When a figure like the playwright Arthur Miller dies, his greatness swells in retrospect in a mound of accumulated tributes and memories; attention is paid to the plays–so deeply American–that are his enduring legacy.
Growing up in the Depression (his father, a wealthy New York garment maker, lost everything in the crash), Miller was exposed to the bitterness of an era of broken dreams, and to the hopes of a time that believed in the possibility of making a better world through common action. He was inspired by the New Deal and the Popular Front culture of the era–the WPA, the Group Theatre (he wrote in The Nation that when he graduated from college, “the luckiest fate I could have imagined would have been to have a play of mine produced by the Group Theatre and directed by Harold Clurman”). In his work he wrestled with the claims of social conscience. As he said in a speech accepting the Jerusalem Prize (reprinted in The Nation, August 4, 2003), which honored not only his work as a writer but his defense of civil rights and artistic freedom, “as a Jew of a certain generation I was unable to forget the silence of the 1930s and ’40s, when Fascism began its destruction of our people, which for so long met with the indifference of the world.”
In his plays Miller made no distinction between art and politics. And in his personal life, there was no disconnect between politics and conscience. Such a stance brought him honor: The New York Times headlined its obituary “Arthur Miller, Moral Voice of American Stage.” But in the 1950s Miller was considered by a majority of Americans the immoral voice of treason. In 1956 the House Un-American Activities Committee ordered him to provide the names of radical friends. At a time when lawyers advised clients to take the Fifth Amendment, which raised less risk of prosecution, Miller honorably took the First, insisting freedom of speech made his political opinions and associations none of the government’s business. He was cited for contempt (later overturned) and his passport was lifted.
In 1954 Miller wrote a satire of the times for The Nation, called “A Modest Proposal for Pacifying the Public Temper” (July 3, 1954). It was a dryly witty exercise in Swiftian irony, no doubt lost on Congressional inquisitors, in which he proposed that all citizens be incarcerated at age 18 until they had appeared before a “Court of Clearance” and proved their “Absolute and steady Allegiance to this Country.”
Miller’s occasional contributions to The Nation ranged from editorials to vivid interviews with Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, doors his eminence opened to him and to our readers. One of his most memorable pieces was “Dinner With the Ambassador” (May 18, 1985), an account of a trip he and fellow dramatist Harold Pinter made to Turkey for International PEN to show solidarity with imprisoned writers. After speaking with wives and friends of jailed writers, Pinter and Miller attended a dinner at the American Ambassador’s, a far-right former international law professor who supported the repressive military government. Responding to his host’s toast, Miller deplored the absence of human rights in Turkey and closed: “The American part here ought to be the holding up of democratic norms, if only as a goal, instead of justifying their destruction as the only defense against chaos.” That was Miller–a reasoned voice of conscience in the chambers of realpolitik.
We shall deeply miss that voice here and in our theater. As Tony Kushner commented, “There was a simplicity, a humbleness, and decency in his work.” And in the man. He had an innate egalitarianism, a plain-spoken American way of talking, a directness, a lack of airs–a plumb-line moral compass. Commenting on the public opposition to the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, he was encouraged: “Outrage is in again. We haven’t had outrage in so long one almost forgot it could exist anymore.” In a time of “necessary lies,” when we have an Attorney General who rationalized torture, we will miss Miller’s voice exhorting us to be engaged citizens–to “tear at our collars and get red in the face” again.