I’m still feeling kind of temporary about the death of Arthur Miller, to steal one of Willy Loman’s best lines from Death of a Salesman. The reaction to Miller’s passing at the age of 89 from congestive heart failure varied between “I thought he was dead” and the usual tributes to one of theatre’s greatest dramatists.
“I thought he was dead”: no respectable obituary writer would admit to that naïve sentiment these days. But overwhelmingly, the articles and assessments of Miller’s career chose to hail two of his plays–Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953). Some made passing mention of After the Fall and a few other works–all of them completed before Miller had reached his fifties. When Josh Greenfeld interviewed him for The New York Times back in 1972, he would write even then that Miller, “at the still-youthful age of fifty-six,” had been cast “in the unlikely role of a relic”.
For a writer who wrote every day, starting at 8:30 am and often going on for eight hours, sometimes writing as Greenfeld noted 2,000 pages of which 140 would end up as a playscript, this must have been hard. Miller wrote three plays in the 1990s, including Broken Glass–woven around Kristallnacht. All of them were reviewed respectfully. None of them made a tenth of the impact of his early work. It’s hard to argue that his talents had degenerated over the years–indeed, those who’ve read his short story in Nadine Gordimer’s recent anthology, Telling Tales, might have been surprised by the force and beauty of his writing in his eightieth decade. “I’m pretty convinced he was writing till the day of his death,” Harold Pinter told the press yesterday. “He was born with a pen in his hand.”
He believed passionately in the power of theatre to transform lives–even in our age, when TV and the Internet provide other forms of entertainment and involvement. “The day will come when theatre again will surmount everything for the simple reason that it is an irreducible simplicity,” he told Greenfeld in 1972. “It’s a man up there facing other men. Somehow or other this always has to be possible.”
It’s easy to forget that he started his career with a novel–Focus, which was a partial polemic about anti-Semitism, where the main character was a Gentile who faced racism because he was mistaken for a Jew. His next work was Incident at Vichy, written after he had travelled to Germany and attended the Nazi trials. Unlike Focus, it stands up to re-reading, and highlights a technique that Miller was to use through his playwright’s career–the ability to isolate one incident, apparently minor, in the lives of ordinary individuals and use it as a lens to look at a much larger issue.
Most critics would agree that Miller’s greatest work was Death of a Salesman, where Willy Loman, antihero, everyman, epitomised the tragedy of the little man who gives his life to a system that will inevitably betray him. And much of his work, especially the plays written before he turned fifty, tapped into the eternal struggle between father and sons with an unflinching tenderness that few other writers have matched.
For some of us, though, the great Miller play remains The Crucible, of which he remarked in an essay written in 2000: “The Crucible is my most-produced play. It seems to be one of the few surviving shards of the so-called McCarthy period. And it is part of the play’s history that, to people in so many parts of the world, its story seems to be their own. I used to think, half seriously, that you could tell when a dictator was about to take power, or had been overthrown, in a Latin American country, if The Crucible was suddenly being produced in that country.”
The resonance of The Crucible goes far beyond the Salem witchcraft trials or even Miller’s own experiences. That play was written after Miller had gone through his own trials by fire in the McCarthy era–been hauled up by the notorious HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), had an offer to let him off the hook if his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe, posed for a photograph with a certain committee member, been blacklisted in Hollywood, suffered persecution and questioning.
“Turning to Salem was like looking into a petri dish, an embalmed stasis with its principal moving forces caught in stillness,” Miller wrote in retrospect. “One had to wonder what the human imagination fed on that could inspire neighbours and old friends to emerge overnight as furies secretly bent on the torture and destruction of Christians. More than a political metaphor, more than a moral tale, The Crucible, as it developed over more than a year, became the awesome evidence of the power of human imagination inflamed, the poetry of suggestion, and the tragedy of heroic resistance to a society possessed to the point of ruin.”
A few days before Miller’s death was announced, Salman Rushdie wrote an impassioned article titled: “Defend the right to be offended.” Rushdie, along with a band of writers, actors, intellectuals and artists in Britain, has been arguing fiercely against a new law that would ban the “incitement of hatred on religious grounds”.
Rushdie writes, “It seems we need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe as well as in the United States….People have the fundamental right to take an argument to the point where somebody is offended by what they say. It’s no trick to support the free speech of somebody you agree with or to whose opinion you are indifferent. The defence of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech. You only believe in free speech as long as it doesn’t get up your nose. But free speech does get up people’s noses. Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity “the one great curse” and “the one immortal blemish on mankind”. Would he now be prosecuted?”
I remember a phrase from childhood, a playground shrug of sorts: “It’s a free country, yaar.” It was employed as the final closure to arguments, as shorthand for saying that you didn’t agree with the other guy, but he was entitled to his point of view. This is the principle that Miller fought for, through his words as a dramatist, through his stint as head of the American chapter of PEN in the 1960s. This is what Rushdie and his colleagues are fighting for now, the right to allow people in the US and India and the UK to continue saying, well, it’s a free country. One of those countries isn’t free, any more; one has been perpetually beleagured even as it uneasily lays claims to freedom; one is in the process of sacrificing its freedoms.
And I’m wondering how many productions of The Crucible we’ll see in the next few years.