Arthur Miller: 1915–2005

Arthur Miller: 1915–2005

The politics of a progressive playwright.


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?

He wasn’t interested in the examination of history as the opportunity to illuminate metatheories about the ultimate direction the human community was taking. Arthur Miller was one of those very rare people whose politics were inseparable from the drama of his personal integrity. He was his own proving ground; he felt his successes and his failures as a human being were consequential to something greater than himself, and so they were publicly examined and, in a sense, the only thing worth talking about. He wasn’t certain that a single individual has relevance to our collective survival, but he saw no other question worth pursuing.

He once wrote that he stopped studying economics as an undergraduate because economics, as it was and is taught, can "measure the giant’s footsteps but not look into his eyes." His observation reflects his indebtedness to left political analysis–a central tenet of which is the critical consideration of the human, ethical and political meanings of money, rather than the mere prognostication of its tides and currents–and it also reflects his conviction, or perhaps predilection, or natural inclination, even when considering the giant, to look for truth by looking into his eyes, the windows of the soul. Arthur Miller had the curse of empathy, even for the enemy. Humans justify themselves to themselves, even bad humans, and Arthur the playwright always wanted to know how and why. Look into his eyes.

He made it clear in his plays and his essays that his critical thinking and social consciousness had their genesis in the red politics that were pervasive when he was growing up, a politics catalyzed by the suffering he witnessed and experienced in the Great Depression, a politics shaped in response to the toxic, obnoxious valorization of greed always, always re-emerging in American history as a bedrock tenet of the political right. Although he refused the mechanical determinism of the unthinking Marxist left, he created in his greatest play a drama in which it is impossible to avoid thinking about economics–money–in any attempt to render coherent the human tragedy unfolding before you. Consider the Lomans: What has brought darkness down upon this family? Their flaws are part of their tragedy, but only a part–every flaw is magnified, distorted, made fatal by, well, alienation, by the market, where the pressure is inhuman and the human is expendable. Consider the moment when the Nothing of tragedy is enunciated, and annunciated, in Death of a Salesman, Biff and Willy’s final fight ("Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop! Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it anymore. I’m just what I am, that’s all. Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake?"). It’s tragic negation, vast and shatteringly intimate; everything is annihilated, and at the same time something new is being born. It’s "nothing" of the tragedies of Euripides and Shakespeare, and in Miller’s postwar, marketplace masterpiece, one hears an echo of another "nothing," tragic but also political–namely, "You have nothing to lose but your chains."

If Arthur’s Emersonian temperament saved him from the terrible mistakes of the doctrinaire left of his time, if his habits of scrupulousness and independence carried him into a healthy, immensely vital skepticism, if he refused partisanship, he also never ceased reminding us of his indebtedness to, indeed his affinity with, the left, with progressive thought. He never became a cynic, or a nihilist, or an ego-anarchist, or a despoiler of humanist utopian dreams, or a neocon. His great personal courage and his graceful confidence in his stature and talents made it unnecessary for him to cuddle up to power elites, allowed him to retain his sympathy, his affinity for the disinherited, the marginal and the powerless. He never wanted us to forget that without economic justice, the concept of social justice is an absurdity and, worse, a lie.

I first saw Arthur Miller in person at the 1994 Tony Awards, when I sat behind him, too unnerved to introduce myself; for the whole evening I stared at the back of his head, which was far, far more interesting to me than anything transpiring onstage. Inside this impressive cranium, inside this dome, I thought to myself, Willy Loman was conceived–for an American playwright, a place comparable in sacrosanctity to the Ark of the Covenant or the Bodhi Tree or the Manger in Bethlehem. I wanted to touch the head, but I worried its owner might object. The ceremonies ended, and I’d missed my opportunity to make contact with the quarry whence came one of the postwar pillars upon which the stature of serious American playwriting rests.

Thanks to my friend Oskar Eustis I got to meet Arthur several years later, in Providence, Rhode Island, when I presented him with an award. On that occasion I had the chance to thank him personally. I said, "Mr. Miller, yours is a career and a body of work every playwright envies and wishes were her or his own; yours is the difficult standard against which we are measured and measure ourselves. For many sleepless nights and days of despair, I want to say thanks a lot; and for making my heart break, and burst into flames, time and time again, since the night, when I was 6 years old, I saw my mother play Linda Loman in a Louisiana community theater production of Salesman, and I think at that moment secretly deciding I wanted to be a playwright. Seeing Incident at Vichy on TV a few years later, I admitted to myself the decision I’d made. Watching splendid recent revivals of View From the Bridge, Salesman, The Crucible, I have gone home, chastened, to re-question all my assumptions about what playwriting is and how one ought to do it. And for always being there, on my bookshelf, when people say that real art can’t be political, or that a real artist can’t also be a political activist; your life and work are there to remind me what preposterous canards those are–for all this, I want to say thanks a lot."

For American playwrights who come after Arthur Miller, there is of course an unpayable debt. Those of us who seek mastery of dramatic realist narrative have his plays to try to emulate. Scene after scene, they are perhaps our best constructed plays, works of a master carpenter/builder. Those of us who seek not mastery but new ways of making theater have to emulate his refusal to sit comfortably where Salesman enthroned him. Arthur once praised Tennessee Williams for a "restless inconsolability with his solutions which is inevitable in a genuine writer," for making "an assault upon his own viewpoint in an attempt to break it up and reform it on a wider circumference."

American playwrights have most to learn from the sound of Arthur Miller’s voice: Humility, decency, generosity are its trademarks. Turn down the braying of ego, it says to us, turn down the chatter of entertainment, the whine of pornographic sensuality and prurience, abandon the practice of rendering judgment as an expression of isolation, superstition and terror, and reach for a deeper judgment, the kind of judgment that pulls a person beyond his expected reach toward something more than any single human animal ought to be capable of–toward something shared, communal, maybe even toward something universal, maybe even toward God. It’s a path to knowing that is the birthright of dramatists and "genuine writers." It seems to me difficult because it’s a lonely path, and Jewish in its demanding interiority. It’s Jewish also in its faith that words have an awesome, almost sacred, power, force, weight. God, or the world, is listening, Arthur Miller reminds us, and when you speak, when you write, God, or the world, is also speaking and writing. "A great drama is a great jurisprudence," Arthur wrote. "Balance is all. It will evade us until we can once again see man as a whole, until sensitivity and power, justice and necessity are utterly face to face, until authority’s justifications and rebellion’s too are tracked even to those heights where the breath fails, where–because the largest point of view as well as the smaller has spoken–truly, the rest is silence."

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