Tony Kushner delivered these remarks at a memorial service for Arthur Miller held at the Majestic Theater in New York City.
Arthur Miller died on Bertolt Brecht’s birthday. There are two ways in which this means nothing at all: I’m sure Arthur didn’t plan it, and the two playwrights, apart from being universally described, and self-identified, as "political writers," don’t have all that much in common. But their difference is interesting. Arthur Miller’s was a great voice, one of the principal voices, raised in opposition, calling for resistance, offering critical scrutiny and lamentation–in other words, he was politically progressive, as politically progressive is best defined in these dark times. He demanded that we must be able to answer, on behalf of our plays, our endeavors, our lives, a really tough question, one that Arthur wrote was the chief and, in a sense, only reason for writing and speaking: "What is its relevancy," he asks, "to the survival of the race? Not," he stipulates, "the American race, or the Jewish race, or the German race, but the human race." He demanded that our work and our lives have some relevance to human survival. The question implies anxiety about that survival, a refusal of complacency, an acknowledgment that there is a human community for which each of us bears responsibility and a warning that we are in danger. Miller tells us that what we do, the things we choose to struggle with in art and elsewhere, can have some effect on the outcome. There is, in other words, reason to hope, and change is possible. Arthur was a grieving pessimist, but what truly progressive person isn’t?
He was one of those political people who refused an identification with a specific race or nation or movement or party. He certainly wasn’t a communist, and he wasn’t a socialist. During the Depression, his grandfather, whom Arthur described as "a Republican all his life…[with] bags under his eyes like von Hindenburg," shocked the family by turning to his unemployed grandson one night after dinner and saying, "You know what you ought to do? You ought to go to Russia."
"The silence that fell" in the dining room, Arthur wrote, "is better described as a vacuum so powerful it threatened to suck the walls in. Even my father woke up on the couch. I asked [my grandfather] why I should go to Russia.
"Because [he answered] in Russia they haven’t got anything. Here they got too much. You can’t sell anything anymore. You go to Russia and open a chain of clothing stores; you could do a big business. That’s a new country, Russia."
"’But,’ I said, ‘you can’t do that there.’
‘Why not?’ he said, disbelieving.
‘The government owns the stores there.’ His face would have put fears into Karl Marx himself. ‘Them bastards,’ he said, and went back to his paper."
The grandson was a great believer in democracy and self-reliance and in anything conducive to and supportive of individual human dignity and integrity. His drama was the drama of individual integrity, individual wholeness or completeness or repleteness versus unaccountable power–or perhaps one could say of the individual versus history. And one way Arthur Miller’s theater and politics differ from a writer like Brecht’s is that Arthur focused his critical gaze, and located his sense of political struggle, within the arena of an individual consciousness, in an important sense his own individual consciousness. Would it be correct to say that he was not a joiner of parties or group identities because, a loyalist only to the human race, he manifested that loyalty by being true to himself? Though he was clearly interested in history, he was uncomfortable writing about it. The Crucible and Incident at Vichy are not, finally, historical plays. Each sets its scene in the midst of a historical crime in progress, but soon the great dramatist that Arthur Miller was has turned his unsparing, unblinking, loving intelligence away from the grand-scale horror to demand of a single human being: Never mind all that out there, as overwhelming as it is. Even in the face of horror you must still ask yourself, and hard as it is, you are capable of asking it: What do you mean to yourself, what do you know yourself to be? What, in other words, is your relevance to the survival of the race?