Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Miller's Crossing

Over at the Shotgun, Paul Tuns has a fine post on the artistic merits of Arthur Miller’s oeuvre. While there’s no doubt that Miller is a significant and influential playwright, I must concur with Tuns that I don’t think he was a particularly good one.
I have a number of complaints about Miller’s “problem plays”, the main one being that his characters always play second banana to whatever point he wants to make. He has no qualms about, for instance, making his protagonists commit suicide to bring a play to a convenient (lazy) ending. (Three of his early plays end this way -- is it any wonder he is popular in Japan?) Especially in his earlier work, he preferred fables to nuanced narrative. His plays often did nothing more than reinforce the beliefs of the New York audiences he was writing for, so that they could all walk out patting themselves on the back, saying, "Boy! War profiteering sure is bad, huh?"
On a different note, his female characters were rarely as fleshed-out as his male characters. His plays about male-female relationships were fascinating as autobiography, but felt kind of gross because of that. His treatment of Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall understandably alienated his audience -- and he never had a hit in the States again.
But, while I generally agree with Tuns' literary criticism, he oversimplifies Miller’s politics when he calls him, "a communist sympathizer (in the least)..." Miller certainly was sympathetic to the Soviets in the early forties, but so was official American policy. "Uncle Joe" Stalin was an ally during World War II and Hitler couldn't have been beaten without the Russians. When the Jewish-American playwright saw his country turn against its former friend, he didn’t immediately understand what they were really dealing with.
Miller was hardly a radical, though. Though his first Broadway success – All My Sons (1947) – was described as "party-line propaganda" in his FBI dossier, it was denounced by the Daily Worker for not being critical enough of capitalism.
By the time Miller defied the McCarthy hearings, he was even more disillusioned with Marxism. The fact that he was not a Communist makes his refusal to give into the HUAC bullies that much more courageous.
It’s true that Miller did not truly come to realise the scope of the crimes of Communism until he became the president of PEN International in 1965. (Keep in mind, however, that some of the old left still haven't...) But then, especially after a visit to Czechoslovakia evaporated the last remnants of his wishful thinking, Miller wrote a play critical of the Soviets called The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977) – certainly one of his better later works. In a Guardian article, it is described like this:
Set in an unnamed country under totalitarian rule, based on Czechoslovakia, the play has overtones of absurdism. It is as close as he has come to writing in a European voice. The former archbishop's palace in which the action takes place is bugged; the characters talk in code; the dissidents may be indistinguishable from the informers; the American visitor, soaking it up with relish while preparing to leave on the next plane, is regarded with suspicion by all.
One of the things I like about the play is that it’s not a Play about Oppression in Czechoslovakia, but rather about the effects of living under constant surveillance and the difference the way we act in public verus private.
While the play was popular in Europe, it bombed on Broadway and has rarely played in North America. I think that's rather telling...

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