It is a willful amnesia that Miller finds so distressing in American society. Writing is impossible without any historical awareness, though making connections to the past can also be hazardous. Miller gave the title Danger: Memory! (1987) to two one-act plays he wrote immediately before Timebends. His description, in the autobiography, of their sense of “imploding time,” of “moments when a buried layer of experience suddenly surges upward to become the new surface of one’s attention and flashes news from below,” is as applicable to the perilous exhilaration of Timebends itself as it is to the plays.
“In the sense that we lack any real awareness of a continuity with the past,” he laments, “we are, I think, a country without a theatre culture.” Miller’s plays have been important to whatever such culture there is in the United States, though Death of a Salesman is the only one of his theatrical works to have received largely favorable reviews at its premiere. More than poets and novelists, playwrights are dependent on the verdict of critics, particularly of whoever is writing for The New York Times, and on the vagaries of avaricious producers. Describing his successful adaptations throughout the rest of the world, Miller presents himself as a prophet with little honor in his own country, which once even stripped him of his passport. True, he has been a guest at Democratic and Republican White Houses, but the America he describes is one in which serious drama is increasingly neglected. During the previous four decades, he saw the United States “devolving into a mania for the distraction it called entertainment, day-and-night mimicry of art that menaced nothing, redeemed nothing, and meant nothing but forgetfulness.”
Timebends is a guerrilla action against the insidious appeal of oblivion and an effort to remember when, for all of its difficulties, theater mattered. Miller’s ambitions from the outset were to offer something more important than diversion in the face of war and oppression....
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Ultimately, Timebends is not the principal work on which Arthur Miller’s reputation will rest; if he had not written the handful of plays that have entered the standard theatrical repertoire, this autobiography would not be read, but then neither could it have been written. It is the summation, from the perspective of early old age, of Miller’s growth, through 1987, as a writer and a human being. Miller has published one novel, Focus (1945); one volume of short stories, I Don’t Need You Any More (1967); and numerous essays. He will be remembered, however, as he remembers himself—as a playwright—and this book is a drama of ideas brought to another stage.
Timebends provides suggestive but elusive insights into the creative process and will be a valuable resource to anyone investigating the genesis of Miller’s plays. He presents his salesman uncle, Manny Newman, as in part a model for Willy Loman, and, while acknowledging that After the Fall draws on the circumstances of his troubled marriage to Marilyn Monroe, he refuses to concede that it exploits that relationship. The book is also a remarkable participant’s account of the social, political, and theatrical history of the United States during the decades that followed World War II.
Age has not softened Miller’s desire for social justice or his contempt for the unexamined life he sees too many of his countrymen living. Like Miller’s plays, Timebends is a jeremiad, made compelling by the authority with which Miller’s achievement as playwright endows him. Convinced that “there could be no aesthetic form without a moral world, only notes without a staff,” he offers these notes of a career spent trying to reconcile the aesthetic and the moral. Timebends is ambitious in its literary design and in its designs on the reader’s imagination. “A failure to imagine will make us die,” declares Miller in this imaginative account of a playwright’s life.
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The New Yorker. Review. LXIII (December 14, 1987), p. 150.
Newsweek. Review. CX (November 16, 1987), p. 110.
Publishers Weekly. Review. CCXXXII (October 16, 1987), p. 76.
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