for a balanced, much less a prosecutorial, view. He begins: "This is the story of a writer, but it is also the story of America." He rolls out the old comparison of Miller's looks with Lincoln's, and he believes in his subject's greatness as implicitly as if Miller's nickname "Arty" (the first syllable) heralded his destiny. But, in general, Bigsby goes easy on the allegory and, despite many evasions and omissions, provides enough evidence and even judgements to disquiet the faithful.

Not all his arguments are closely reasoned. Thus Mary McCarthy's ridicule (she "loved attacking Miller for his plays" is the curious way in which Bigsby puts it) is countered with a shudder at her bed-hopping; and her claim that Norman Podhoretz had a small penis presumably demolishes another unfriendly critic. This gives a new meaning to "comparative literature".

Benefiting from previously unseen documents, and from his conversations with Miller and many family members, Bigsby portrays Miller's childhood and adolescence in a way that shows why he wrote only four noteworthy plays. Isidore Miller, amiable but illiterate, went bust in the Depression and thereafter, despite many attempts, never regained his success in the garment trade. Augusta Miller, a cultivated woman whose family made her marry for money, was resentful at first, deeply embittered when the money disappeared, and as contemptuous of her husband as she was besotted with her son.

While it is nice to have fate and Mom fight your Oedipal battle for you, this never seems to work as well as when you do it without help. Miller could not deny that his father was ignorant and insensitive, but he disliked having his mother constantly say so, and an accession so easily gained must have felt unstable and unreal. In All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, Miller created a father who was a worthier opponent for his defiant son and whose suicide is an occasion for wringing of hands and rending of garments. The famous "Attention must be paid" sums up, with its sanctimonious nagging, a stiff, awkward and dutiful play, but these qualities have, paradoxically, added to its "greatness".

Just as Miller's reputation is maintained by academics such as Bigsby in whom the glamour of theatre arouses suspicion (if anything), Salesman's popularity is ensured by the perennial supply of theatregoers who feel they should have been nicer to their unlovable fathers. As in All My Sons, the father kills himself when shown that he has ruined his son's life, thus rewarding the audience's brief wallow in guilt with a nice touch of wish-fulfilment.

Miller's next two plays were products of the next great crisis in his life - not his adultery with Marilyn Monroe while married to his first, Catholic wife and their subsequent marriage, but an earlier occasion, when he was merely tempted by another woman. The longshoreman in A View from the Bridge reproduces Miller's own terrible sin: he wants to commit adultery. Unlike his character, however, Honest Art confessed his mental infidelity to his wife, causing her to turn away from him.

The hero of The Crucible does the dirty deed, but has the excuse that his wife, as she herself acknowledges, is cold. Both suffer the deaths their crimes deserve. The Crucible is also about the breakdown of social order and decency, a theme that, for once bigger than Miller's ego, makes it a powerful play, whether or not one identifies the victims of the witch-hunt as communists. Bigsby rightly attacks the inane argument (repeated to me smugly, at the last revival, by a major reviewer) that, while there were no witches, there were communists, even though he could have done so in a more forceful and focused manner. While some communists in positions of power did work against America, the lives of thousands more were destroyed because they had signed a petition ten years earlier - or knew someone who did.

Miller did quite a penance for his real-life adultery, as well as his pomposity: he decided, it seems, to marry the sexiest woman in the world because she would be good for his writing ("I wanted to disarm myself before the sources of my art"). The man who had thought his first wife's most important task was homage (she said later he wanted to be told all the time how he was the new Shakespeare) found himself, as Monroe's husband, in the role of mandatory worshipper. Ravenous for praise and support, Monroe was correspondingly terrified of betrayal, and dealt with her fears by continually testing her allies (disloyalty at least ended the agony of uncertainty) and by using sex for reassurance and vengeance.

The best sections, and the hardest for Miller lovers to swallow, are Bigsby's re- creations of the pro-communist 1949 Waldorf Conference and of Miller's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. American politics was, and had been for some time, paranoid, dishonourable and vindictive: Miller's letter to Roosevelt in the 1930s, objecting to policy towards Spain, drew the response that it had been handed to the FBI. (Less admirable today, perhaps, was his opposition, before Pearl Harbor, to US entry into the Second World War.)

At the same time, the widespread suffering caused by the Depression had made communism look attractive to many, especially those who didn't know much about the Soviet Union. It is tempting to think that myth-hungry Miller's communism was encouraged by its giving his father the status of capitalist exploiter. (Bigsby makes only casual mention of Miller's profound family betrayal - picketing his father's factory.) Summoned before Huac, Miller refused to name names, but, as Bigsby points out, was far less heroic than previous, more vulnerable witnesses, taking refuge in Reaganite amnesia and ignorance: "I know very little about anything except my work and my field."

The wording of Miller's refusal also falls short of nobility: "I will not take responsibility for another human being," he said. Some communist! This cry of Cain is hardly surprising from the man who later abandoned his week-old son, who had Down's syndrome, to an institutional snakepit, and never visited him or acknowledged his existence. Bigsby reports the first fact in one sentence, set in a sympathetic but misleading context 30 years before the event, and omits the second and third.

After a chapter in which Miller's third wife, Inge Morath, is portrayed in soft focus, to the sound of angel choirs, Bigsby jumps over the next 40 years to Miller's death. It's a curious way to write a biography, but a sensible solution if your subject has spent those years writing plays that are increasingly tedious and embarrassing. Bigsby explains the rejection of the late work by saying that distinguished critics, of varying taste and views, were punishing Miller for his politics, or following fashion, which somehow remained unchanged for half a century. Might the whopping cut, along with the limp defence and the numerous unpleasant revelations, suggest the next stone in the edifice of Christopher Bigsby's career? Along with the life, the tributes, the critical study, the companion et al, may we expect Arthur Miller: a Reappraisal?

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...