Last Updated on May 22, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6814
A back injury prevented Arthur Miller from serving in the armed forces during World War II, but in characteristic fashion, he became involved in the war effort by gathering material for a screenplay, “The Story of GI Joe,” which was never filmed but instead became the basis of his book Situation Normal, in which he reported on army camps in the United States and on soldiers’ attitudes toward the war in which they were preparing to fight. For the most part, the soldiers had no great interest in the democratic principles for which Miller believed the war was fought, but he elevated one war hero, Watson, to a representative position as a figure whose intensely avowed loyalty to his company represents the democratic solidarity many others cannot articulate. Miller admitted candidly the skepticism of Watson’s company commander, who doubted Watson’s wholehearted commitment to rejoin his fellow soldiers in one of the most dangerous theaters of the war: “The company pride that made him do the great things he did do is gone now and he is left unattached, an individual,” who yearns for—yet probably fears—returning to men he knows he will never see again. Thus, Situation Normal was transformed into the drama of how Miller’s innocent convictions about the war were challenged by psychological and social complexities; indeed, the book is informed by a crisis of conviction that Miller did not fully recognize until the writing of After the Fall and Incident at Vichy.
The Man Who Had All the Luck
Even in an early play, The Man Who Had All the Luck—Miller’s first Broadway production—there is some awareness of the dangers inherent in the innocent attitude of characters such as David Frieber, who insists that the world conform to what his employer, Shory, calls “the awards of some cloudy court of justice.” At twenty, Frieber is still a child, Shory suggests, and Frieber admits that he does not know what he is supposed to be. He believes that he must somehow earn everything that comes to him. That good fortune and the complex interplay of societal forces he cannot control also contribute significantly to his success is an idea that disturbs him. In his quest to become self-made, he withdraws from society, from his family, and ultimately from himself. In the midst of his guilty obsession with the fact that others have aided him, he is unable to see that he has already demonstrated his resourcefulness. In his delusion that he can measure himself, he gives up everything he owns and starts a new business. Frieber’s lunacy seems somewhat forced—much too strident, making it all too obvious that Miller has a point to prove. Moreover, Frieber’s quasi-philosophical declamations disturb what is otherwise rather well-executed midwestern dialogue.
All My Sons
Miller comes even closer to fluent dialogue and carefully crafted dramatic structure in All My Sons, his first Broadway success and the first play he deemed mature enough to include in his Collected Plays of 1957. Critics have long admired the playwright’s suspenseful handling of the Keller family’s burden: the father’s permitting defective parts to remain in warplanes that subsequently crash. Not only does Joe Keller fail to recognize his social responsibility, but also he allows his business partner to take the blame and serve the prison term for the crime. Gradually, events combine to strip Keller of his rationalizations. He argues that he never believed that the cracked engine heads would be installed and that he never admitted his mistake because it would have driven him out of business at the age of sixty-one, when he would not have another chance to “make something” for his family, his highest priority. “If there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head!” he exclaims. He also claims that other businessmen behaved no differently during the war and that Larry, his son who died flying a warplane, would have approved of his actions: “He understood the way the world is made. He listened to me,” Keller contends. He maintains these arguments, however, as a man who has clearly been challenged by his surviving son, Chris, who questions his father’s very humanity when the full truth of Joe’s irresponsibility is exposed: “What the hell are you? You’re not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you?” Joe Keller’s tough, resilient character crumbles quickly after Larry’s former fiancée, Ann, discloses Larry’s last letter, in which he expresses his intention to crash his plane in shame over his father’s culpability. The play turns somewhat melodramatic with Joe’s reversal of viewpoint, his discovery of his social responsibility, and his human loss in the deaths of the young fliers. His statement, “They were all my sons,” depends heavily on Larry’s self-abnegating idealism and on other contrived plot devices, as Leonard Moss instructively points out. Miller resorts to the theatrical trick of the last-minute revelation rather than relying on character development. Nevertheless, the logic of destroying Joe’s innocent disregard of the world at large—he is not so much deeply cynical as he is profoundly unaware of the ties that must hold society together—is compelling, especially because he cries for moral direction. “What do I do? he asks his wife, Kate, thus strengthening Chris’s imperative that his father reckon the consequences of his terrible moral oversight. If audiences are still gripped by the final events of All My Sons, it is because the play’s early scenes convincingly dramatize familiar aspects of family and community, with characters who know one another very well, who are quick to respond to the nuances of conversation and to what is unspoken but clearly implied.
What disables Miller’s plays before Death of a Salesman is not so much an inadequate understanding of dramatic form; rather, both his dramatic and nondramatic prose lack artistic tact. He tends to overstate social problems, to give otherwise inarticulate characters such as Lawrence Newman in the novel Focus an inappropriately self-conscious language that is meant to identify their cumulative awareness of societal sickness—in Newman’s case, of anti-Semitism. Like so much of Miller’s writing, however, Focus transcends its faults because of its author’s incisive portrayal of events that relentlessly push Newman to the brink of self-knowledge.
Death of a Salesman
In Death of a Salesman—originally entitled “The Inside of His Head”—Miller brilliantly solves the problem of revealing his main character’s inner discord, rendering Willy Loman as solid as the society in which he tries to sell himself. Indeed, many critics believe that Miller has never surpassed his achievement in this play, which stands as his breakthrough work, distinguished by an extremely long Broadway run, by many revivals, and by many theater awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. Death of a Salesman seems destined to remain an American classic and a standard text in American classrooms.
Willy Loman desperately wants to believe that he has succeeded, that he is “well liked” as a great salesman, a fine father, and a devoted husband. That he has not really attracted the admiration and popularity at which he has aimed is evident, however, in the weariness that belabors him from the beginning of the play. At the age of sixty-three, nearing retirement, Willy dreads confronting the conclusion that his life has gone offtrack, just like the automobile he cannot keep from driving off the road. His mind wanders because he has lost control: He has trouble keeping up with the bills; he feels hemmed in at home by huge, towering apartment buildings; his sales are slipping drastically; and his sons have thwarted his hope for their success.
Earlier in his career, Miller might have made a good but unremarkable play out of Willy’s dilemma, a drama about how American society has misled him and stuffed him with unrealizable dreams until a conflict between social structures and individual desires becomes inevitable. Instead, Miller learned from the mistakes in his earlier plays not to divide individual and social realities too neatly or too simply, so that in Death of a Salesman, he created a great play that is not merely about a victim of society.
Willy is not easily categorized; he is both simple and complex. On the one hand, he has all the modern conveniences that stamp him as a product of society; on the other hand, he is not content to be simply another social component. As he tells Linda, his wife, who tries to soothe his sense of failure, “some people accomplish something.” “A man has got to add up to something,” he assures his brother, Uncle Ben. Willy resists the idea that his life has been processed for him—like the processed American cheese he angrily rejects for Swiss, his favorite. Still, he wonders, “How can they whip cheese?” and thus he can be diverted from self-scrutiny to the trivialities of postwar consumer society.
Willy worries that he talks too much, that he is fat and unattractive, but he also brags about his persuasive abilities, his knack for knowing how to please people. Similarly, he alternately regards his son Biff as a bum and as having “greatness”; Willy’s automobile is alternately the finest of its kind and a piece of junk. Willy is a mass of contradictions who asks why he is “always being contradicted.” He has never been able to sort himself out, to be certain of his course in life. He is insulted when his friend Charley offers him a job, because the job offer and Charley’s self-assured demeanor—he keeps asking Willy when will he grow up—remind Willy of Uncle Ben, a man who is “utterly certain of his destiny,” who once extended to Willy a tremendous opportunity in Alaska, an opportunity Willy rejected with regret in favor of a salesperson’s career. He lives with the might-have-been of the past as though it were his present and even confuses Charley with Ben. As a result, scenes from Willy’s past and present follow—and indeed pursue—one another successively in a fuguelike fashion that shows his awareness of his failure to progress.
There is a grandeur in Willy’s dreams of success; his self-deceptions are derived from his genuine perceptions of life’s great possibilities, which are like the big sales he has always hoped to make. This is why Linda abets his penchant for self-aggrandizement. She knows that he has not been a successful salesperson, but she tempers his faults: “You don’t talk too much, you’re just lively.” At the same time, she is utterly believable as a housewife who has to know how much money her husband has brought home from work. After Willy exaggerates his sales from one trip, Linda quietly but firmly brings him back to reality by simply asking, “How much did you do?”—a question that becomes more pointed if the actress playing the role delicately emphasizes the word “did.”
When the play is read aloud, there is an uncanny power in some of its simplest and seemingly pedestrian lines, lines that capture the nuances and innuendos of colloquial language. This subtly effective dialogue is enhanced by a powerful use of human gesture that distinguishes Death of a Salesman as a completely realizable stage drama. Toward the end of the play, for example, after Biff, “at the peak of his fury,” bluntly tells Willy, “Pop, I’m nothing!” Biff relents, breaks down, sobs, and holds on to Willy, “who dumbly fumbles for Biff’s face.” This brief intimate encounter encapsulates everything that can be learned about Willy and Biff and about the play’s import, for the son renounces the father’s ridiculous belief in the son’s superiority even as the son clings to the father for support. While Biff rejects Willy, he embraces him and has to explain himself to Willy, who is “astonished” and at first does not know how to interpret his son’s holding on to him. Willy does not understand why Biff is crying. Willy has always been blind to Biff’s needs, has always “fumbled” their relationship, yet—as so often—Willy transforms Biff’s words of rejection into an affirmation. The Biff who leans on him is the son who “likes me!” Willy exclaims, after their close but momentary contact. This fleeting instance of family solidarity, however, cannot overcome the abiding family conflicts and misunderstandings, epitomized by Willy’s delusion that the insurance money accrued from his suicide will finally make him the good provider, the person who furthers his son’s magnificent future.
An Enemy of the People
Miller followed Death of a Salesman with his 1951 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s En folkefiende (pb. 1882; An Enemy of the People, 1890). Miller transforms Ibsen’s language into American idioms and shortens the play to emphasize the impact of Dr. Stockmann’s confrontation with his community, which will not acknowledge its polluted water, its own moral and political corruption. Stockmann’s battle against public opinion clearly foreshadows John Proctor’s struggle with his society’s self-inflicted evil in The Crucible. The Crucible is far more complex than Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s play, however, because Proctor is much more complicated than Stockmann, and the motivations of the Puritans are not as easily fathomed as those of Stockmann’s townspeople, who are primarily worried about their economic welfare. Even so, An Enemy of the People prefigures the fundamental questions raised in The Crucible about the value of human dignity and individuality and the kind of justice one can expect from a majority culture, especially when that culture begins to doubt its own coherence.
With incisive historical summaries, Miller, in The Crucible, characterizes the community of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, which has been beset by property disputes, by a slackening in religious fervor, and by an increasing lack of trust among its citizens. Rather than face their inner turmoil, some of Salem’s citizens search for scapegoats, for people who can take on the society’s sense of defeat and frustration, who can be punished, and who can carry away by means of their execution the society’s burden of guilt. In short, the Puritans seek signs of the devil and devil-worship in their midst in order to dissolve their own dissension. Although John Proctor, like Stockmann, speaks against his community’s blindness to the true causes of its corruption, he does not share to the same degree Stockmann’s naïveté, youthful outrage at injustice, and virtually pure innocence as a dissident. On the contrary, Proctor eventually opposes the witch-hunt, because he accepts his own part in having made that hysterical clamor for scapegoats possible. He knows that he has not acted quickly enough to expose Abigail, the chief instigator of the witch-hunt, because he has feared his own exposure as an adulterer. What finally exercises his conscience is not simply that he had previously given way to his lust for Abigail but that he had deluded himself into thinking he no longer cared for her and had even reprimanded his wife, Elizabeth, for failing to forgive him. Elizabeth is unbending but not without cause, for she intuits her husband’s tender feelings toward Abigail and suspects that he refuses to know his own mind. Proctor almost relinquishes his good name by confessing to witchery, until he realizes that however deep his guilt and responsibility may be for the community’s corruption, he cannot surrender his integrity, his cherished individuality. Like Willy Loman, Proctor reaffirms his own name—“I am John Proctor!”—and prefers his own crucible to his society’s severe test of him for its redemption.
The Crucible is not only Proctor’s play, however, and as important as its moral and political implications are—it was first received as a parable on McCarthyism and the 1950’s hysteria over communism in the United States—it deserves analysis as a dramatic whole in the same way that Death of a Salesman does. In Miller’s superb creation of scenes that require a company of carefully choreographed actors and actresses, he is able to dramatize an entire society and to show the interplay of individual and group psychology. Proctor would not be regarded as such a powerful personality were it not for the full panoply of personalities out of which he emerges. In this respect, The Crucible has a finer equilibrium as a social play than does Death of a Salesman, which is inescapably dominated by Willy Loman’s consciousness. Miller’s accomplished use of the Puritans’ formal idioms suggests their rigid judgments of one another. Perhaps he even exaggerates the archaisms of their language in order to stress the gravity of their worldview, although at the same time, he dramatizes a childishness in their readiness to credit the workings of witchcraft. There is a great deal of humor, for example, in one of the play’s early scenes, in which Mrs. Putnam’s energetic entrance explodes the seriousness of reports that the Reverend Parris’s child, Betty, has been bewitched. Mrs. Putnam, every bit as excited as a child, immediately glances at Betty and wonders, “How high did she fly, how high?” The simple, naïve directness of these words catches the audience up in a kind of enthusiasm for the marvelous that will soon infect Abigail and her female followers as well as the whole society of Salem. By varying his speakers’ styles to conform to the precise demands of each dramatic situation, Miller wins the audience’s absolute confidence in the psychological reality of his characters.
A Memory of Two Mondays
Miller’s excursion into the Puritan past was followed by the writing of two one-act plays, A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge (later revised as a two-act play), both of which he regarded as having arisen from his personal experience, although it took him some time to discover the autobiographical elements of the latter play. A Memory of Two Mondays covers the Depression period before Miller’s admission to the University of Michigan, and the play centers on the discrepancy between human needs and work requirements. Kenneth, the most melancholy character in the play, also has the greatest feeling for life and for its poetry. In the end, however, he has forgotten the poems he recites to Bert, the only character who escapes the tedium of the automobile parts warehouse, who will read the great books and save enough money to go to college. The other characters remain very much imprisoned in their everyday lives. Bert’s leavetaking is hardly noticed, even though he lingers in obvious need of making more out of his friendships at the warehouse than others are willing to acknowledge. Earlier, he and Kenneth had washed the windows of the warehouse to get a clear look at the world in which they were situated; now Kenneth is a drunk and Bert must stand apart, like his author, remembering the meaning of what others have already forgotten because of the demands of their jobs. Although A Memory of Two Mondays is one of Miller’s minor achievements, it is also one of his most perfectly executed dramas in that the impulse to rescue significance from Bert’s departure is sensitively qualified by the consciousness of human loss.
A View from the Bridge
Miller’s one-act version of A View from the Bridge is also a memory play—in this case based on a story he had heard and pondered for several years. Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, is driven to violate the most sacred ties of trust that bind his community by his compulsion to possess his niece, Catherine—a compulsion that he denies and displaces by conceiving an unreasoning dislike for his wife’s young relative, Rodolpho, an illegal immigrant whom Eddie has agreed to harbor. Eddie implies that Rodolpho is a homosexual, an unnatural man who will marry Catherine merely to make his stay in the country legal. Eddie’s desperate need to have Catherine becomes so uncontrollable that, when she and Rodolpho make plans to marry, he informs on Rodolpho and his brother, Marco, who are apprehended in circumstances that expose Eddie to his neighborhood as an informer. In Marco’s view, Eddie must be confronted with his subhuman behavior. In words reminiscent of Chris’s charge in All My Sons that his father is not human, Marco calls Eddie an animal who must abase himself. “You go on your knees to me!” Marco commands Eddie, while Eddie expects Marco to give him back his “good name.” They fight, and Eddie dies, stabbed by Marco with the former’s own knife. In a sense, Eddie has stabbed himself; the play has shown all along that Eddie’s mortal wound has been self-inflicted.
Eddie’s cry for self-respect recalls similar pleas by Willy Loman and John Proctor, and the concern in A View from the Bridge with informing and betrayal of friendships and blood ties echoes themes from Miller’s student plays through The Crucible, foreshadowing not only his own refusal to “name names” in his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities but also Quentin’s fundamental exploration of many different kinds of betrayal in After the Fall. Yet Miller first wrote A View from the Bridge as if he were aloof from its central story, as if it were a parable that he did not understand. He even provides a narrator, Alfieri, an attorney who ruminates over the significance of the story as Miller admits he had done in writing the play.
The one-act version of A View from the Bridge seems aloof from the audience as well. There is very little attempt to probe the characters’ psychology, so that what Miller gains in dramatic force by presenting events swiftly and starkly, he loses in the audience’s inability to empathize with circumscribed characters. Miller acknowledges these faults and notes that the two-act version more fully develops his characters’ psychology, particularly that of Eddie’s wife, Beatrice. Catherine, too, is a much-improved character in the two-act version. She tentatively expresses her divided feelings about Eddie, whereas in the one-act version, she is far less self-searching, almost woodenly immune to his passion. In the two-act, she desires to appease Eddie’s growing fears of her approaching adulthood. She loves him for his devotion to her, but her childlike behavior, as Beatrice points out to her, only encourages his possessiveness. Thus, Catherine tries gradually to separate herself from Eddie so that she can attain full maturity. As a result, Eddie’s rigid refusal to admit his perverse passion for Catherine, even when Beatrice confronts him with it, makes him singularly willful and more particularly responsible for his tragedy than is the case in the one-act version, in which all the characters, except Alfieri, are rather helplessly impelled by events. In this respect, Rodolpho is a more credible suitor for Catherine in the two-act version because he is somewhat more commanding (she pleads with him, “I don’t know anything, teach me, Rodolpho, hold me”) in capturing her love and therefore a stronger counterweight to Eddie’s authority.
A View from the Bridge in two acts still does not overcome all the play’s weaknesses. For example, Alfieri, like many narrators in drama, seems somewhat intrusive in his use of elevated language to wrest an overarching meaning from characters and events, even though he is an active participant in some fine scenes. Nevertheless, the play is as beautifully written and moving as any of Miller’s major works, and its main character is almost as powerfully drawn as Willy Loman and John Proctor, who, like Eddie Carbone, will not “settle for half”—will not be content with less than their lives’ joy. Because of an ample sense of self, they allow themselves, in Alfieri’s words, “to be wholly known.”
Miller arrived at an impasse upon his completion of the two-act version of A View from the Bridge, which was successfully produced in England in 1956, and he did not have another new work staged until 1964. Various explanations have been offered for this long gap in his dramatic production—including his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, the attendant publicity that interfered with his working life, and the trying and time-consuming process of defending his political activities. Of crucial importance, however, seems to have been his feeling that what he had been working for in his plays had not been sufficiently understood by his public. At any rate, he wrote several plays that did not satisfy him, a number of short stories, and a screenplay, The Misfits, that was subsequently revised as a novel. He may have turned to other literary forms from a belief that he had temporarily exhausted what had been an evolving sense of dramatic structure. Nondramatic prose seems to have permitted him to explore certain themes and narrative viewpoints that he had not been able to incorporate fully in A View from the Bridge, for his next produced play, After the Fall, successfully fuses narrative and dramatic discourse in the figure of its central character, Quentin, who constantly forces the audience into the explicit position of auditors rather than into the intermittent role of eavesdroppers addressed by a narrator as in A View from the Bridge.
After the Fall
How does one live in a world beset by death? This question is relentlessly probed in After the Fall, with its concentration-camp tower serving as one of the central metaphors for the human betrayal of life. As was so often true in the camps, the characters in After the Fall are divided against themselves. Not only can kind men kill, but also intelligent men can act like idiots, and Maggie—innocent in so many ways—is horribly transformed into a hater of life. Quentin, who is Maggie’s momentary stay against confusion, witnesses “things falling apart” and wonders, “Were they ever whole?” He proves to be incapable of protecting Maggie, so concerned is he with his own survival. In the very act of saving her from her pills—from her death—he defends himself by strangling her, suffocating her just as surely as the pills would have done. He discovers the limits of his own love for her, and Maggie sees his human incapacity for unconditional love as a betrayal, just as Quentin interprets the limitations of his mother’s love as a betrayal of him. Thus, for Maggie, Quentin comes at “the end of a long, long line” of men who have degraded her, betrayed her, killed her. He is, in other words, an accomplice in the general evil of the world, and therefore his presence as an “accomplice” in the ultimate evil that is the concentration camp is not altogether unfitting. He has been his mother’s accomplice in the degradation of his father and an accomplice in the death of his friend, Lou, who sensed that Quentin could not wholeheartedly defend his reputation and that he was not, in fact, a true friend. Quentin craves his own safety, and he feels the guilt of the survivor as the concentration-camp tower “blazes into life.”
Maggie has no identity to hold back, no reserves of self to compensate for her disappointment in Quentin. She thinks of herself as “nothing” and hopes to please everyone by becoming “all love.” (The metaphor’s abstractness virtually ensures her inability to develop a defined self.) Ironically, her generosity eats her up—people eat her up—because she does not possess the normal defenses of a separate ego. Maggie requires from Quentin the same selflessness she represents. She wants him to look at her “out of [his] self.” Quentin has abetted her by acting more like a child than an adult. Like William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929), Miller’s Quentin is an idealist and something of a Puritan; he romanticizes Maggie’s innocence and believes that she must be saved from herself and from a corrupt world. In some ways, he seems as thoroughly innocent as Quentin Compson’s brother Benjy, an idiot—the word itself is applied to Miller’s protagonist more than once, and it recurs obsessively as he recalls how others have employed the term to deny and attack one another. No more than Benjy or Maggie can Quentin accept the separateness of the adult world of his mother, his friends, and his wives.
These failures of love, of human connection, force Quentin to reexamine the moments of hopefulness that recur, one might say, idiotically—for no apparently sensible reason—throughout the play. From the concentration-camp tower and on “the mountain of skulls” where no one can be “innocent again,” Quentin observes the “fallen Maggie,” who once seemed like a proof of victory, and he realizes that his brothers both died in and built the camp, that Maggie’s fall is his fall, and that without that fall he would have no hope, for hope in the real world is “not in some garden of wax fruit and painted trees, that lie of Eden,” but in the knowledge of human destructiveness, of human idiocy, which will not go away and so must be taken to heart. In the full knowledge of his failures, Quentin embraces his life at the end of the play, whereas Maggie is seen rising from the floor “webbed in with her demons, trying to awake.” Her partial consciousness reflects her inability to take full responsibility for her life, to see that she was not simply a victim but in charge of her emotions. The hardest thing Quentin must do is reverse the force of the play’s dominant metaphor, making the idiot serve not as a rejection of the broken, fragmented facts of life but as an acceptance of the flawed face of all people. That reversal of rejection is accomplished by saying hello to Holga, his third partner in life, who has provided the dream—the metaphor, in truth—of how lives such as Quentin’s (“Why do I make such stupid statements!”) and Maggie’s (“I’m a joke that brings in money”) can tentatively approach redemption.
After the Fall sometimes suffers from a vagueness of rhetoric and from overstatement, so that Quentin’s confessions overwhelm the dramatic action and diminish the substantiality of other characters. Miller restrains Quentin’s verbosity in the revised stage version quoted here (printed in 1964, the same year as the production of the original stage version, available in Collected Plays, Volume II). A television adaptation (1974) removes nearly all of Quentin’s verbiage, but in none of these versions is Miller entirely successful in balancing Quentin’s subjective and objective realities. Edward Murray argues, for example, that not all scenes are consistently staged “in the mind, thought, and memory of Quentin,” as the play would have it. Hence it is difficult to find a “warrant,” a certifiable viewpoint, for some of the play’s action. In Death of a Salesman, on the contrary, the audience is compelled to move in and out of Willy’s mind and is thereby able to comprehend his reality both subjectively and objectively. In part, Murray’s objection may be met by carefully following Quentin’s struggle to know his past, not simply to repossess it as Willy does. How does one achieve a viewpoint, Quentin asks, when there is no objective basis on which to recreate one’s past? In the disagreements over Quentin’s motives (some critics emphasize his self-criticism, others his self-exculpation), Miller adumbrates an ambiguity of viewpoint explored more successfully in The Price.
Incident at Vichy
Some reviewers of the first production of Incident at Vichy mistook it as a message play and faulted Miller not only for his didacticism but also for teaching a lesson already learned about Nazism and people’s inhumanity toward others. It is a very talky drama, and given the various arguments advanced, it is easy to regard the characters as representative figures rather than as whole personalities. That this is not the case, however, is evident in the play’s refusal to locate a winning argument, a resolution of the crisis of conviction besetting each character as his most cherished opinions are found wanting, are exposed as contradictory and self-serving. Even Leduc, who does a large amount of the debunking, discovers that he is not free of self-aggrandizing illusions. The Major reveals Leduc’s privileged sense of himself, and Von Berg forces on him a pass to freedom, which he must take at the cost of another’s imprisonment. Von Berg’s self-abnegating act of love for another man—although a moving statement of his belief that there are people in the world who would sacrifice themselves rather than permit evil to be done to others—is not dramatized as a final answer to the self-interested pleas of the other characters, however, and it does not cause the reversal of belief Miller coerced from Joe Keller after his son Larry’s suicide in All My Sons. On the contrary, Von Berg is faced at the end of the play with an uncomprehending Major, a man who scorns gestures of self-sacrifice, except insofar as he is “an idealist” who ironically sacrifices himself for the perpetuation of the totalitarian system he serves.
For all the characters, then, Vichy France during World War II is a place of detention where their self-justifications are demolished as they await their turns in the examination room, in which their release or their final fate in the concentration camps will be determined. Like Quentin, they are all vulnerable to the suspicion that they have not lived in “good faith.” In other words, it is their questionable integrity, not their shaky ideas, that is ultimately at stake. Incident at Vichy is Miller’s most existential play, in the sense that there is no exit from the dilemmas it portrays, no consoling truths to which characters can cling permanently; instead, there are only approximations of the truth, certain accurate perceptions, but there is nothing like the requiem, the coda, the summing up to be found in Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge.
In The Price, Miller combines the best features of After the Fall and Incident at Vichy. Once again, the issue of coming to others in “good faith” is paramount, as Esther realizes in characterizing the surprise appearance of her husband Victor’s brother, Walter. Walter returns to their boyhood apartment, where Victor is selling the family possessions because the building has been condemned. Walter has not seen his brother in sixteen years and wants to explain to him why he chose such an independent course, why he failed to support their father as Victor had done, to the detriment of his career. The immensely successful Walter feels stymied by the past and suggests that he and Victor took “seemingly different roads out of the same trap” created by their father’s pose of helplessness after the failure of his business in the Crash of 1929. While Victor chose to “invent” a life of self-sacrifice, Walter chose to adopt a career of self-advancement. “We’re like two halves of the same guy,” Walter insists. His point is well taken in terms of Miller’s dramatic development, for Victor and Walter are also opposite sides of Quentin, whose family background is somewhat similar to theirs and who engages in similar debates with himself concerning the calls of self-denial and self-preferment; indeed, like Quentin, Victor and Walter are having what is essentially an argument with themselves in front of auditors (Esther and the furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon). Because Walter and Victor can go over the same ground of the past, their recollections are both arguable and utterly convincing as parallel but divergent interpretations. Thus, the audience responds to one character’s point of view in the context of the other’s and follows precisely the process by which these characters form their histories. Walter excuses himself by showing that in objective terms his father was not helpless; he had four thousand dollars he asked Walter to invest for him. Walter rejects the vision of family harmony that Victor worked so steadily to maintain; there was no love between their mother and father, only a business arrangement, as Walter brutally reveals with vivid memories of how their mother failed to support their father in his terrible need. Victor dismisses Walter’s narrowly conceived interpretation of his father and their family. “A system broke down,” he reminds Walter, referring to the Crash, “did I invent that?” Victor fights against Walter’s simplification of their father’s psychology. Embedded in Victor’s words is an echo of Miller’s original title for Death of a Salesman: “What about the inside of his head? The man was ashamed to go into the street!”
In the dialogue between these “archetypal brothers,” as Neil Carson calls them, the nature of individual psychology and social reality, which Miller explores in all of his plays, is debated, and nowhere is that exploration more finely balanced, more convincingly conceived, than in The Price, where the two brothers—for all of their representativeness—steadfastly remain individual and irreconcilable. Moreover, the other two characters, Esther and Solomon (a kibitzer who is Miller’s funniest and wisest creation), are just as credibly presented, as they mediate between the hard positions held by Victor and Walter. Esther is one of Miller’s most complex female characters, as her lyric memory at the end of the play demonstrates, for her wistful words richly embody all the wonderful promise of a life gone sour, just as Solomon’s last actions—he is listening to a “laughing record” from the 1920’s, “sprawling in the chair, laughing with tears in his eyes, howling helplessly to the air”—recall all the characters’ hilarious and painful memories, leaving the audience perfectly poised in this drama of life’s alternative expressions.
The Creation of the World and Other Business
The Creation of the World and Other Business—with its archetypal brothers (Cain and Abel), its battle between God and Lucifer (who stand as the alternatives between which Adam and Eve must choose), its feel for human beings in a state of natural but problematic innocence, and its grappling with injustice—is an inevitable outgrowth of themes Miller has pursued throughout his career. When the play first appeared, however, it startled reviewers with its departure from Miller’s realistic, domestic settings. They did not receive it favorably, and the play failed in its initial Broadway production, which is unfortunate, because it contains some of Miller’s shrewdest writing and a surprisingly innovative rendition of the Edenic myth. The play’s humor saves it from becoming a ponderous retelling of the familiar biblical account. The wide-ranging use of idiomatic expressions in English, Yiddish, and French mixed with the English of the Authorized Version of the Bible sets up a fascinating juxtaposition between the traditional story and the contemporary language that gives the whole play an uncanny freshness and irreverence. God calls Adam and Eve “my two idiotic darlings,” and the profoundly comic nature of their moral and sexual education gradually acquires credibility. Would not the experience of being the first man and woman constitute the first comedy as well as the first tragedy? This is the question Miller appears to have posed for himself in this play, for Adam and Eve do not know what to do. Not having a history of feelings about God, about humanity, and about their sexuality, they must discover their sentiments about all of these things, and Lucifer would like to show them the shortcuts, to rationalize life, to avoid conflict before it begins. In order to follow him, however, Adam and Eve must accept the primacy of intellect over love.
Several of Miller’s later plays, including The American Clock, The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and Danger: Memory!, proved far more successful in London than in New York, a fact the playwright attributed at one point to the discomfort his American producers felt in dealing with “psychopolitical themes.” Deeply cognizant of the dangers of social coercion and excessive conformity, Miller continued to hunger for the sense of community he described in one of his books of photo essays, In Russia:No one who goes to the theater in Russia can fail to be struck by the audience. . . . It is as though there were still a sort of community in this country, for the feeling transcends mere admiration for professionals doing their work well. It is as though art were a communal utterance, a kind of speech which everyone present is delivering together.
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