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Miller, Arthur 1915–
Miller is an American playwright. A moralist who has often been charged with didacticism, he poses questions for which he gives no answers, seeking, instead, a state of "heightened consciousness" for his heroes and audience. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 6, 10, 26, 179.
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[That the theme of the search for self-identity] is crucial to a proper understanding of [Death of a Salesman] and that Miller is in no small degree preoccupied with it, is supported by the frequency of its overt statement in the dialogue of the characters. 'The man', says Biff, referring to his father, 'didn't know who he was', and 'I know who I am …' Thus, the theme can be traced not only in the case of Willy but also in that of Biff. By showing that the father has failed in the search for self-identity, whereas the son is on the fair road to success, Miller has effectively used both the negative and the positive strategy to strengthen and reinforce his overall concern. The play has generally been interpreted as a conflict between Willy and his milieu; the conflict between father and son has been passed over as only a tangential and peripheral matter. The approach adopted in this paper, however, is to shift the centre of gravity to father-son conflict and then to examine why Willy dies unenlightened and in what manner Biff achieves an awareness about himself…. (p. 74)
Although Willy is aware, maybe dimly and imperfectly, that he is not cut out for success in the world of trade and commerce, he nevertheless nurses the dream of getting the better of everybody else. And this leads him into an alienation from himself, obscuring his real identity. (p. 75)
Presumably, his life would have been more satisfying if he had … engaged in some pioneering work or free enterprise. However, as matters stand, he has given his real nature a horrible wrench in an attempt to mould it, as has been rightly suggested, 'in accordance with what he believes others expect of him'. This other-directedness on his part is his acceptance to have his identity determined by 'images of himself proffered from the outside by other people'.
What Willy really cares for is not identity or integrity but personality, which would include such outward characteristics as wearing a smile, winning friends by a show of bonhomie, to be, in Willy's ridiculously iterative phrase 'well liked'. To be impressive one may find it expedient to cultivate an ersatz personality, to behave in an unauthentic way. This is how he has been living and now he expects his son to follow suit. Needless to say, in this process one's identity is inevitably violated and vulgarized, so much so indeed that the motive of Willy's suicide turns out to be not to help Biff out of love with the twenty thousand dollars of insurance money but his desire to be worshipped posthumously.
With his self-identity weakened and undermined, Willy loses his grasp of things in general. (p. 76)
[Willy's] self-awareness remains at best incipient and nebulous and he does not try to sharpen it.
On the other hand, Biff is seriously engaged upon a quest for self-identity and serves as a foil to his father. It would be incredible if he were to make a clean break, at the very start, from his father. His ambivalence towards his life at the ranch in Texas unmistakably declares him as his father's son. In the traumatic experience in the hotel room, however, he achieves an insight. With the realization that his father is a fraud comes his deliverance. The greatest hurdle before Biff was the idealization which father and son mutually indulged in. With the breaking of the umbilical cord, so to speak, Biff's realistic perception suddenly gains in depth and intensity. By trying to make a hero of him, Biff realizes Willy was only obscuring his identity and to that extent not acting helpfully. He lays the blame squarely on Willy for filling his (Biff's) mind with exaggerated self-conceit: '… I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air …'…. Willy's threat to self-identity having been successfully met, Biff now stands purged of all fantastic notions and declares with the joy of a newly made discovery: 'I'm not a leader of men … I am just what I am, that's all'…. (pp. 77-8)
Willy … is too weak for any significant gesture of defiance. Biff, on the contrary, gradually learns to be himself, instead of staying on as a compulsive victim. He hates to be forced into a stereotyped mould, into an image proffered by others, including pop. Once he has touched the low down with his discovery that he is a dime a dozen, he has gained his freedom from any obligation that he may have had earlier to live up to other's estimate of him. (p. 78)
The response of the perceptive reader, in the last analysis, is anything but naive: he is angry with the system, or the socio-economic situation, or what you will, but he is reluctant to exonerate Willy, for Willy surrenders what was uniquely his own. Looked at in this perspective, Biff, having completed his search for self-identity in the face of the odds which had driven his father crazy, emerges as the true protagonist of this play. (p. 79)
P. P. Sharma, "Search for Self-Identity in 'Death of a Salesman'," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 74-9.
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The process of playwriting is given a peculiar wavelike rhythm in Miller's own story of his efforts to realize his intentions from one play to the other. Troughs of dejection on being exposed to unexpected critical and audience responses to a newly completed play are followed by swells of creativity informed by the dramatist's determination to make himself more clearly understood in the next one. This wavelike rhythm of challenge and response is the underlying structural principle of Miller's "Introduction" to his Collected Plays. Behind it one may suspect the workings of a radical distrust of his chosen medium. The present essay will consider some of the effects both of this distrust of the theater as a means of communication and of Miller's theories of dramatic form on his career as a dramatist.
Arthur Miller is not alone in asking what he is trying to say in his plays, nor in being concerned that they may evoke other responses than those the playwright thought he had aimed at. From the early reviews of Death of a Salesman critics have observed that a central problem in the evaluation of Miller's work is a conflict of themes, real or apparent, within each play. (p. 1)
Miller himself has often spoken of modern drama in general and his own in particular in terms of a split between the private and the social. (p. 2)
[For Miller synthesis of the private and the social] has largely been a question of dramatic form, and the problem for the playwright has been to create a viable form that could bridge "the deep split between the private life of man and his social life." In addition to his frustration with audience responses and his desire to make himself more clearly understood, part of the momentum behind Miller's search for new and more satisfactory modes of expression after the realistic All My Sons has been the conviction that the realistic mode in drama was an expression of "the family relationship within the play" while "the social relationship within the play" evoked the un-realistic modes. (p. 3)
When Miller is slightly dissatisfied with his first successful play [All My Sons], it is because he believes that he had allowed the impact of what he calls one kind of "morality" to "obscure" the other kind "in which the play is primarily interested."… These two kinds of "morality" are closely related to the two kinds of "motivation"—psychological and social—that … critics have pointed to. The problem may be seen more clearly by observing that the play has two centers of interest. The one, in which Miller claims "the play is primarily interested," is intellectual, the other emotional. The former is mainly expressed through the play's dialogue, the latter is more deeply embedded in the action itself.
Joe Keller gradually emerges as a criminal. He has sold defective cylinder heads to the air force during the war and was thus directly responsible for the deaths of twenty-one pilots. The horror of this deed is further brought home to the audience by the discovery that Keller's elder son was a pilot lost in action. This is what we may call the emotional center of interest, and most of the plot is concerned with this past crime and its consequences for Keller and his family. But it is this emotional center that for Miller obscures the real meaning of the play.
Miller wanted his play to be about "unrelatedness":
Joe Keller's trouble, in a word, is not that he cannot tell right from wrong but that his cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with his world, his universe, or his society…. In this sense Joe Keller is a threat to society and in this sense the play is a social play…. [The] crime is seen as having roots in a certain relationship of the individual to society, and to a certain indoctrination he embodies, which, if dominant, can mean a jungle existence for all of us no matter how high our buildings soar.
This, then, is the intellectual center of the play. Any good drama needs to engage the intellect as well as the emotions of its audience. Miller's problem is that these two spheres in All My Sons are not concentric. When a play has two centers of interest at odds with each other, the emotional one will often, as here, have a more immediate impact on the audience because it is more intimately related to the action of the play. Invariably action takes precedence over the sophistication of dialogue or symbols.
Death of a Salesman (1949) may serve as further illustration of the point made about the two centers of interest in All My Sons…. [The] key scene of the play could be the one in Howard Wagner's office or the one in the hotel room depending on whether the play was "political" or "sexual." There is no doubt, however, as to which scene has the greater impact in the theater. The hotel room scene is carefully prepared for…. The point is, however, that it is primarily on the stage that this scene makes such an over-whelming impact that it tends to overshadow the other scenes that together make up the total image of Willy's plight. If the play is read, if one treats it as one would a novel, balance is restored and a good case may be made for a successful synthesis of "psychological" and "social" motivation…. (pp. 3-4)
Miller seems to have become increasingly aware of the difficulty of making a harmonious whole of his vehicle and his theme. His story would have sexual infidelity (consider for instance the prominence this factor must have in any brief retelling of the plot of Death of a Salesman or The Crucible) or another personal moral failure at its center, while the significance the story held for the author had to do with man's relationship to society, to the outside world. The one kind of "morality" continues to obscure the other. When starting out to write A View from the Bridge (1955), Miller had almost despaired of making himself understood in the theater: no "reviews, favorable or not," had mentioned what he had considered the main theme of The Crucible (1953). Since he, apparently, could not successfully merge his plots and his intended themes, he arrived at a scheme that on the face of it seems preposterous: he would "separate, openly and without concealment, the action of the next play, A View from the Bridge, from its generalized significance."… (pp. 4-5)
With such an attitude to the relationship between story and theme or "action" and "significance" there is little wonder that Miller was prone to writing plays where critics felt there was a conflict of themes. For while Miller's imagination generates plots along psychoanalytic lines, his intellect leans towards socio-economic explanations….
[The] historical antecedents and the widespread use of narrators in modern drama should not be lost sight of when considering this aspect of Arthur Miller's plays. Miller's narrators, however, are closely connected with his reluctance to let his plays speak for themselves. They are born from his long and troubled struggle with dramatic form. (p. 5)
[Although Miller has discussed Death of a Salesman in terms of a prose narrative, it] succeeds precisely because Willy's story is shown on the stage, not told. The possible uncertainty as to motivation does not detract from the intense and unified impact of the drama in the theater. The characters reveal themselves through action and dialogue supported by what Miller has called the play's "structural images."… All the more striking then, the need Miller evidently felt to have the characters stand forth and give their various interpretations of Willy's life after the drama proper has closed with Willy's death. The chorus-like effect of the "Requiem" is obviously related to Miller's conscious effort to write a tragedy of "the common man," a drama which places man in his full social context, which in his essay "On Social Plays" is so clearly associated in Miller's mind with Greek drama. From another point of view the "Requiem" may also be seen as the embryo of the narrator figure who becomes so conspicuous in A View from the Bridge and After the Fall: after the play is over the characters stand forth and tell the audience what the play is about.
Miller's reluctance to let a play speak for itself became even more evident in his two attempts to add extra material to the original text of The Crucible after its first production in 1953. The first of these additions, a second scene in Act Two, helps to explain Abigail's behavior in Act Three, but … it is not necessary…. [This is] evidence of Miller's sense of not having succeeded in making himself understood in the original version of the play.
More striking is the evidence provided by the series of nondramatic interpolated passages in the first act, where the playwright takes on the roles of historian, novelist and literary critic, often all at once, speaking himself ex cathedra rather than through his characters ex scena. (p. 6)
In effect the play has a narrator, not realized as a character but present as a voice commenting on the characters and the action and making clear some of the moral implications for the reader/audience. (p. 7)
While [some of the interpolated expository] passages are further instances of Miller's apparent distrust of his medium as a means of communication, other passages speak of an impatience with the limitations of the dramatic form. Miller had researched this play thoroughly, and it is as if on second thought he has regretted that he had not been able to bring as much of his research and his historical insights into the play as he would have liked. But when he in the interpolated passages takes on the roles of historian and biographer he tends to confuse the sharp line that must be drawn between the characters in a play called The Crucible and a group of late seventeenth century individuals bearing the same names as these characters…. It should further be noted that these interpolated expository passages are often concerned with motivation, and that both psychological, religious and socio-economic explanations of the trials are given. While the information is interesting in itself and throws light on the Salem trials, it cannot add to our understanding of the drama as acted on the stage. Whatever needs to be known about these characters and their motives by the audience must be expressed in action and dialogue. That is, if we do not accept the dichotomy of "action" and "significance," with the latter element presented by a representative of the author, a "Reader" or a narrator.
The assumption of such a dichotomy, according to Miller, lies at the heart of the structure of his next play, A View from the Bridge. Here, and in A memory of Two Mondays, the one-act play originally presented on the same play bill, Miller thinks of himself as having followed "the impulse to present rather than to represent an interpretation of reality. Incident and character are set forth with the barest naïveté, and action is stopped abruptly while commentary takes its place."… On the face of it, however, it is difficult to see why such commentary should be found necessary, unless the playwright had given up trying to make himself understood through "action" alone or, rather, to let his "action" carry the full weight of the "significance" he saw in it. (pp. 7-8)
As in [All My Sons], the emotional center of A View from the Bridge is embedded in the action. But in the latter play Miller explains that he deliberately tried not to have the dialogue of the characters involved in the action carry any burden that goes beyond this action. The aspect of the play that dialogue attempted to express in All My Sons is now delegated to the narrator. The more explicit splitting apart of "the organic impulse" has been observed in Death of a Salesman with its concluding "Requiem." Moreover, Miller has also been seen to depart from the second of his two basic principles of playwriting in introducing narrative and expository passages into The Crucible. With A View from the Bridge he wrote a play that approaches illustrated narrative. (p. 9)
The story is obviously Alfieri's story. What we see on the stage is Alfieri's memory of Eddie as he ponders on its significance: "This is the end of the story. Good night," he concludes the original one act version of the play. The past tense is the mode of narrative; drama is enacted in the present.
The title A Memory of Two Mondays is in itself interesting in this connection as it suggests an implied narrator, someone whose memory is projected on the stage as is Alfieri's. This technique is developed to its furthest extreme in After the Fall, where "the action takes place in the mind, thought, and memory of Quentin." The play has become illustrated narrative, and is essentially a two act monologue which the narrator and main character Quentin, directs at the audience. Significantly, since the flow of narration is essential to the play and the many dramatizations of situations in the narrative are incidental, Quentin's audience is in Miller's stage directions defined as a "Listener, who, if he could be seen, would be sitting just beyond the edge of the stage itself."
The images presented on the stage are illustrations of Quentin's consciously controlled discourse or of the working of his sub-consciousness as he struggles for self-understanding and self-acceptance. In either case, the device of giving characters within "the mind, thought, and memory of Quentin" a semi-independent status on the stage and allowing them to speak for themselves, makes possible an objective view of the self-image projected by Quentin in his discourse. Essentially, however, Miller has placed a character on the stage and given him the opportunity of examining his life and motives and explaining himself to a Listener through a monologue that lasts the whole length of a two act play. From point of view of genre the result is a cross between expressionist drama, stream of consciousness novel and dramatic monologue. The result, however, is good theater: it works on the stage. The critical attacks on After the Fall have mainly been concerned with Miller's subject matter and theme, not his experiment with dramatic form. (pp. 9-10)
Miller in After the Fall made the narrator's attempt to arrive at the significance of his own life and explain himself directly to the audience the center of the play…. In his next play,… Incident at Vichy … written immediately after the critical disaster of After the Fall, he returned to the form of the straightforward, realistic play. By concentrating on one of the two poorly integrated themes of After the Fall, that represented by the concentration camp tower, the later play, moreover, avoids the conflict between two different kinds of "morality" or "motivation" many critics have found in his plays up to and including After the Fall. Incident at Vichy may be too much the drama of ideas (and not very new or original ones at that) to be successful in the theater,… but at least there is no need for any "Requiem," explanatory footnotes or narrator to express the play's dominantly public theme.
Four years later, Miller returned to the material of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and After the Fall in another family drama, The Price. The play is also a return to the realistic style and retrospective technique of All My Sons. But of course Miller had traveled a long distance since 1947. There is a greater economy of characters and incidents, a more subtle and dramatically integrated use of symbols, no more need for manipulative, mechanistic devices like surprise arrivals or unsuspected letters. Two hours in an attic with old furniture and four people—and the experience in the theater is of something organic, something that comes alive and evolves before us on the stage. The playwright appears relaxed, confident that the "action" expresses its "generalized significance": the characters speak for themselves and the play speaks for Arthur Miller. (p. 10)
Miller's belief, expressed in several essays in the mid-fifties, that it is the unrealistic modes of drama that are capable of expressing man's social relationships, as opposed to the realistic drama which is best suited to present the private life, is seen most clearly at work in A View from the Bridge from 1955. The "bridge," however, is rather crudely built: to the side of the realistic action stands the narrator, who in the first version of the play spoke in verse—poetry, according to Miller, being the style most closely related to public themes. In the light of such theories the author's misfired intentions with After the Fall, his most "unrealistic" play, may be more easily understood; and the irony of its reception as his most embarrassingly private play more readily appreciated. There is further irony in the successful synthesis of the public and the private spheres in The Price. For according to Miller's theory, the realism of this or any other play "could not, with ease and beauty, bridge the widening gap between the private life and the social life." But in his essay on "The Family in Modern Drama," Miller had also wondered: "Why does Realism always seem to be drawing us all back to its arms? We have not yet created in this country a succinct form to take its place." This was written at a time when Miller was trying to break away from realism. This movement, however, had its temporary conclusion in After the Fall, the play that more than any other must have lead Miller to despair of communicating his intentions to his audience. (p. 11)
[The Creation of the World and Other Business] is his first attempt to express himself through comedy and pure fantasy, and in this his most radical departure from realism his earlier concern with the problems of integrating man's private and social life has given way to teleological speculation. Behind the fanciful cosmological draperies, however, one may discover the playwright's old story of the two sons and familial conflict. Indeed, the new play serves as a reminder that the Cain and Abel story is an archetypal pattern in All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, After the Fall and The Price.
In a different guise the old question of the two centers of interest is also raised by Miller's attempt at comedy. While God and Lucifer incessantly come together on the stage to discuss the Creator's design, Miller's alleged theme, the audience, who cannot but grow restless after two acts with God, his Angels and a boring couple named Adam and Eve, are finally given the two sons, the responsible and respected Cain and the irresponsible and loved Abel. The rather simplistic psychological presentation of the conflict between them is the kind of dramatic material Miller has successfully handled before, and both because it is welcome relief from the overall tediousness of the rest of the play and because it has dramatic potential, it will easily lay claim to the attention and the interest of the audience at the expense of the play's concern with the human dilemma…. [This] venture thus is not only thematically related to his first one but shows that the playwright has still not been able to solve the problem of dramatic form he then felt had served to obscure his main theme.
The story of Arthur Miller's struggle with dramatic form had its beginning in his realization of the two centers of interest in All My Sons. His subsequent theories of social drama and its relationship to the realistic and unrealistic modes of drama should be regarded primarily as rationalizations of his own attempts to express himself clearly, to bridge the gap not so much between the social and the private as between his conscious intentions and the audience and critical responses. This was fully demonstrated in his attempts deliberately to separate the action of a play from its significance. His distrust of the realistic drama as a usable medium was thus properly a distrust of the theater itself as a medium, as evidenced in his use of intermediary commentary and narrators and in his tendency towards illustrated narrative. Realism nevertheless has proved to have a strong hold on Miller, and it is the mode with which, the evidence of his plays suggests, he is most at home. (pp. 11-12)
Orm Överland, "The Action and Its Significance: Arthur Miller's Struggle with Dramatic Form," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1975, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, March, 1975, pp. 1-14.
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[Incident at Vichy] is an explicit dramatic rendition of Sartre's treatise on Jews, as well as a clear structural example of Sartre's definition of the existential "theatre of situation."
[The] affinity between Sartre and Miller is understandable when one considers the existential development of Miller's later plays. Beginning with The Misfits, Miller's works begin to shift the tragic perspective from man's remediable alienation from society to man's hopeless alienation from the universe and from himself. After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, and The Price are all organized around "absurdist" themes of metaphysical anxiety, personal solitude, and moral ambivalence. Quite clearly, one presumes, the accumulated impact of international and personal tragedies has strained Miller's faith in man's ability to overcome social and spiritual diseases. Miller no longer has any illusion about a "Grand Design" whose revelation will enable man to live harmoniously as a social being. His characters now grope alone for values to sustain their dissipating lives and each value, once discovered, slips again into ambiguity. Most frightening of all is the realization that human corruption, once attributed to conscious deviation from recognizable moral norms, is now seen as an irresistable impulse in the heart of man. The theme of universal guilt becomes increasingly and despairingly affirmed. But Miller's belief in original sin in a world without God does not preclude the possibility of personal redemption, for Miller shares Sartre's insistence on free will and the possibility of "transcendence" or the re-creation of self through a succession of choices.
Miller's existential concerns are clearly delineated in Vichy, a play that reminds us immediately of Sartre's "The Wall" and The Victors. In all these works a fundamental Sartrean thesis is dramatized: "A man's secret, the very frontier of his freedom is his power of resistance to torture and death."
Structurally, Vichy answers Sartre's call for situational drama" which, he hoped, would replace the outmoded drama of "character" so prevalent in the contemporary bourgeois theatre. In a famous article, "Forgers of Myth," written in 1946, Sartre described situational drama as "short and violent, sometimes reduced to the dimensions of a single long act": "A single set, a few entrances, a few exits, in ense arguments among the characters who defend their individual rights with passion…."
Each character is displayed as a free being, entirely indeterminate, who must choose his own being when confronted with certain necessities." Men do not have "ready made" natures, consistent throughout alternating circumstances—a primary assumption in the theatre of character—but are rather naked wills, pure, free choices whose passion unites with action.
The characters in Vichy are not simply "types" or "public speakers with a symbolic role" …; on the contrary they are dynamic, fluid, undetermined beings, "freedoms caught in a trap," to use a Sartrean phrase. We know nothing about them, aside from their professions, until they reveal themselves through their choices of behavior, and their choices often prove to be surprising. They are all faced with undeniable limits to these choices, but within these limits they are always free to act. The Jew can resist or submit; the German can murder or rebel. The structural movement of the play is existential in that individual possibilities for evading choice are methodically decreased. As each Jew is taken into the dreaded office, the option to revolt becomes more difficult. The traditional palliatives of reason, civilization, political ideology, and culture which ordinarily stand between man and the absurd are dispelled, one by one, until each character is made to face the realities of torture and irrational death.
Miller's play, though existentialist in theme, is rationalistic in structure. Like Sartre, Miller writes about the absurd in coherent terms. Miller's intention is still to explore "Sheer process itself. How things connected," and although his discovery of cause and effect patterns no longer reveals "the hidden laws of the gods" with any certainty, the disasters in the play do not spring from a mysterious void as they do in the absurdist plays of Beckett and Ionesco. The central crisis is, of course, precipitated by Nazism, but Miller's analysis of the cause of this evil is more existential than political or sociological, and is expressed in terms of the Sartrean concepts of Nothingness and Dread. (pp. 29-31)
[The] Nazis' refusal to abide by the rules of civilization makes a mockery of all illusions about moral behavior, social order, and humanist conceptions of man. If civilized people like the Germans can suddenly become uncivilized monsters, then one's belief in the continuity of human essence is destroyed…. Von Berg is the first to recognize the implication of the Nazi power…. The Nazis are like Camus' "plague" which falls upon our safe and ordered lives and alienates us from all harmonious connections with the universe. In the wake of their attack on civilization lies the void, the disintegrated wreckage of all human constructs against the threat of chaos. "Who can ever save us," cries Von Berg after his awakening…. (pp. 31-2)
But Von Berg's plea is, of course, the starting point for existential ethics, for if man can no longer find refuge in external dieties and beliefs, he must look for sanctions within himself. Since existence is neither inherently necessary or predefined, man is free in that he is permanently in flux; his capacity for self definition is therefore illimitable: "Man is nothing but that which he makes of himself," Sartre writes, "that is the first principle of existentialism." The only solution to the devastation wrecked upon human security by the plague is a responsible and free human action, an end in itself, which will momentarily solidify the relentless flow of our inner and outer being. But it is precisely this obligation that causes dread in man. As Sartre says, "Man is condemned to be free." The constant necessity to reassert and redefine values, projects, and commitments—the perpetual challenge to justify one's life—produces anguish, the feeling that results when we confront "the absolute openness of our future, the nothingness in the center of which we live." Rather than commit himself to responsible actions without recourse to outside justification, man clings instead to "bad faith," that "lie in the soul," as Sartre calls it, which enables him to flee from responsibility into determinism. (p. 32)
Like Sartre's Orestes in The Flies, [Von Berg] is the existential hero who wrenches himself from passivity to engagement by freely committing a sacrificial act. Von Berg's act is absurd in that it has no rational basis, but it elevates him to moral authenticity. His rebellion annihilates the nausea brought on by his understanding of the Nazi plague and his realization of his personal complicity in the holocaust, a realization unknown to him until his conversation with Leduc toward the end of the play. Leduc convinces the apparently innocent Von Berg that he harbors in his heart, unknown to himself, "a dislike, if not hatred of Jews," not like an ordinary anti-Semite, but simply as a human being who must somehow objectify his need to despise "that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction."… For Von Berg, the Jew fulfills Heidegger's concept of "the one" upon whom we thrust off the threat of death: "one dies," we say, never imagining the statement to apply to ourselves. "Each man has his Jew; it is the other," Leduc says. "And the Jews have their Jews."… The hunger for survival makes accomplices of us all.
Von Berg's sacrifice, however, eradicates his guilt as victimizer and confirms his previously untested assertion that "there are people who would find it easier to die than stain one finger with this murder."… Von Berg's present action throws Leduc's accusation of complicity into the irrelevant past. Von Berg, in effect, becomes what he does: by dying in Leduc's place he translates his guilt into active responsibility and becomes Leduc's "Jew."
Leduc is now stained by Von Berg's gift of life and must carry on the existential cycle of transmuting his guilt into redemptive action. He is free, like all men, to transcend his present action by choosing a new and redeeming project. (pp. 37-8)
Von Berg is the only triumphant character in the play since death will cut him off at his highest point and permanently fix his essence as martyr. His act frees him from alienation and imposes a moral coherence upon his previously contingent world.
The varied threads of the intellectual and emotional debate finally crystallize around the concrete act of Von Berg. A moral norm is unequivocably established: One's life must submit to one's conscience, despite the absence of any external moral criteria. All the characters in the play, particularly the Major, are judged by Von Berg's "Look," and since Von Berg will die, his look becomes uneradicable. Of course the possibility of the Major's moral transcendence in the eyes of others continues to exist, but under the implacable gaze of Von Berg the Major can never alter his constitution as a degraded object.
The play thus represents in its total action the essence of Sartre's philosophy, which was, and still is, the demand for authenticity, or the moral awakening to individual responsibility. But if Miller follows Sartre in the general theme, structure, and dynamics of his play, his implied conclusion to the threat of anti-Semitism differs radically from Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew. Ironically, Sartre offers an optimistic proposal to the problem while Miller remains doubtful and pessimistic. In the twenty-one years between the publication of Being and Nothingness and the production of Incident at Vichy the two writers have exchanged philosophic positions—Miller subscribing to Sartre's corrosive analysis of human relations in Being and Nothingness and Sartre affirming Miller's former belief in human solidarity. (pp. 38-9)
Miller does offer a "lesson" in Incident at Vichy …: If man can awaken to his complicity in evil, he can exchange his guilt for responsibility…. (p. 39)
Von Berg chooses to say "no" to the men and circumstances that threaten to degrade him, and he therefore fits Miller's definition of the tragic hero in his early essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man." Although the play is grim, it is not "productive of despair" since the heroic action of a frightened and delicate man sets the norm for all the characters. If Miller now seems pessimistic about Mankind, he is still optimistic about individual man. Solidarity between two individuals is achieved; a gentile has broken through the ontological barrier that makes an enemy or an object of the Jew; and guilt has been eradicated through heroic action. If it is clear at the end that Evil is unredeemable and that the horror just witnessed will be repeated after the arrival of new prisoners, the cycle of complicity has been momentarily broken and the human reaffirmed. (p. 40)
Lawrence D. Lowenthal, "Arthur Miller's 'Incident at Vichy': A Sartrean Interpretation," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1975, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, March, 1975, pp. 29-40.
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The original title Arthur Miller chose for his play of 1949 was The Inside of His Head. But before the drama finally was produced or published, it had been rechristened Death of a Salesman, becoming perhaps the most popular serious drama yet written by an American playwright. Miller's ultimate choice of title succeeds in capturing the central theme of that brilliant work. Yet the earlier title is suggesive of the dramaturgical stratagems Miller was considering. Overtly designated in the title The Inside of His Head, for instance, was Miller's desire to enter into the mind of his protagonist, thereby psychologically to explore the inner recesses of human motivation and behavior. Most observers of Death of a Salesman concur that Miller achieved his larger goal with Willy Loman even if the basic format of that play remained essentially naturalistic. Not until After the Fall (1964) did Miller wholly spring loose of his instinctive roots in realism/naturalism. In that work, the exlressionistic dimension in his playwriting came to the fore. With After the Fall Miller finally had written his The Inside of His Head, drawing on his personal life in the process. (p. 33)
[In After the Fall] Arthur Miller is most vocal in expressing his dramatic and dramaturgical intentions. In stage directions for the opening of Act One, Miller specifies that the theatre stage become the inside view of Quentin's mind…. In order to shuttle characters and episodes from different time periods through Quentin's mind—that is, back and forth on stage—Miller must have total fluidity of motion and chronology. Miller, long-claimed heir of Ibsen as concerns dramatic realism, displays with this "set of the mind" a kinetic freedom I choose to call "dramatic stream of consciousness." Miller's stage directions continue:
People appear and disappear instantaneously, as in the mind; but it is not necessary that they walk off the stage. The dialogue will make clear who is "alive" at any moment and who is in abeyance.
The effect, therefore, will be the surging, flitting, instantaneousness of a mind questing over its own surface and into its depths.
After the Fall contains a complicated network of betrayals wherein the various characters undergo parallel inquisitions—internalized or otherwise. (p. 35)
After the Fall remains a kaleidoscopic projection in Quentin's head of a self-prosecuted and self-defended case concerning his life at mid-point…. Miller's personal experiences with the Communist-baiting years of the 1950s and with his marriage to Marilyn Monroe is beyond dispute, despite Miller's early, qualified disclaimer. Of greater consequence to the playgoer is the human condition Miller depicts here. We witness the painful loss of innocence of our Everyman figure Quentin who, during his self-arranged trial, asks, "Is it that I'm looking for some simpleminded constancy that never is and never was?"…. Ultimately at play's end Quentin arrives at [this] recognition: "after the Fall" in Eden man is flawed by evil and sin ("the wish to kill" …) and must learn to forgive others and himself for that natural failing…. Innocence is non-existent…. (pp. 35-6)
It would be foolhardy to claim After the Fall anything like Miller's finest play. Most audiences sense early that the end will show the exoneration of the tortured hero Quentin/Miller. Yet After the Fall remains one of Miller's most fascinating works in terms of unloosened dramatic structures and personal candor. (p. 36)
C. J. Gianakaris, "Theatre of the Mind in Miller, Osborne and Shaffer," in Renascence (© copyright, 1978, Marquette University Press), Vol. XXX, No. 1, Fall, 1978, pp. 33-42.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380
[The] consideration of Death of a Salesman [has been cluttered] with false analogies. The contradictory rules of capitalism were represented as the modern, humanistic equivalent to the conflicting laws of the ancient gods; while the gradual stripping-off of layers of illusion, the 'facing of facts about oneself', was compared to Oedipus's journey from Thebes to Colonus.
There is certainly a formal debt to the Greeks in Death of a Salesman, in the way in which the play is laid out; and the same could be said for almost any other serious play of the period. But … to stress the form at the expense of Miller's observation and almost intuitive moral insights is to trivialise the play. There is no analysis of capitalism in Death of a Salesman…. Willy is not so much a victim of inexorable economic forces as he is of what Hickey in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh called 'pipe-dreams'…. What Miller kills in his play is not one anonymous salesman who could have been destined for better things, had circumstances allowed, but selling as a way of life.
Technically, Loman never can be a tragic hero in the Greek sense, because Miller lets us know from the start exactly what he is like…. [We] realise that he is a salesman who has lost his small ability to sell, and is therefore in danger of losing his job as well, his livelihood, his family and, above all, his self-respect. What follows simply confirms our first impresssions—the way in which Willy wants his son, Biff, to succeed where he has failed, thus ruining Biff's life with impossible aspirations; his pride and his bumming; his suicide and his unmourned death. We do not learn about Loman's dilemmas through Loman's eyes, because we always know more about his failure than he does. He is an object lesson, carefully observed by a diligent writer: he is not discovering hard realities on our behalf.
At its lowest level, Death of a Salesman is little better than a naturalistic sob-story…. Some scenes are embarrassing in their statements of the obvious…. (pp. 430-31)
What is still impressive, however, is Miller's command of detail. (p. 431)
John Elsom, "Likely Lads," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), Vol. 102, No. 2630, September 27, 1979, pp. 430-31.∗
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