Thursday, April 5, 2012

Laurence Senelick on the plays of Arthur Miller’s middle phase, experimentalism in theater, and (of course) Marilyn Monroe

Laurence Senelick, Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory and director of graduate studies at Tufts University, recently spoke with us about the fourteen plays in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1962–1981.

This second volume of Arthur Miller’s collected plays feels like it inaugurates a new phase of his career. Do you agree? How would you describe Miller’s middle period?

Miller began as a playwright following the model of Ibsen: a well-wrought dramatic structure building up to a revelation of a moral dilemma. This is the shape of All My Sons. Yet by Death of a Salesman he was already alloying this formula with expressionistic elements, and in View from the Bridge, experimenting with a chorus. In other words, Miller was always trying out new possibilities and techniques. He rarely let the form determine the content (note the protracted length of Incident at Vichy or Some Kind of Love Story, both one-act plays), but let the shape fit what he had to say.

Why are these plays less well known?

The audiences for Miller’s first plays were his age and had been through many of the same experiences that he had—the Depression, World War II, the Cold War. By the 1960s and ’70s, the audiences were younger and more enthusiastic for theatrical experimentation. Brecht, Grotowski, the Theatre of the Absurd, collective creation were more appealing than Miller’s moral debates. The critical establishment, eager to embrace the fashionable, toppled older idols and were quick to condemn Miller’s new work. So they had short runs or no runs. They were not made into films. The same thing happened to Tennessee Williams.

Would you say the plays are viewed differently now than they were when they were first produced?

When a play opens, it is judged either for its originality or as a step beyond what the playwright had previously accomplished. Miller’s later plays were measured against Salesman and Crucible and found wanting. At this remove, a greater degree of objectivity is possible. The Price, in particular, has found a firm place in the repertoire. Moreover, critics like to pigeonhole playwrights; it makes their task easier. Having characterized Miller as essentially a realist concerned with issues of the individual vs. society, they had a hard time fitting this label to his new plays. Rather than readjusting their criteria, they blamed him for “betraying” their image of him.

Three short rediscovered plays in the volume, “The Reason Why,” “The Poosidin’s Resignation,” and “I Think About You a Great Deal,” address contemporary politics directly. “The Reason Why” was first performed at a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. What do you think of Miller’s efforts? Is he an inspiration/model for today's ‘political’ playwrights (like Tony Kushner)?

As Miller grew older, he abandoned many of the ideals of his youth and became less hopeful for improvement through politics. The urgency of making a statement that might affect public opinion was keener, especially since so many of his younger colleagues were doing so. The same thing happened with Pinter. Pinter’s work in this direction is more powerful than Miller’s because it is crueler. I think Miller had a less jaundiced view of human potential than Pinter had, and so “The Reason Why” and “The Poosidin’s Resignation” lack both the Swiftian sæva indignatio and the Ubuesque lunacy that keep such commentary relevant. Nowadays our news cycle changes so rapidly that playwrights cannot keep up with it. Television and YouTube have taken over and reach a far wider audience. The playwright is freed to take the longer view.

“I Think about You a Great Deal” and The Archbishop’s Ceiling, on the other hand, may be considered “There but for the grace of God” plays. Miller, despite his anti-McCarthy stance, had never been seriously prosecuted or attacked, but had enjoyed a charmed life. His greatest foes were not government censors but theatre critics. So his mind dwelt on what it must be like to take a contrarian position in a totalitarian society. He gave his work an international aspect.

Miller was nothing if not a successful Broadway playwright, but he complained about intense commercial pressures in America and welcomed the chance to work with state-subsidized companies in the U.K. Do you think there’s an “experimental” side to Miller that explains his gradual move away from Broadway?

One might say, rather, that Broadway moved away from Miller. While experimentation flourished off- and off-off-Broadway, Broadway proper fought back by concentrating on sheer entertainment and avoiding “serious drama” except when titivated by stars. In a magazine article called “The American Theatre,” published when Miller was riding the crest of the Salesman wave (and reprinted in Library of America’s The American Stage), it is clear that Miller felt in tune with the producers and commercial agencies of Broadway. In the latter phases of his career, he was eager to move in new directions and the established theatrical institutions were reluctant to accept different avatars of Miller.

What’s more, as artists grow older, they become more impatient with conventional demands: their techniques become more radical, less measured. Look at Shakespeare’s dark comedies, Rembrandt’s last self-portraits, Beethoven’s final sonatas, Strindberg’s chamber plays. Having given the portentous title After the Fall to a thinly disguised work of autobiography, Miller ventures a musical about nothing less than The Creation of the World and the aftermath of the Adamic Fall (he’s like Mark Twain in this). In The American Clock, he re-creates the Depression with a cast the size of which has not been seen since the Depression. The Poosidin’s Resignation not only employs gibberish but draws on the rhythms of Augustan burlesque. We are watching a writer following the divagations of his concerns and re-inventing himself in the process.

Many of these plays have seen new British productions in recent years, and extremely enthusiastic receptions. Any thoughts about that?

There is still a strong tradition of “idea” plays on the British stage; such authors as Howard Barker, Howard Brenton, and Tom Stoppard continue to be produced with regularity. Moreover, as an American, especially an American critical of his society, Miller has an exotic appeal. He has also had a major academic champion in Christopher Bigsby, who has promoted Miller with enthusiasm and in 1989 founded the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

What about Miller and Marilyn Monroe? Some feel he exploited their relationship.

Artists have license to use the most intimate aspects of their lives without consideration for the feelings of others. This is one moral issue that did not bedevil Miller. And, in any case, Marilyn was no longer around to be hurt. When Miller and Monroe first linked up, they were almost equal in celebrity; but he rapidly found that his fame was eclipsed by her notoriety. I see his depiction of their relationship in After the Fall as exorcism rather than exploitation.

Several plays in this volume are concerned with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, a new theme for Miller. What’s the significance?

As with most American writers of his generation, Miller submerged his Jewishness in his leftist politics; he professed a kind of ethics that may have been rabbinical in origin and his detailed parsing of moral issues has a Talmudic aspect. Some critics complained that the family in Salesman is in fact Jewish, but Miller, in an attempt to universalize the situation, made it generic with an emblematic name—Loman. However, Incident at Vichy is not really about Jews and Nazis. It is a variation on the theme of The Crucible: how is a righteous man to maintain his integrity in the face of injustice and a rotten system? Like most ambitious playwrights with serious intent, Miller puts his characters in extremis to test their responses. Playing for Time is somewhat different: based on documented facts, it is a dramatization of someone else’s work. Its power derives chiefly from its material, rather than Miller’s handling of it. Actually, Miller’s most eloquent statement on Jewishness (rather than Judaism) is the character Solomon in The Price: his longevity, pragmatism and patience are sharply contrasted with the soured idealism of the other characters.

What are your favorite plays in this volume?

  • Fame, because it has no more pretentions than a vaudeville sketch, and says as much about Miller’s attitude to celebrity as After the Fall does, much more efficiently.
  • The American Clock, because its panoramic scope avoids the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of the two- and four-character plays.

3 comments:

  1. Are there plans to collect Miller's remaining plays in a LOA edition? If so, any dates for such a volume?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, there will be a third volume of Miller's plays. We are still negotiating the rights and the final contents and don't yet have a schedule for the volume.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That I think is one reason why I consider Miller's productions to be heavily underrated. His message is there, but he's not really connecting to the younger audiences. This, unfortunately, undermines the genius behind the plays.

    ReplyDelete

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