Phil Mitchinson reviews a new book Remembering Arthur Miller and interviews one of the contributors, the well known director David Thacker who worked with the American playwright on numerous occasions and was the artistic director of the famous Young Vic theatre in London. Miller's courageous stand against McCarthyism is well known but perhaps less generally recognised is how important an influence politics in general played in his life and writings.
Arthur Miller was perhaps best known for his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. This brought him a degree of celebrity not normally associated with playwrights in our age. It would be a shame indeed if this were to be his epitaph. He should be remembered instead as a great writer – perhaps even as America's Shakespeare.
An integral part of that great writing was that Miller was a very political man. The FBI opened its file on Miller as far back as 1938. His most overtly political act was his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee of Senator Joe McCarthy where he steadfastly refused to name names. This was an act of tremendous courage in itself in an era when even General George Marshall was denounced as a Communist. Many lives were ruined, some even lost. Miller exposed this in his play The Crucible. He shed light on the darkest side of the American Dream, a theme looked at from many different angles in his works.
There is, in fact, a link between Miller's appearance at the McCarthy witch-hunt and his famous marriage. "I knew perfectly well why they had subpoenaed me, it was because I was engaged to Marilyn Monroe” Richard Eyre remembers him saying. “Once I became famous as her possible husband, this was a great possibility for publicity. When I got to Washington... my lawyer received a message from the chairman saying that if it could be arranged that he could have a picture, a photograph taken with Marilyn, he would cancel the whole hearing. I mean the cynicism of this thing was so total, it was asphyxiating."
"Arthur Miller's political ideas can be understood as the best elements of socialism," David Thacker, a contributor to the book, explained to me, "above all the idea of freedom," that denied by the Stalinist tyrannies as much as by capitalist dictatorships whether open or hidden behind the façade of democracy. This meant a struggle against oppression in general, and in particular [the book records the time he spent campaigning quietly for individuals under attack] for the freedom to think, to believe; the freedom to gain control over one's life.
All Miller's plays are intensely political. They are not diatribes; politics and ideology are not rammed down one's throat. They are political because they are concerned with humanity and with society. Roy Hattersley, another contributor to the book, once wrote that Thatcher should see Miller's plays. At the time Thatcher and co were announcing that there was 'no such thing as society', spurring on the individualistic, egotistical morality of the 1980s. This was anathema to a man like Miller, for whom the theatre brought people together to better understand themselves as individuals and as social beings, as the editor of the book, Christopher Bigsby, explains in his introduction.
What concerned Miller was the dialectical interaction between individuals and society. Both the impact of society on the lives of individuals – the oppression of chains or of dreams and illusions – and also the effect an individual's actions can have on the whole of society. This interaction means it must be possible for people to act to change themselves, and also to change the world around them. Such optimism is inherently revolutionary.
The ability of individuals to change things is an important theme in many of Miller's plays. Often they fail, or do not try as they should, but it is our duty to try. We can succeed. This is the purpose of Miller's theatre: to think, to move, to change the world for the better.
Miller was archetypally American, yet his characters are universally recognisable, not least because Miller was the first to place working class characters at the front of the stage. Productions of his plays are always taking place somewhere in the world. His Death of a Salesman, perhaps his most powerful treatment of the American Dream, was a great success even in China.
For a long time his plays were more popular outside of the US than they were at home. The Young Vic theatre in London, for example, staged many of his works over the years, to the extent that, in the words of the former artistic director David Thacker, he became their "resident playwright."
David explained to me the close connection between the Young Vic and the American playwright:
“Part of the raison d'etre of the Young Vic was to perform for those not used to the theatre, those who might find it forbidding or alienating. For example young people, and working class people who are led to believe that 'the theatre is not for them', or else is boring, dull, and doesn't connect with their lives.
“If performed well Miller's plays are powerful enough to overcome these prejudices and misapprehensions and reach a broad audience.
“The power of the plays lies in three key factors. Firstly, they are language based, they deal with ideas, they are intellectually stimulating and challenging. At the same time the words are poetry.” (Miller's precision in writing led Dustin Hoffman, another contributor to the book, to describe his characters' speeches as 'arias'.– PM)
“Secondly they are political, they deal with the interconnections between human beings, the impact of an individual's actions on society and vice versa, and that dialectical interaction means we have the power to change ourselves, our relationships, our society and the whole world. That optimism, the potential of humanity, of ordinary working people, leads to the notion that it is our responsibility to make those changes, a duty that cannot be ducked.
“Thirdly they are emotionally powerful. The audience doesn't just think, they feel, laugh and cry. They evoke an empathy which is central to the desire to bring about political change. One can empathise because the character can be recognised and the story can be followed. Arthur said to me once, "if you told the story to a guy on a train he'd get it.”
Arthur Miller died on February 10, 2005. Those who knew him remember him for more than his marriage to Marilyn.
Remembering Arthur Miller is a fascinating insight into the life and ideas of arguably America's greatest playwright. Appropriately it consists of anecdotes about the interrelationships between people. Stories about opening nights and rehearsals mingle with those about planting trees, and building furniture. His skill as a raconteur – he was above all a storyteller – is combined with his ability to put those he worked with at ease. We see glimpses of his political ideas and his literary skills. Most of all what we see is his humanity.
Before reading Remembering Arthur Miller I met the director David Thacker for a conversation. I asked David, who worked closely with Miller on a number of occasions, to tell me a little about the first time they met and how they came to work together.
“The first time I got to meet Arthur Miller, and work with him, was when I wanted to put on An Enemy of the People. This was originally an Ibsen play, but it had been completely reworked by Arthur who had written his version back in the McCarthy era, before he wrote The Crucible. In Ibsen's play a doctor in a small Norwegian town, dependent on its famous spa water which draws in the tourists, discovers that the water is, in fact, poisonous. He believes everyone will celebrate his discovery and laud him for it. Instead, the vested interests in the town pull together to repress the facts. The doctor cannot believe it. The mayor of the town is his brother; the press has always seemed quite radical; but between them they all decide that it would not be in 'the community interest' to let this story get out, because their economy would collapse. So the doctor becomes 'the enemy of the people'. He goes public, making a great speech on the theme 'Tell the truth'. In reality, Ibsen's version is reactionary, its philosophy makes it impossible to do. The doctor is a kind of Nietzchian superman. But Miller changes the perspective completely. In Ibsen's version the doctor exclaims 'the majority is never right,' in Miller's version this becomes 'the majority is never right until it does right.' This was two playwrights shaking hands over a century. Miller turns the play into something neither could have written.
“Now, this play had never been performed in England before. Miller was nervous about the prospect until he found out that Tom Wilkinson was to play the lead role, then he agreed to let us do it.
“There were several problems with the production, firstly the idea of performing the play in England, but setting it in Norway while the characters spoke with American accents. It just didn't seem right. This was not just a matter of accents, but the language itself. I called Arthur on the phone, and while he was initially surprised by the idea that there would be a problem with the language, he suggested we make the changes we found necessary and let him know if we encountered any difficulties.
“We took the text of Miller's play and Ibsen's version and compared the two. Some of the changes Miller had made, we decided, may have been mistaken. In particular, we wanted to reintroduce a speech from Ibsen omitted in Miller's play. Again we discussed it on the phone, his response was 'well, try it.' We developed a relationship in this way, over the telephone. He was a great help with casting, for example. We took the play to the West End where it was a great success.
“Next I asked for the rights to put on Two Way Mirror – two two-handers. Again Arthur was concerned about the quality of the actors to be involved. He, or his agent, had heard of them – Helen Mirren and Bob Peck – so he gave us the rights.
“Arthur came over during the second week of rehearsals, while Enemy of the People was on. I sat next to him in the theatre. The production had already gained notoriety. Roy Hattersley wrote about it in The Guardian. I think it would go down well today. The 'Tell the Truth' speech would be particularly appropriate, we are so used to being lied to. At the time, of course, the poisoned water wasn't just a metaphor; people were becoming increasingly concerned about the state of the water supply, that was when people started drinking bottled water.
“At one point in the play Arthur turned to me and said 'that woman is fantastic.' He was talking about my wife – Margo Leicester. That naturally endeared him to me, and at the same time I was relieved that he had liked our production of his play. He wanted to meet the actors. The scene that followed was like the photo of Chekhov with the cast of The Seagull all sat at his feet. This was in The Playhouse theatre in the West End. Arthur was a very charismatic man, sexy; he had a kind of magnetism. He could talk about anything. He became my moral compass, the man I would call to talk about Bush or whatever was going on in the world.
“He wanted to know if he could come to rehearsals. I was supposed to just carry on like normal. Arthur came along and sat in the corner of the room. I brought him to the front. At that stage we were engaged in an exercise on articulating the subtext, that is where the actors say out loud what they are thinking when they deliver lines. He found this fascinating, and kept coming back for four or five days. I suggested he might come back at the end of the process. To be honest, sometimes the middle of rehearsals is quite a boring stage. He came back for the last week.
“Then I directed The Price, a four-hander not done since it was written in the sixties. Naturally, therefore, Miller was concerned again about how it would go. So he came along to the last week of rehearsals, which frightened the actors somewhat. We did a run through. The play is set in an attic, with furniture all over the place, which the brothers in the play are selling off because their father had gone bust in 1929. The Depression inevitably had a big effect on Miller, whose own family went from being fairly well off to losing everything. When he saw the room we were rehearsing in he said 'this is just like the attic.'
“Arthur, and his wife Inge (now sadly dead) came along throughout our preparations. Modest as ever he wouldn't sit at the front. By now we were on first name terms. I had broken the play up into five-minute units and I asked him to step up and give his opinions. Then began the most amazing three days. We worked closely together and he was an inspiration. He was the complete opposite of those playwrights who can be defined as mystifying. Miller was all about clarification, he knew exactly what he was trying to say and mean, so he would always give straight answers. His characters were living people to him. His straight talking wasn't confined to the play and its direction, but applied to the actors and the acting too. He was the most frank man I have ever seen. He commanded enormous respect. This was for a combination of reasons, not least his politics. Actors are inevitably influenced by, and drawn towards, ideas. Here was a man who had stood up to McCarthy, and that was worthy of enormous admiration. He had earned the respect he received.
“Every heartbeat of the man was full of goodness, of integrity. He was a very funny man, witty and fun to be with. Often heroes can turn out to be rather disappointing in the flesh, we all have a tendency to romanticise people, I suppose. But Miller did not disappoint. He could be difficult too. For example, he had to be convinced to employ a secretary to answer his correspondence; the trouble was he did not understand the importance, the high regard in which he was held.
“He was completely frank, but not destructively so. When he was already 75 years old he explained that this was because 'life was too short.' On seeing Bob Peck rehearsing one role he thought the acting was making the character look manipulative, which wasn't what he meant. 'Don't be more significant than the lines are,' he told him. That always reminds me of those lines from Hamlet:
“suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.”
“For Miller the theatre wasn't there simply to entertain the gin and tonic sipping set. It had more purpose than this. It should make people think, feel, and act, in order to bring about change, in their lives, their relationships, their society.”
- Faith: the drama of the Miners' Strike: Interview with the director, David Thacker by Phil Mitchinson (May 2, 2005)
- Arthur Miller, death of a committed artist by Maarten Vanheuverswyn (February 18, 2005)