Jason Miller Essay - Critical Essays

Miller, Jason

Miller, Jason 1939(?)–

A prize-winning American playwright, Miller is also an actor, currently performing the role of Father Karras in the movie "The Exorcist." He is best known as the author of That Championship Season, a full-length play.

"That Championship Season" … injects a spark of excitement into a flagging off-Broadway season…. "Championship" is a thoroughly professional production….

Miller has a keen insight into his characters, making each ring true. He also has a sharp ear for dialog and knows his way with a funny line. One troubling point about this work, however, that it's pitched in favor of its more humorous aspects often at the expense of the play's more somber and tragic underpinnings.

Variety, May 10, 1972.

Miller writes with great theatrical effect; his dialogue is sharp and funny. [That Championship Season] works as a machine, much like Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the Band," but like that play it is thin underneath and its thesis, that the winner-take-all ethic explains everything bad about America, is much too simple-minded.

Jack Kroll, "Winner Take All," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1972; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1972, p. 92.

That Championship Season [is] a drama of searing intensity, agonized compassion and consummate craftsmanship. The play centers on the 20th reunion of a handful of men whose lives were once fresh as mountain springs and now resemble the sooty detritus of a city gutter….

[The characters] are all dead behind the eyes, but vividly, wincingly alive in the theater. Playwright Jason Miller, 33, whose only previous full-length play, Nobody Hears a Broken Drum, was a quick flop, has chiseled out each role to give it the clean profile of humanity and of pity.

T. E. Kalem, "The Dust of Glory," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1972 by Time Inc.), May 15, 1972, p. 59.

That Championship Season by Jason Miller … is a good show. Many habitués of that peppy institution have expressed surprise that the new play was old-fashioned realism rather than "experimental." There may be a sense of relief in this astonishment: we really haven't changed as much as is supposed; we are not altogether "new."…

The points made smack of a boldness readily acceptable to all but the most backward or totally indifferent among us. Why then the pleasure with which this play has been received? It has vigor, its dialogue is salty and its unmasking of the contradiction between mask and face, myth and reality is heightened, to speak in the play's vein, by a "no bullshit" forthrightness.

The play's attraction goes even deeper; there is something hammy in it. This is not altogether a detraction. Most hamminess in writing and acting turns us off; but there is also such a thing as talented hamminess…. That Championship Season is "ham" with talent. Its story and "message" is by now largely old stuff, to a considerable degree imitative, but real blood flows through it. The author's sentiments are authentic, his conviction streaked with acrid humor, genuine. The play affects us less than it entertains. The mixture assures audience enthusiasm.

Harold Clurman, in Nation, May 22, 1972, p. 669.

That Championship Season is not a work of innovative art; but as a well-made, commercial, traditional yet freshly felt and thought-out play, it is perfect. In its own league, the play is impeccable…. I was not elevated, deeply shaken or transformed by Jason Miller's bitter comedy; but I was amused, delighted, horrified and captivated….

Jason Miller has done much more than merely put five successful prototypes on stage…. [He] has presented these people as inextricable mixtures of good and bad, conviviality and crassness, merriment and despair, all impaled on their own pettiness—a pettiness whose essentials were as scrupulously handed down to them by their society as they will pass them on to the world around and after them….

The five men in That Championship Season are the five fingers of our own hand, the five moldy molds in which our beings are cast, alternatively, alternately, or even simultaneously….

I can think of greater plays than this, but of precious few that are funnier, grimmer, truer and more needed in this losing season of our theatre, our politics, and our society.

John Simon, "Winners as Losers," in New York Magazine (© 1972 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by the permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 22, 1972, p. 78.

The night Jason Miller's fine play, "That Championship Season," opened …, a thought kept intruding on my concentration: "Why on earth are all these people laughing?"

It finally dawned. For many of the younger members of the audience, Miller's characters were real people—human beings recognizable from their own life experiences—but satiric models of Middle America…. To their eyes, the naturalistic characters and real events on stage were tintypes, caricatures whose warped values deserved their laughter and ridicule and righteous hostility. But to others in the audience (and to me, certainly), these people aren't funny. Spiritually impoverished, desperate, even terrifying (Am I like that underneath? Did I really escape?), and potentially dangerous. Not funny. Real….

It is Miller's achievement that these men emerge not as grotesques, but as flesh-and-blood human beings. I felt not simple, self-righteous contempt for them, but compassion for their existential pain and a surge of rage against the systems of society, government, and religion which have betrayed them. For me, they are larger than themselves, representing an entire class that is just beginning to articulate an anguish that it may not yet be able to identify as metaphysical pain. So anger—my anger—goes beyond them, to the establishment forces which taught them (us) their (our) false values.

For the play is, ultimately, about teaching—about the assorted mouthpieces of authority who have taught these men (who teach us!) the precepts of behavior which ultimately warp one's sense of humanity. The coach in Miller's drama is the embodiment of all society's teaching constructs. He's the archetypal teacher who keeps the establishment glued together by training each generation to perpetuate established authority….

As for his "boys," those burnt-out moral wrecks, they take on human proportions because of the underlying strain of tragic irony in their non-heroic lives. They cannot be judged, simplistically, as immoral or unethical because they have been faithful, essentially, to the code of team play. In fact, the crux of their dilemma—or our national dilemma—is that they (we) have observed the rules. But they have been cheated, betrayed by the very establishment whose code they have upheld. The implicit promise made to them was that they would be "champions"; instead, they are "losers."

Laugh at these people? Can we? Not when we've lived with them, gone to school and church with them, laughed and played sports with them, loved them. Not when we've had the same Teacher, the same Coach they've had. And not when we can see strains of their dilemma reflected in ourselves.

Marilyn Stasio, "'That Championship Season'—Everyman's Truth in Six Men's Anguish," in Cue, May 27, 1972, p. 2.

That Championship Season is a necessary play…. [It] tells grass-roots America that it stinks. For even in this Vietnam-war-waging, Nixon-favoring, culture-despising year of 1972, when Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue is the hottest ticket on Broadway, when The Godfather is the biggest cinematic money-maker, when Herman Wouk, Taylor Caldwell and Irving Wallace are perching on top of the best-seller list, there remains considerable faith in the solid backbone of America, the good and simple folk back in the small towns, the America that the two Walts, Whitman and Disney, could hear singing, the unspoiled, sweet salt of the earth. And it is these people that Miller reveals to be weak, cowardly, prejudiced, corrupt and sustained, if at all, by self-delusion. And what makes the indictment stick is, first, that it is made from an evident position of intimate knowledge and understanding of the people portrayed, and, secondly, that the judgment is made regretfully, without rancor, almost with love….

What Miller does is to let his characters interact and gradually reveal themselves. This is, of course, a time-honored basic technique of realistic drama, but Miller handles it with admirable assurance….

Miller's play … takes on a genuinely social character by capturing both the private and the public lives of a town as they intermingle and uneasily fuse….

The game theory of life is, above all, immature, as the play copiously illustrates. For in stressing the team, the in-group, development is stunted in two directions: toward the single self, leading to self-reliance, self-cultivation, individualism; and toward public-spiritedness, ecumenism, world-citizenship.

He knows how to make a character or a situation gradually take on a different complexion through a casual remark here, a small revelation there….

What emerges is the picture of a society that makes a fetish out of success, but does not know what to do with it or even what it really is….

I think the characters are truly representative, created with sympathy, authentic. While Miller reprehends their outlook and behavior, he allows them, nevertheless, a fleeting self-cognizance, a bit of misdirected decency, some juvenile affection. Even as he makes us aware of their racism, crudeness, jejuneness, he also makes us feel the pity of this entrapment by the pettiness, barrenness, monotony of small-town existence. An author who can be both surgically probing and charitable, both muck-raking and forgiving, performs that marriage of incisiveness and generosity from which truths are born. Miller's accuracy as a [reporter] is mirrored in the persuasive shabbiness of the language. The incomplete sentences, lacunas and aposiopeses, awkward repetitions, omnipresent clichés, all that invincible prosaism that can nevertheless stumble onto some sort of clumsy dignity—these and other traits of speech are instinct with authenticity. Most interesting, perhaps, is Miller's avoidance of that folksy poetry with which writers tend to redeem the speech of plain people. That method is no more wrong than plain folk are incapable of unconscious poetry, yet I admire Miller's refusal to make use of it and still succeeding in making his characters fascinate us. He charges his dialogue with deliberate or inadvertent humor, self-revelation, conscious or unconscious, and the ominous ring of human hollowness. But, for all that, he does not encourage glib feelings of superiority in the audience: they recognize too much of themselves in these characters….

Jason Miller has written a first-rate commercial theatre piece. It is not quite profound or venturesome or novel enough to make it a work of art, but it is the very best example of the sort of play that keeps a commercial theatre meaningfully and honorably alive. If it cannot have a long life on Broadway, Broadway itself no longer deserves to live.

John Simon, "'That Championship Season'," in Hudson Review, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 616-25.