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Arthur Miller 1915–
American dramatist, essayist, novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 6, 10.
Miller's fame as a dramatist derives from his four plays first produced between 1947 and 1955: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge. These dramas have been praised for their examinations of individual and social commitment, and have earned Miller the reputation of a moralist.
Family conflicts, particularly between fathers and sons, appear throughout Miller's early work. In All My Sons, Joe Keller chooses to sell inferior airplane parts during World War II in order to save his business. At the end of the play, Keller is forced by his idealistic son Chris to take responsibility for his partner's imprisonment and for the deaths of American pilots. Death of a Salesman, Miller's most famous play, is a critique of America's preoccupation with materialism after World War II. Originally titled Inside of His Head, Death of a Salesman depicts the mental deterioration of Willy Loman, a salesman whose superficial doctrine for success turns into tragedy when he realizes that he is no longer wanted by his company.
The Crucible sparked much controversy. Based on the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, many critics believed The Crucible was a thinly-disguised attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, before which Miller was called to testify in 1956. He was charged with contempt of Congress for his refusal to identify writers seen at Communist-sponsored meetings that he himself had attended. Despite the topical tone of the play, John Gassner remarked that The Crucible "will remain alive long after every carping criticism directed at its political implications has been forgotten." Gassner's prediction has proven correct; The Crucible is still widely read and produced today.
Miller has won numerous awards for his work. In 1947 he received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Antoinette Perry (Tony) award for All My Sons. Death of a Salesman won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1949. Miller also received a Tony in 1953 for The Crucible and an Emmy in 1967 for Death of a Salesman.
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[Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'] is not quite the masterpiece of dramatic literature that the enthusiasts would have us believe. It is well written but is not sustained by incandescent or memorable language except in two or three short passages. Moreover, its hero, the desperate salesman Willy Loman, is too much the loud-mouthed dolt and emotional babe-in-the-woods to wear all the trappings of high tragedy with which he has been invested. It is, indeed, a feature of the play's rather trite orientation that Willy, whose ideals are so banal and whose strivings are so commonplace, is sent to his death in a catafalque as if he were worthy of [Ludwig van] Beethoven's Eroica symphony. For writers of the stamp of Molière and [George Bernard] Shaw, Willy would have been an object of satirical penetration rather than mournful tenderness and lachrymose elegy. By contrast with even contemporary dramatists of a fine grain like [Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Sherwood Anderson], Mr. Miller has written his story on the level of drame bourgeois. Although his intellect denies assent to the main character's fatuous outlook, some commonplaceness attends the sentiments of the writing, the overvaluation of Willy as a hero, and the selection of a bumptiously kind-hearted bourgeois, Charley, as the proper foil for the unsuccessful salesman. Charley is the model of right living because he was practical-minded and made a success of his business, and because his son Bernard married and became a lawyer who is now on his way to Washington to argue a case and takes his tennis rackets along, presumably to hobnob with successful people. No one in the play stands for values that would not gain the full approval of Mr. Bruce Barton, Mr. Dale Carnegie, and the anonymous editors of the Gideon bible. The Promethean soul is inconspicuous in 'Death of a Salesman.' The mind and the spirit that manifest themselves in it are rather earthbound and not in themselves interesting.
Once these reservations are made, however, one cannot deny that the play has singular merits, that it is often moving and even gripping, that it is penetrative both in characterization and in social implication. It expresses a viewpoint of considerable importance when it exposes the delusions of 'go-getting,' 'contacts'—inebriated philistinism by reducing it to the muddle of Willy's life, which is surely not an isolated case.
Miller has written a play remarkably apposite to an aspect of American life, and the audiences that are held by it and the many playgoers who are moved to tears pay him the tribute of recognition. Their interest and sympathy are engaged by the pathos of a man who gave all his life to a business only to be thrown on the scrap-heap, a householder whose pattern of life was interwoven with instalment plans with which he could hardly catch up, a doting father disappointed in his children, and an American naïf bemused by the worship of uncreative success and hollow assumptions that 'personality' is the summum bonum.
A notable feature of the effectiveness of 'Death of a Salesman' is that the author's judgments are not delivered down to the playgoer from some intellectual eminence but stem almost entirely from close identification with the outlook and thought-processes of the characters. This probably explains all that I find intrinsically commonplace in this otherwise powerful play. The playwright is not 'outside looking in' but 'inside looking out,' and at least for the purposes of immediate effect it is less pertinent that he is not looking very far out than that he is so convincingly and sensitively inside his subject. Largely for this reason, too, Miller has also given the American theatre of social criticism its most unqualified success, for that theatre, ever since the nineteen-thirties when it became a distinct mode of playwriting, has tended to be argumentative and hortatory…. Instead of debating issues or denouncing Willy's and his society's errors, Miller simply demonstrates these in the life of his characters. He confines himself, moreover, to the particulars of normal behavior and environment, and nothing that Willy or his family does or says betrays the playwright as the inventor of special complications for the purpose of social agitation. The play does not even set up a conflict between two distinctly different sets of values, which … is in some respects a limitation of the work, as well as a merit. Even the life of Charley which is contrasted to Willy's is only a sensible counterpart of it (it is merely a sensible materialism), and no challenging conversion by a character leads us out of the middle-class world. Willy's son Biff surmounts his father's attitude only in acquiring self-knowledge and resigning himself to being just an ordinary, dollar-an-hour citizen. Arthur Miller, in short, has accomplished the feat of writing a drama critical of wrong values that virtually every member of our middle-class can accept as valid. It stabs itself into a playgoer's consciousness to a degree that may well lead him to review his own life and the lives of those who are closest to him. The conviction of the writing is, besides, strengthened by a quality of compassion rarely experienced in our theatre. One must be either extraordinarily sharp or exceptionally obtuse to stand aloof from the play. (pp. 89-91)
John Gassner, "Aspects of the Broadway Theatre," in The Quarterly Journal of Speech (copyright 1949 by the Speech Communication Association), Vol. XXXV, No. 3, October, 1949, pp. 289-96.∗
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The questions of whether or not Death of a Salesman is a great dramatic structure, or whether or not its writing is splendid or only roughly adequate, can hold but secondary importance in any discussion of the play. Above them one fact shines: Willy Loman, egotistical, greedy, affectionate, lonely, has risen up as a modern Everyman.
But the very way in which Willy speaks so immediately to so many people has brought his problems into sharp and varied scrutiny…. [The play] speaks not only to, and for the problems of, an American audience but to countries whose insecurity is even more obvious than that of the U.S. represented by Willy—countries which often look toward the U.S. as an easy and automatic way out of their troubles. To them, as to Americans, the self-destroyed Willy rises up in warning.
So powerfully projected and personally received has been this story of Willy Loman that a not-surprising doubt has risen up about it. People see in it an accurate picture of their own mental stresses and feel defensive about Willy. Many of them wonder: was Willy really responsible for his death, or was he, as Luke Carroll in the Herald Tribune put it, "a pathetic little man caught in an undertow that's much too strong for him"? (pp. 110-11)
Was Willy the victim of brute economics? or of an unbounded, irrational desire for success? or of the thoughtless ingratitude of his sons? These questions and many others have remained with the Salesman's audience long after the final curtain has gone down.
Perhaps the largest single group that thinks of Willy as a helpless "little man" is made up of those who see economics as the all-powerful factor in the play. They make the most of the epitaph spoken by Willy's friend, Charley: "Nobody dast blame this man. For a salesman there is no rock-bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine…. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory." The territory, they say (and have said all along) is to blame. Willy had no chance against the capitalistic system.
The other half of the group is at the opposite extreme of belief. They also feel that economics is the determining power in the play, but they believe that Miller, in criticizing "the territory" is trying to undermine democracy….
Such a group contends that Miller has stacked the cards against Willy and used his single tragedy to point an unjustifiable finger at salesmanship itself. If Willy died, they say in effect, Arthur Miller killed him. (p. 111)
Far from painting a one-sided economic picture, Miller is almost painfully scrupulous in showing that Willy's tragedy must not be set at the door of his particular type of work (symbolic though that surely is). Willy's braggadocio, his confidence that he and his sons, by divine right of personality, are above the laws that bind ordinary men, put his acts in the realm of universal moral censure—not in the cubbyhole of an ideology. (p. 112)
The very multiplicity of problems which confront Willy must put us on our guard against placing too much stress on any one of them. Yet, if no single cause compelled Willy's suicide, was it perhaps the sum of all of them? Two facts seem to answer this last question. The first is the action of the play itself. Miller has shown Willy, through the years, letting his vanity and pretensions undermine his sense of right and wrong. He repays those who try to help him only with contempt. At the end of the play he has swollen to the dreadful traditional figure of tragedy—destroyed by a single cancerous fault.
The second fact (if this first is not sufficient) is the testimony of Miller himself. In several very earnest articles he has made clear his belief that a play based on pathos—"pity for a helpless victim"—presents an essentially false view of life. The contrast to pathos is tragedy, he says, "which must illustrate a principle of life…."… (p. 114)
In theory as in dramatic practice, Miller shows the same brave and deliberate effort to meet problems "in head-on collision"—and take the consequences. His stated aims not only show him well worth a thoughtful hearing, but they set a very high standard for judgment of his work. He believes that "tragedy brings not only sadness … but knowledge. What sort of knowledge? In the largest sense of the word it is knowledge pertaining to the right way of living in the world. Tragedy … makes us aware of what the character might have been. But to say … what a man might have been requires of the author a soundly based, completely believed vision of man's great possibilities."
Does Death of a Salesman "make us aware of what Willy Loman might have been"? (pp. 114-15)
Certainly, Biff, if anyone, should be the one to demonstrate what Willy "might have been" and what the "right way of living" is which might have saved him. What does Biff say? He says—"I'm nothing"—at least the beginning of wisdom. He further implies that his value will consist in doing the outdoor physical work he is best fitted for.
At Willy's grave, he thinks of what his father has thrown away—"There were a lot of nice days. When he'd come from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop…. You know something, Charley, there's more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made." Charley agrees: "He was a happy man with a batch of cement."
True and touching as these reminiscences are, they seem on another level entirely from the dreams, the furies ("all, all, wrong") that are shown at work in Willy. These driving forces, which all of us have felt pressing on our lives from one direction or other indeed seem to call for a "weightier counterbalance" than these words of Biff provide.
From the character of Charley, too, we might expect some statement of vision, but Charley never seems able to illuminate the principle that underlies his good deeds. This lack appears in terrible relief when, after being fired, the disillusioned Willy says to him: "After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." Charley's answer is not only negative, but a double negative. "Willy," he says, "nobody's worth nothing dead." How very little light that sheds on the right way of living!
At Willy's grave Charley shows more insight. When Linda wonders that Willy should choose death when "he only needed a little salary," Charley replies: "No man only needs a little salary." (A reply which manages to strike at the root of all economic materialisms.)
What might Willy Loman have been? What can Biff Loman become? These great possibilities are left for each person in the audience to answer for himself…. If no man's satisfaction can be found in a "little salary," can it really rest—ultimately—in a little "cement"?
In spite of the fact, however, that Death of a Salesman ends so—with a question rather than an answer, Arthur Miller has performed in its creation an act of truly heroic stature. His far-reaching, sympathetic and insistent formulation of Willy's question has made millions of Willys in his audience care deeply about the answer—the best way, surely, of spurring them to find it. (pp. 115-16)
Sighle Kennedy, "Who Killed the Salesman?" in Catholic World (copyright 1950 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York; used by permission), Vol. 171, May, 1950, pp. 110-16.
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One of the things that have been said of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's new play about the Salem witchcraft trials, is that we must not be misled by its obvious contemporary relevance: it is a drama of universal significance. This statement, which has usually a somewhat apologetic tone, seems to be made most often by those who do not fail to place great stress on the play's "timeliness." I believe it means something very different from what it appears to say, almost the contrary, in fact, and yet not quite the contrary either. It means: do not be misled by the play's historical theme into forgetting the main point, which is that "witch trials" are always with us, and especially today; but on the other hand do not hold Mr. Miller responsible either for the inadequacies of his presentation of the Salem trials or for the many undeniable and important differences between those trials and the "witch trials" that are going on now. It is quite true, nevertheless, that the play is, at least in one sense, of "universal significance." Only we must ask what this phrase has come to mean, and whether the quality it denotes is a virtue. (p. 189)
The "universality" of Mr. Miller's play belongs neither to literature nor to history, but to that journalism of limp erudition which assumes that events are to be understood by referring them to categories, and which is therefore never at a loss for a comment. Just as in Death of a Salesman Mr. Miller sought to present "the American" by eliminating so far as possible the "non-essential" facts which might have made his protagonist a particular American, so in The Crucible he reveals at every turn his almost contemptuous lack of interest in the particularities—which is to say, the reality—of the Salem trials. The character and motives of all the actors in this drama are for him both simple and clear. The girls who raised the accusation of witchcraft were merely trying to cover up their own misbehavior. The Reverend Samuel Parris found in the investigation of witchcraft a convenient means of consolidating his shaky position in a parish that was murmuring against his "undemocratic" conduct of the church. The Reverend John Hale, a conscientious and troubled minister who, given the premises, must have represented something like the best that Puritan New England had to offer, and whose agonies of doubt might have been expected to call forth the highest talents of a serious playwright, appears in The Crucible as a kind of idiotic "liberal" scoutmaster, at first cheerfully confident of his ability to cope with the Devil's wiles and in the last act babbling hysterically in an almost comic contrast to the assured dignity of the main characters. Deputy Governor Danforth, presented as the virtual embodiment of early New England, never becomes more than a pompous, unimaginative politician of the better sort.
As for the victims themselves, the most significant fact is Miller's choice of John Proctor for his leading character…. It is all too easy to make Proctor into the "common man"—and then, of course, we know where we are: Proctor wavers a good deal, fails to understand what is happening, wants only to be left alone with his wife and his farm, considers making a false confession, but in the end goes to his death for reasons that he finds a little hard to define but that are clearly good reasons—mainly, it seems, he does not want to implicate others. You will never learn from this John Proctor that Salem was a religious community, quite as ready to hand a Quaker as a witch. The saintly Rebecca Nurse is also there, to be sure, sketched in rapidly in the background, a quiet figure whose mere presence—there is little more of her than that—reminds us how far the dramatist has fallen short.
Nor has Mr. Miller hesitated to alter the facts to fit his constricted field of vision. Abigail Williams, one of the chief accusers in the trials, was about eleven years old in 1692; Miller makes her a young woman of eighteen or nineteen and invents an adulterous relation between her and John Proctor in order to motivate her denunciation of John and his wife Elizabeth. The point is not that this falsifies the facts of Proctor's life (though one remembers uneasily that he himself was willing to be hanged rather than confess to what was not true), but that it destroys the play, offering an easy theatrical motive that even in theatrical terms explains nothing, and deliberately casting away the element of religious and psychological complexity which gives the Salem trials their dramatic interest in the first place. In a similar way, Miller risks the whole point of Death of a Salesman by making his plot turn on the irrelevant discovery of Willy Loman's adultery. And in both plays the fact of adultery itself is slighted: it is brought in not as a human problem, but as a mere theatrical device, like the dropping of a letter; one cannot take an interest in Willy Loman's philandering, or believe in Abigail Williams' passion despite the barnyard analogies with which the playwright tries to make it "elemental."
Mr. Miller's steadfast, one might almost say selfless, refusal of complexity, the assured simplicity of his view of human behavior, may be the chief source of his ability to captivate the educated audience. He is an oddly depersonalized writer; one tries in vain to define his special quality, only to discover that it is perhaps not a quality at all, but something like a method, and even as a method strangely bare: his plays are as neatly put together and essentially as empty as that skeleton of a house which made Death of a Salesman so impressively confusing. He is the playwright of an audience that believes the frightening complexities of history and experience are to be met with a few ideas, and yet does not even possess these ideas any longer but can only point significantly at the place where they were last seen and where it is hoped they might still be found to exist. What this audience demands of its artists above all is an intelligent narrowness of mind and vision and a generalized tone of affirmation, offering not any particular insights or any particular truths, but simply the assurance that insight and truth as qualities, the things in themselves, reside somehow in the various signals by which the artist and the audience have learned to recognize each other. For indeed very little remains except this recognition; the marriage of the liberal theater and the liberal audience has been for some time a marriage in name only, held together by habit and mutual interest, partly by sentimental memory, most of all by the fear of loneliness and the outside world; and yet the movements of love are still kept up—for the sake of the children, perhaps.
The hero of this audience is Clifford Odets. Among those who shouted "Bravo!" at the end of The Crucible—an exclamation, awkward on American lips, that is reserved for cultural achievements of the greatest importance—there must surely have been some who had stood up to shout "Strike!" at the end of Waiting for Lefty. But it is hard to believe that a second Odets, if that were possible, or the old Odets restored to youth, would be greeted with such enthusiasm as Arthur Miller calls forth. Odets's talent was too rich—in my opinion the richest ever to appear in the American theater—and his poetry and invention were constantly more important than what he conceived himself to be saying. In those days it didn't matter: the "message" at the end of the third act was so much taken for granted that there was room for Odets's exuberance, and he himself was never forced to learn how much his talent was superior to his "affirmations" (if he had learned, perhaps the talent might have survived the "affirmations"). Arthur Miller is the dramatist of a later time, when the "message" isn't there at all, but it has been agreed to pretend that it is. This pretense can be maintained only by the most rigid control, for there is no telling what small element of dramatic élan or simple reality may destroy the delicate rapport of a theater and an audience that have not yet acknowledged they have no more to say to each other. Arthur Miller is Odets without the poetry. Worst of all, one feels sometimes that he has suppressed the poetry deliberately, making himself by choice the anonymous dramatist of a fossilized audience. In Death of a Salesman, certainly, there were moments when reality seemed to force its way momentarily to the surface. And even at The Crucible—though here it was not Miller's suppressed talent that broke through, but the suppressed facts of the outside world—the thread that tied the audience to its dramatist must have been now and then under some strain…. (pp. 192-96)
Mr. Miller has nothing to say about the Salem trials and makes only the flimsiest pretense that he has. The Crucible was written to say something about Alger Hiss and Owen Lattimore, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Senator [Joseph] McCarthy, the actors who have lost their jobs on radio and television, in short the whole complex that is spoken of, with a certain lowering of the voice, as the "present atmosphere." And yet not to say anything about that either, but only to suggest that a great deal might be said, oh an infinitely great deal, if it were not that—what? Well, perhaps if it were not that the "present atmosphere" itself makes such plain speaking impossible. As it is, there is nothing for it but to write plays of "universal significance"—and, after all, that's what a serious dramatist is supposed to do anyway.
What, then, is Mr. Miller trying to say to us? It's hard to tell. In The Crucible innocent people are accused and convicted of witchcraft on the most absurd testimony—in fact, the testimony of those who themselves have meddled in witchcraft and are therefore doubly to be distrusted. Decent citizens who sign petitions attesting to the good character of their accused friends and neighbors are thrown into prison as suspects. Anyone who tries to introduce into court the voice of reason is likely to be held in contempt. One of the accused refuses to plead and is pressed to death. No one is acquitted; the only way out for the accused is to make false confessions and themselves join the accusers. Seeing all this on the stage, we are free to reflect that something very like these trials has been going on in recent years in the United States. How much like? Mr. Miller does not say. But very like, allowing of course for some superficial differences: no one has been pressed to death in recent years, for instance. Still, people have lost their jobs for refusing to say under oath whether or not they are Communists. The essential pattern is the same, isn't it? And when we speak of "universal significance," we mean sticking to the essential pattern, don't we? Mr. Miller is under no obligation to tell us whether he thinks the trial of Alger Hiss, let us say, was a "witch trial"; he is writing about the Salem trials. (pp. 196-97)
But if Mr. Miller isn't saying anything about the Salem trials, and can't be caught saying anything about anything else, what did the audience think he was saying? That too is hard to tell. A couple of the newspaper critics wrote about how timely the play was, and then took it back in the Sunday editions, putting a little more weight on the "universal significance"; but perhaps they didn't quite take it back as much as they seemed to want to: the final verdict appeared to be merely that The Crucible is not so great a play as Death of a Salesman. As for the rest of the audience, it was clear that they felt themselves to be participating in an event of great meaning: that is what is meant by "Bravo!" Does "Bravo!" mean anything else? I think it means: we agree with Arthur Miller; he has set forth brilliantly and courageously what has been weighing on all our minds; at last someone has had the courage to answer Senator McCarthy.
I don't believe this audience was likely to ask itself what it was agreeing to. Enough that someone had said something, anything, to dispel for a couple of hours that undefined but very real sense of frustration which oppresses these "liberals"—who believe in their innermost being that salvation comes from saying something, and who yet find themselves somehow without anything very relevant to say. They tell themselves, of course, that Senator McCarthy has made it "impossible" to speak; but one can hardly believe they are satisfied with this explanation. Where are the heroic voices that will refuse to be stilled?
Well, last season there was [James Thurber's] The Male Animal, a play written twelve or thirteen years ago about a college professor who gets in trouble for reading one of Vanzetti's letters to his English composition class. In the audience at that play one felt also the sense of communal excitement; it was a little like a secret meeting of early Christians—or even, one might say, witches—where everything had an extra dimension of meaning experienced only by the communicants. And this year there has been a revival of [Lillian Hellman's] The Children's Hour, a play of even more universal significance than The Crucible since it doesn't have anything to do with any trials but just shows how people can be hurt by having lies told about them. But these were old plays, the voices of an older generation. It remained for Arthur Miller to write a new play that really speaks out.
What does he say when he speaks out?
Never mind. He speaks out. (pp. 198-99)
Robert Warshow, "The Liberal Conscience in 'The Crucible'" (originally published in Commentary, Vol. XV, March, 1953), in his The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre & Other Aspects of Popular Culture (reprinted by permission of Paul Warshow), Doubleday, 1962, pp. 189-203.
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As [August] Strindberg was the most positive influence on O'Neill so [Henrik] Ibsen is the most positive on Arthur Miller. O'Neill as a consequence was primarily interested in analyzing the grinding emotions of man and woman that often lie below the calmer surface emotions. Miller as a consequence is primarily interested in man's sociological aspects. Above all, O'Neill as a dramatist was concerned with character, whereas Miller seems in large part to be concerned with theme and with character only incidentally…. [In] The Crucible, his latest play, we find all theme and no character. His people are spokesmen for him, not for themselves. They possess humanity, when they possess it at all, only in the distant sense that a phonograph recording of it does. They speak and act at an obvious turning of his crank. And the result is a play of large thematic force whose warmth, even heat, remains on the other side of the footlights and is not communicated, save in cold, intellectual terms, to its audience. It is impressive, as a lecture may be impressive, but for the major part it is equally remote from the listener's heart and feeling.
As heretofore, Miller shows himself to be a thoroughly honest and thoroughly sincere dramatist who, unlike the great majority of our present American playwrights, has nothing of the box-office today in his composition, and all credit to him on that score. But he also and at the same time here shows himself as one whose conscious indifference to the box-office seems to be accompanied by an unconscious indifference to any kind of theatrical audience, even one of the higher grade. It may be, of course, that he thought he had worked out his theme in terms of character and so would insinuate it into such an audience's emotion. That I can not tell. But if he did, he has failed. And if, on the other hand, he believed that the sheer vitality of his theme would satisfactorily infiltrate itself in his audience independent of any recognizable and pulsing character to assist it, he has not yet sufficiently educated himself in dramatic eccentricity.
That theme, centered on the historical Salem witch hunts and witch trials in the last years of the seventeenth century, is the mass hysteria born of superstition, ignorance, fear and bigotry and the tragedy it can bear for the guiltless. The play, which unfortunately veers toward extended documentation, seeks to crystallize the thesis in the persons of a man and wife who fall victims to the witch hunt but they too unfortunately are more mere documentary mouthpieces of the author than human beings with any real life, and their tragedy accordingly has the distant air of a dramatic recitation rather than of any personal suffering. Though Miller has written some scenes with his customary energetic pen, though there is a certain eloquence in them and though here and there contagious drama threatens to issue forth, it is this lack of character convincingly and warmly to project the whole into an audience's emotions that enfeebles the play. There is, in addition, such a repetitive flavor to it—it seems at times that the author is saying exactly the same thing over and over again—that the whole gives the effect of being on a treadmill and that, while there is an appearance of motion, it is really static.
The scene in the second act wherein the young women in the grip of hysteria proclaim again their certainty of the operation of evil spirits and overwhelm another of their number who has been cozened into denial is the play's closest approach to infectious drama. The prologue, in which the seeds of the witch mania are sewn, also has promise but, except for the subsequent scene noted, the promise is never realized and what we get is largely only discourse, sometimes interesting in itself, that does not succeed in ridding itself of its dialectic chill and in resolving itself, for all its fury, into even the mild fever of affecting drama.
That Miller had contemporary parallels in mind is obvious. He has, indeed, had them so closely in mind that he has not been able to put them out of it when a momentary forgetfulness of them would have profited his play. Though he does not at any point emphasize them and in this respect remains the dramatic artist, they somehow persist in indicating their hold upon him, and a wayward sense of propaganda, that enemy of dramatic art, forces its way into his auditors' consciousness. There is, let it be repeated, power in his play and not only power but intellectual purpose. Yet the power is that of an impersonal machine and the intellectual purpose that of a historical analyst, with a dramatist late in arriving on the scene and, when he does arrive, too deeply impressed and overcome by his materials to guide them into dramatic life. (pp. 24-5)
The Crucible, in sum, is an honorable sermon on a vital theme that misses because the sting implicit in it has been disinfected with an editorial tincture and because, though it contains the potential deep vibrations of life, it reduces them to mere superficial tremors. (pp. 25-6)
George Jean Nathan, "Henrik Miller" (reprinted by permission of Associated University Press, Inc., for the Estate of George Jean Nathan), in Theatre Arts, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, April, 1953, pp. 24-6.
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"A View from the Bridge" has power and substance. It is based on a story that Mr. Miller once heard in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lives. Eddie, an ordinary longshoreman, is unconsciously in love with his niece—the daughter of his wife's dead sister. Early in the play two of his wife's Italian relatives are smuggled in and start to live furtively in Eddie's apartment. Catherine, the niece, falls in love with the younger Italian brother and proposes to marry him.
Eddie does not understand why he opposes the marriage so violently, nor do any of the other people who are involved. Searching around for a plausible reason, Eddie convinces himself that the young Italian is a homosexual whose only motive in marrying Catherine is a chance to legitimize his citizenship in America. But Eddie's real motive is the undeclared, unrecognized, unappeased hunger he has for her himself. Like the heroes of Greek tragedy, he topples the whole house down on himself in the final catastrophe of a haunted play.
Mr. Miller understands the full tragic significance of this stark drama. Although he scrupulously underwrites the narrative, he introduces a neighborhood lawyer in a pool of light on one side of the stage to serve as chorus and commentator…. [The] lawyer analyzes Eddie's malady and puts it into human perspective. He also introduces a poetic strain by relating the Italian immigrants to the heroes of Roman history and the great myths of classical literature….
[The] dimensions of "A View from the Bridge" are those of imaginative drama. Mr. Miller is straining for all the altitudes he can reach, and he is an uncommonly tall man.
The story is vivid. He meets it head-on. His intimate knowledge of the people—their living habits, their principles, their idiom—is solid. What he has to say about life in Italy today makes an illuminating contrast that all the characters like to conjure with. Everything about "A View from the Bridge" rings true.
Yet something inhibits it from expressing the fullness of tragedy that the theme promises. And this is the place where Mr. Miller's principle of underwriting may have been ill-advised. If tragedy is to purge and terrify the audience, in the classical phrase, the characters must have size. Their fate must have spiritual significance. Aristotle limited tragic heroes to kings and queens and people renowned in other respects. If the modern world limited tragedy to such people, we would have very little to write about.
Eddie's deficiency as a tragic character is not a matter of social inferiority. It is simpler than that: Mr. Miller has not told us enough about him. Since the play begins in the middle of a tumultous story, his background is dim and vague. On the basis of what we are told about him, Eddie is not an admirable person. He is mean. He is vicious toward the end, and he gets just about what he deserves. It is difficult to believe that fate has struck a decent human being a staggering blow that enlightens him about himself.
Nor are his wife and niece better portrayed. Their roots are shallow, too. The two Italian immigrants are the only well-defined characters in the central play. When Mr. Miller introduces them in the midst of a story that is already in motion, he is under the necessity of telling us who they are, where they come from and why. They are the only characters whom we can fully understand….
"A View from the Bridge" needs flesh, not only because the characters are working people, but because Mr. Miller has written his play sparingly. Working in a mood of artistic austerity he has eliminated himself from both of these dramas. Many of us would be very happy to have as much of him as he can give.
Brooks Atkinson, in his review of "A View from the Bridge," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 9, 1955, p. 1.
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Sooner or later most discussions of the merits of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman turn to the question of the possibility of modern tragedy. Given the conditions of the modern world, the question runs, is it possible to write true tragedy in our time? Of course the very asking of the question sounds the negative. But there are likely to be answerers around who will invoke the names of certain moderns—Ibsen, or Strindberg, or O'Neill, or [Sean] O'Casey, or even Arthur Miller—who are alleged to have made tragedies out of the common materials of modern life. And Miller himself, in response to commentators who have denied that Salesman is a tragedy, has vigorously affirmed, in an essay called "Tragedy and the Common Man," the right of his play, and the matter it is made of, to the epithet tragic. (p. 82)
To put the matter very simply, Arthur Miller has a very general or very loose and vague theory of tragedy, or perhaps no clear theory at all, while the critics have a fairly definite one derived from a couple of thousand years of literary tradition. The traditional view of tragedy, founded very largely upon the principles of Aristotle and the practice of Sophocles and Shakespeare, assumes at least two prior essentials to be inherent in the materials of any tragic action. First, the hero must have "stature": this means that while he must in some way represent the general human condition, he must also be larger and grander than the norm—certainly in the inherent fineness and depth and energy of his mind and character, and perhaps also in his exterior societal role—so that his fall will have deep emotional consequence for the audience. Second, the world in which the tragic hero acts must be sensed as bounded or permeated by some meaningful and larger-than human order—call it a Moral Order, or the Natural Law, or Providence, or even Fate—which he in some way challenges or violates and which correspondingly exacts, but not without some sense of ultimate justice in the exaction, the tragic hero's life in consequence of that violation. The first part of this formula, the requirement of "stature" in the tragic hero, Miller's play obviously fails to live up to. Willy Loman is a childish and stupid human being, and his societal role of salesman is of only very minor consequence. And since one of the thematic intentions of the play is to present the picture of a world in which there can be no moral appeal to an order more profound than those of commerce and the machine, Salesman obviously cannot meet the second requirement either.
So by the test of tradition, Death of a Salesman, whatever else it may be, is no tragedy. But wait, Miller seems to say in "Tragedy and the Common Man," by the test of feeling it is tragedy. "The tragic feeling," he writes, "is evoked when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity."… Miller is affirming, then, a continuity in tragedy that is not dependent upon historical accidents: what counts is the tragic sense, not the mechanical details of an abstract formula for the tragic. In spite of history, Miller is saying, in felt significance Death of a Salesman is just as much a tragedy as Sophocles' Electra or Shakespeare's Hamlet. Putting aside formulas and abstractions, let us examine it on its own grounds—not only in the light of the kind of play it is ("bourgeois tragedy," with a pretty weighty tradition of its own behind it from Ibsen to Clifford Odets), but also in the more universal light of the truth and depth and integrity that we expect from any piece of real literature, regardless of its time or type.
Two things will strike us when we consider Miller's focal character, Willy Loman, and both of them are in Miller's favor. First, we cannot miss the force of Willy's imagination, the energy of his language, the ferocity of his hope and rage…. We know that Willy is a pathetic fool, but we nevertheless feel him vividly as a vital human being. He may be mediocre, even barbaric, but he is not dull. And second, we cannot miss Willy's failure always to translate imagination and feeling into effective action. His continual inconsistencies, for example: Biff is both a "lazy bum" and "hard worker" to Willy in Act I, and in Act II Willy's advice to Biff on conducting his interview with Bill Oliver is that he should both "talk as little as possible" and "start off with a couple of … good stories to lighten things up." Willy says of himself at one point, and all in one breath, "I'm very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people just don't seem to take to me." Willy's great intensity provides a recognizable touch, at least, of something like "stature." And perhaps his incoherence of mind and will resembles the "flaw" of nature or judgment usually borne by the traditional tragic hero. Like Hamlet—or at least the Hamlet that some of the critics think they see—Willy's personal tragedy is that he is inherently unable to bring himself to take the rational action necessary to save himself and put his world in order. But unlike Hamlet, Willy seems to have suffered his tragedy all his life. With reflections of the past playing continually over the present, Miller's play focuses on the end of that life when, ironically, the last opportunity for creative action remaining to Willy is the opportunity to destroy himself.
Death of a Salesman is a play remarkably lacking in action—which is not to say that it is a bad play for that reason. This lack of action, this continual dispersion of motive in Willy, is of course part of the play's theme. Intensity of feeling plus confusion of intellect yields paralysis of will. Willy's inability to act in any coherent way, an inability that the flashbacks show us is not confined only to Willy's old age, seems to be related directly to his inability to see the truth, or to his inability to distinguish between illusion and actuality, or to harmonize his dreams with his responsibilities. Charlie says to Willy, after Willy has been in effect fired by Howard, "The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don't know that." Charley means that Willy is suffering because he is looking for a deeply human fulfillment in an activity which is conditioned not by what is human, but by goods and cash. (pp. 82-4)
Biff, who functions in the play as an amplification or reflection of Willy's problems, has been nurtured on Willy's dreams too. But he has been forced to see the truth. And it is the truth—his father's cheap philandering—in its impact on a nature already weakened by a diet of illusion that in turn paralyzes him. Biff and Willy are two versions of the idealist, or "dreamer" may be a better word, paralyzed by reality: Biff by the effects of disillusionment, Willy by the effects of the illusions themselves. This is how they sum themselves up at the end of the play, just before Willy's suicide: "Pop!" Biff cries, "I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!" "I am not a dime a dozen!" Willy answers in rage. "I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!" And the tragedy—if it is tragedy—is that they are both right.
But why is it that Willy and Biff, both of them meant by Miller to be taken as men of potential, must be paralyzed and defeated? It seems to be a matter partly of psychological accident. Willy never had a real father, and his hard predatory older brother became his father-substitute. "Never fight fair with a stranger" was Ben's wisdom. And his faith—"When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich!" It seems also to be a matter partly of historical accident: times have changed. If ever there were days when essentially human values and loyalties prevailed in the world of selling, those days passed with old Dave Singleman and Willy's former boss. The business world is now run by cold young materialists like Howard, and though a wise realist like Charley may survive, there is no place in it for the all-too human dreamer and vulgarian, Willy Loman.
Psychology, history—these lead us to the third and most important cause of Willy's suffering, the great evil, the great villain of most modern writing in the realist vein—Society. Keeping in mind traditional tragedy and how it brings the audience's attention to bear on the relation between the tragic hero and the moral order implied in the background of his action, we see that Willy, unlike the traditional tragic hero, is meant to be seen as greater and better, at least in potential, than the world that destroys him…. Willy Loman is potentially better than his world in that he has at least incipient values that are better than the world's values. Society's guilt, as it is projected in Death of a Salesman, lies in its not making available ways and means for a man like Willy to implement and realize those values, and in dooming him thus to frustration, paralysis, and ultimately destruction as a human being.
The values that seem to be represented in Willy, the "good" values that function in the play as implicit criticisms of society's "bad" values, are the familiar romantic ones: nature, freedom, and the body; free self-expression and self-realization; individualism and the simple life…. Willy's memories of the wistaria and elms around the house when the boys were young, his vague dream of having a farm in his old age, his symbolic attempts to plant seeds in the night, and Biff's rhapsodies about the bare-chested life and young colts and the western plains, are all overshadowed and threatened by the encroaching bulwarks of apartment houses and the costly and complicated machines that sap one's resources and won't perform their functions. Willy's life is a continuum of futile worry, and his garden is a shadowed and sterile plot where the life-giving sun can no longer get in. Though Biff was a "young god" and Willy a spokesman for toughness, Society seems to have stifled these goods too: Willy has become soft and fat: Biff and Happy, inhabitants of a world where "getting ahead of the next fella" is the prime goal, find their strength and energy turning into bullying; and all of them display a mistaken and self-defeating contempt for the mind.
Another category of value against which society militates has to do with the feelings, with love, with deep and full and natural human relationship. The real capacities for love of both Willy and his boys disperses itself in meaningless and trivial philanderings. Biff and Happy yearn fruitlessly to run a ranch or a business together—the together is what is important—and to marry decent girls with, as they put it, "substance," just as Willy dreams of a happy old age with his children and his children's children thriving happily around him. But sterility and disharmony obtain: the boys, growing older, do not marry, and Willy's hopes for his family explode with finality in the chaos of the terrible restaurant scene in Act II. The enemy of love, of course, is society's principle of "success"—getting ahead by competition, which is the impersonal opposite of love. It is significant that Willy's vision of fulfillment is made up of characters who stand alone—Willy's father, Brother Ben, Biff as a public hero, Dave Singleman—characters who have succeeded, who stand not with but above and beyond the rest of humanity, and who do not give love but receive it, and at an impersonal distance, from cheering crowds or from faceless respectful voices at the other ends of telephone lines. This vision, created and enforced by the norms of the competitive, success-centered society that Willy lives in, is a denial of the deeply personal and human capacities for love that are inherent in Willy's nature.
A final set of values implicit in Willy's character, and defeated by the circumstances in which he finds himself, are his unformed impulses toward two of the original American virtues—self-reliance and individualism of spirit. These virtues, implying basic self-sufficiency and personal creativity, not domination of others, are perhaps the pure forms underlying the corrupt and destructive societal imperatives of success and getting ahead. Willy has the self-reliant skills of the artisan: he is "good at things," from polishing a car to building a front porch, and we hear of his beloved tools and his dream of using them some day to build a guest house on his dreamed-of farm for his boys and their families to stay in. But self-reliance has collapsed, the tools rust, and Willy has become the futile and pathetic victim of a machine culture…. If, then, the leading character and world of the play are made to interact in such a way as to engage our conviction, can we agree with Arthur Miller that, whatever the formula, the feeling evoked by Death of a Salesman succeeds in being "tragic"? I think we are likely to have to answer, No. All formulas for the tragic aside, when we say a play is tragic we are ascribing perhaps the highest literary value to it. We are saying that it is an instance of the most serious form of literature, and that it engages not only the emotions but also the intellect and the moral sense in their fullest and most profound state of awareness. This, I think, is what Death of a Salesman is not able to do. For to read it as literature betrays in it a softness, a damp sentimentality, an intellectual and moral confusion that destroys the effectiveness both of its moral themes and its central character. As I have said, in portraying the victimization by society of one of its members, Death of a Salesman functions as both a negative criticism of society and a positive assertion of counter-values. But one simply cannot look too closely at the values implied by the play without feeling real doubt as to what they amount to, nor at certain of the characters that embody them without feeling confusion, embarrassment, possibly even boredom. (pp. 84-6)
The theme of Success, while it undergoes criticism in the play, seems always to be before us—the idea of the romance of selling, for example, is articulated by solid Charley as well as by Willy—in some desirable, even worthy manifestation. In fact, the bourgeois religion of Success haunts Death of a Salesman throughout, and in the end pretty well defeats the values that all along Miller had seemingly wished to pit against it.
There are many fine elements in the play, of course, perhaps the finest of them Willy himself. In Willy, the pathetic bourgeois barbarian, Miller has made an intense and true character, perhaps a nearly great one, surely a greater one than Sinclair Lewis's mythic but rather flat Babbitt. Just as Willy is a humanly great character, there are humanly great scenes, too—like the powerful and devastating restaurant scene, which corresponds to the "catastrophe" of traditional tragedy. And while Miller is surely no poet of the theatre, there are moments even of real expressive power. Though the writing is consistently bad—dull, cliché-ridden, vacuously corny—around Biff and what he stands for, Willy's talk always has great energy and validity; and his cry, "The woods are burning!", the emblem of his personal tragedy, is poetry, and as that it is memorable.
Willy's requiem, a kind of ritual elegy or coda in which, each in his own way, those who loved Willy pay tribute to him in death, is a graceful completing touch. Biff, having learned from his father's sacrifice, proclaims the mistakenness of Willy's ambitions, and will head west again; Happy, as if in duty to Willy's memory, will stay behind in the hope—probably futile—of licking the system on its own terms; Charley rhapsodizes the meaning and value that survives the defeat ("A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."); and Linda utters the simple human grief of one who, without thought, loved. A graceful touch structurally and tonally—that is it would have been so, a fitting recognition of the whole range of relevant human response to Willy's destruction, had the play that it completes and depends on for its significance been the intellectually coherent one it ought to have been. But appended to Death of a Salesman as it stands, the requiem lacks meaning; it is only a touch, a sentimental flourish, an exercise of dramatist's technique for its own sake.
Death of a Salesman's failure, then, lies in the failure of its intellectual content and order. So when the traditionalist critics protest that the play is not a tragedy they are right, but I think for the wrong reasons. And when Miller says it is tragedy because it creates tragic feeling, I think he is wrong, unless the audience he has in mind is an intellectually inadequate one. For the play fails simply because it is sentimental: and by that I mean that if we read it with the full awareness and intelligence that we try to bring to a great playwright like Shakespeare or a great novelist like [William] Faulkner—or even to a good non-tragic dramatist like Shaw—we discover that Miller is relying not on ideas but on a frequently self-contradictory and often quite arbitrary melange of social and moral clichés and the stock emotional responses attached to them. (pp. 87-8)
Richard J. Foster, "Confusion and Tragedy: The Failure of Miller's 'Salesman'" (reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Richard J. Foster; originally a lecture delivered at the University of Minnesota in 1959), in Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of "Death of a Salesman" and "A Streetcar Named Desire", edited by John D. Hurrell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961, pp. 82-8.
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In the accents of ordinary speech, in the idiom of the mundane, the conventional, the everyday, Arthur Miller has pitted his not inconsequential talents as a playwright against the difficult, if not absolutely impossible, problem of fashioning a tragic hero out of the common clay of contemporary man. With Death of A Salesman many thought he had achieved that self-set goal and largely as a result of that play, having never really found a true success since, Miller attained something close to first rank status among American playwrights.
Arthur Miller is, in a certain sense, Henrik Ibsen warmed over for a contemporary audience. Like O'Neill, he would be a new Sophocles and like O'Neill he falls markedly short. There is too much of Ibsen in him—too much thundering, too much the pointed contemporary image, too much the topical issue. Though Miller's aseptic language has a bite that O'Neill could never have matched, it is in his didacticism, his moralizing, his constant reiteration, and his choice of character that Miller falls short. Most of these things we might forgive and it's just possible that Miller might be the one to write a contemporary tragedy, if it can be done at all in this day when we worship commonness. The common man and the tragic hero are truly contradictions in terms and we can hardly blame Miller for missing the unattainable, for failing to achieve the unachievable. (pp. 137-38)
Society will accept with no hesitation the sufferings of one of its rank and file members. There is no "catharsis" to use the technical, Aristotelian term, in seeing one's equal suffer. We are a bit relieved that we are not the victim and then we mutter, "What is all this to me? I'm sorry for the guy, but what can I do?" We say it not without callousness and then we go away. It is only in the fall of one who means something to all of us—one whose fate ritualistically or even in fact touches us all that the full truth of tragedy can be driven home to us. I don't suppose it's any accident that the word "tragedy" is derived from tragos, the Greek word for goat. The tragic hero becomes the sacrificial goat for all of us. He suffers for all of us, for he is somehow linked to us—he is our "super alter-ego." In a redemptive way he is led to the slaughter for all of us.
How can a stupid, virtually will-less Willie Loman be our scapegoat? Who of us can let the wistful Willie represent us? Willie's only will is in his name. Willie the insensate slob who is to be pitied as a confused wretch, not as a proxy for man. Why, there isn't even a realization, on the part of Miller's poor hero, as to what has happened to him. He falls with all the perceptiveness of a stray animal being hit by a speeding bus. The tragic hero must, or so both tradition and taste would have it, assume the burden of his tragic fate with human dignity in order to achieve theatre of the truly classic dimension.
Hamlet restores justice to his native land and is willing to pay the price for it, whatever that price would have to be. Macbeth is willing to take the risk for the dangerous game he played, and stand up and fight, if for nothing else, at least for consistency's sake. Oedipus accepts his exile with the dignity of a redeemer which in fact he later becomes. Willie merely goes down blindly. He lives as a mole and so he dies. There is no human triumph here, only the morbidity of a purposeless life and the lingering stench of self-murder. This is not tragedy. The protagonist finds no measure of triumph and goes from weak and appealing to beaten and dead. This certainly cannot be the divine spark of the tragic muse. If it is, better then that it should be allowed to die out.
A View from the Bridge is another Miller attempt to create a modern tragedy. He creates for us in the dulling, spiritually deadening environment of the Brooklyn waterfront a character named Eddie Carbone, longshoreman. Eddie is generous, passionate, nominally Catholic, hard-working, a man who has, almost unknown to himself, become overly fond of his niece whom he has raised from early childhood.
Growing within the heart of Eddie Carbone is this incestuous attachment to the girl—an attachment so terrible in its implications that Eddie, an honest and decent fellow, can't even admit that it exists. He can't admit it to himself. It grows and grows, however, while the young girl responds quite healthily and glowingly to the love of a young man—an illegal immigrant who has taken shelter under the Carbone roof.
Gradually, with this most secret and shameful desire gnawing at his decent soul and wreaking havoc with his judgment, Eddie drags his own house down around his ears like a tortured Samson and dies miserably, the victim of a knife, in the dust of the street.
Obviously, Eddie has acted with something short of towering virtue. He has harbored passion in his heart—a passion that had no right to be. He has foully maligned the young man who loves his niece, he turns informer and betrays the boy and his impoverished brother to the immigration authorities, he treats his long-suffering wife wretchedly … he does all these things and they are wicked things. There's no denying his guilt. We cannot, however, say the play is bad because Eddie does these things or because the playwright takes note of these things.
The play does fail, however, in that it doesn't achieve the stature Miller himself seems so intent on its achieving. It again falls short of tragic stature as Eddie, with his last breath, cries, "Why?" Miller doesn't permit him to know—doesn't permit him a moment of final truth in which he sees the tangled skein of guilt running through his life. This is even more critical in the play's failure to reach tragic height than the matter of Eddie's stature. It, too, however, is a factor. Those who go to the theatre would not—and one need look at our audiences to see the truth of this—accept Eddie Carbone as an equal, much less a hero in whose fall they are involved. Despite the words of John Donne that "any man's death diminishes me," and despite the brotherhood theme in our literature and drama since Whitman, our audiences are reluctant to be any man's brother—particularly if he drinks beer, belches, unloads ships, crosses himself, and is named Eddie Carbone.
There is no question that Miller is a good playwright. He misses greatness, but he writes ever so well for a theatre which is distressingly short of great talent. (pp. 138-40)
Richard A. Duprey, "An Enema for the People," in his Just Off the Aisle: The Ramblings of a Catholic Critic (copyright © 1962 by The Newman Press), Newman Press, 1962, pp. 135-45.∗
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Miller expresses regret, in the Introduction to his Collected Plays, that he failed to make his villains sufficiently wicked; he thinks now that he should have represented them as being dedicated to evil for its own sake. I suspect that most students of The Crucible will feel that he has made them quite wicked enough. For one thing, he has established their depravity by inserting a number of clear references to the investigators and blacklisters of his own time. He has made Proctor ask, significantly: "Is the accuser always holy now?" To the automatic trustworthiness of accusers he has added the advantage of confession (always efficacious for former Communists), the necessity of naming the names of fellow-conspirators, the accusation of "an invisible crime" (witchcraft—or a crime of thought), the dangers threatening anyone who dares to defend the accused, the prejudice of the investigators, the absence of adequate legal defense for the accused, and the threat that those who protest will be charged with contempt of court. Most of these elements constitute what might be called a political case against the accusers and especially against the magistrates, Danforth and Hawthorne. Miller builds an economic case as well, suggesting that the original adult instigators of the witchcraft trials were moved by greed, particularly by a desire for the victims' lands. The whole case is stated only in Miller's accompanying notes, but much of it is given dramatic form.
The viciousness of the children, except for Abigail, is less abundantly explained. We are evidently to assume that when they make their false charges they are breaking out of the restrictive forms of proper, pious, Puritan behavior to demand the attention that every child requires. The same rebelliousness has led them to dance in the moonlight and to join in Tituba's incantations. The discovery of these harmless occupations has led then to their more destructive activity. Curiously, Miller chooses not to show us any good children—a category to which the Proctors' offspring surely belong. (p. 145)
Over against the bad individual, the vengeful adults, and the lying children, Miller sets the basically sound community, in which the saintly Rebecca Nurse's benefactions are known even to the stranger Hale. At best, Salem is a bad, quarrelsome place; the good community is more warmly depicted in Miller's earlier plays, but even in Salem it exists, and it furnishes twenty honest souls who will not confess to witchcraft, even to save their lives. The underlying presence of the good community, however misruled it may be, reminds us that Miller, even in face of his own evidence, professes to believe in the basic strength and justice of the social organism, in the possibility of good neighbors. If he criticizes society, he does so from within, as a participant and a believer in it.
The deliberately antique language surely reflects Miller's self-consciousness regarding his emphatically heroic hero and the extreme situation in which he finds himself. Issues are never made so clear, so black and white in any of Miller's other plays. And so, naturally, the statement of these issues must be colored, must be, to use Bertolt Brecht's term, "alienated" by quaint, unfamiliar ways of speech. Certainly, the peculiar speech of The Crucible is not a necessity, even in a play set in the seventeenth century…. The purpose of the quirkish English of The Crucible is not only to give the impression of an antique time, although that is part of it; the purpose is to alienate us, to make us unfamiliar in this setting, to permit distance to lend its enchantment to this bare, simplistic confrontation of good and evil, and also to keep us from making too immediate, too naive an identification between these events and the parallel happenings of our own time. The issues are too simple, much more simple than the modern parallels. Language imposes a necessary complexity from without.
Any final comment must dwell upon The Crucible as a play of action and suspense. It falls short as a play of ideas, which is what it was originally intended to be. It falls short because the parallels do not fit and because Miller has had to adulterate—the pun is intentional—Proctor's all too obvious innocence to create a specious kind of guilt for him; he is easily exonerated of both crimes, the real one and the unreal one, so easily that no ideas issue from the crucible of this human destiny. And yet, The Crucible keeps our attention by furnishing exciting crises, each one proceeding logically from its predecessor, in the lives of people in whom we have been made to take an interest. That is a worthy intention, if it is a modest one, and it is suitably fulfilled. (p. 146)
Henry Popkin, "Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible'" (copyright © 1964 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in College English, Vol. 26, No. 2, November, 1964, pp. 139-46.
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Some have interpreted [Death of a Salesman] as an attack upon the "American dream"—which I take to mean the idea that ours is a land of unlimited opportunity in which any ragamuffin can attain riches and any mother's son become President. Others have chosen to regard it as a contemporary King Lear—the tragedy of the common old man of today, as opposed to that of the extraordinary old man of Shakespeare's time. The symbolic significance of the hero's name (low man) and the fact that Mr. Miller gave him an occupation associated in the public's mind with the average white-collar worker have both been cited as evidence to support this view. Still others have sought to explain the play thematically, as the tragic consequence of false dreams. (p. 123)
The American dream, as I interpret the term, embodies the concept of this country as a land of opportunity, where the lowliest of men may become the greatest. The means for effecting this transition are (in accordance with the nineteenth-century spirit of rugged individualism, of which the concept is a product) hard work, shrewdness, and luck. I am no authority on the Horatio Alger school of fiction, but I doubt that any of his characters became successful by being stupid or lazy. The very vehemence with which nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants applied themselves to the task of making a living indicates that, even for those most afflicted with this dream, there was no substitute for effort.
Next door to Willy lives a man named Charley, whose son, Bernard, is Biff's and Happy's schoolmate. A physically unattractive, spectacles-wearing lad, Bernard's chief claim to fame rests upon the fact that he is the boy who furnishes Biff, the school hero, with the right answers at exam time. In exchange for this privilege, Biff lets Bernard carry his shoulder pads into the locker room at game time and, in other small ways, bask in his glory—which is all the glory Bernard can aspire to, since, as Biff explains to his tickled father, Bernard is not "well liked."
It is, therefore, interesting to note that, not well liked though he may be, Bernard, through persistent application of his native intelligence, grows up to be an eminent lawyer who, the day Biff and Willy are finally forced to face the unpleasant facts of their lives, embarks for Washington to plead a case before the Supreme Court. That Mr. Miller chose to contrast Willy's and Biff's failures with an obvious example of how one can succeed in this country makes it difficult to interpret the play as an attack upon the American system, either as constituted or as popularly imagined. Bernard is, in fact, living proof of the system's effectiveness, an affirmation of the proposition that persistent application of one's talents, small though they may be, pays off. And this, after all, is the substance of the American dream.
Death of a Salesman would have represented an attack upon the system—and a telling one at that—had Mr. Miller elected to reverse the situation and make Charley the central character and Bernard a failure. Had Bernard, following the axiom that hard work is the key to success, failed, while Biff, striving only for popularity, succeeded, the American dream would have exploded with a bang. Such a play might even have been closer to the truth.
Too often do we find examples of Americans who have succeeded not because of hard work, but rather because they possess personal charm or a gift of glibness that encourages those in power to help them. Movie stars, politicians, television personalities, apart from whatever merits they may possess as individuals, usually become famous through their capacity to make a favorable impression on the public. They are, in other words, "well liked."
The very machinery by which we place people in public office helps to substantiate Willy's point of view. We know of at least one man, Warren G. Harding, who became President of the United States because he happened to radiate the sort of personal charm the behind-the-scenes politicians considered necessary to swing the election in their favor. The two-time defeat of Adlai Stevenson by Dwight Eisenhower is attributed by some political analysts to the same phenomenon. Eisenhower's professional manner made him popular with the voters; Stevenson's didn't. In view of such matters, I find it impossible to interpret Death of a Salesman as an attack upon the system. If anything, the reverse is true.
We thus pass to the next possibility: that Willy was meant to represent a Lear of the modern middle classes. As to this assumption, I can only say that, if such indeed was Mr. Miller's intention, why did he feel compelled to go so far? His hero is not so much a "low man" as the lowest man (at least from the standpoint of ability) one could conceive. He is not a person of mediocre gifts; he's just plain dumb and one of the biggest bores in all literature.
Can you imagine the groans that must have broken from the lips of those New England buyers when informed by their secretaries that Willy Loman awaited without? His rantings about the potential greatness of his children and the wonders of America are more ludicrous than pathetic. He never exhibits any deep feeling for his doggedly loyal but equally stupid wife. His concluding remark that "the woman has suffered" is not enough to convince one that he has such feelings and is, in fact, overshadowed by indications that his real reason for suicide (apart from his inability to go on) is to become a hero again in the eyes of his son.
Willy's mulish pride prevents his accepting a job from his old friend and neighbor, Charley, though that same pride does not keep him from applying for "loans" which both he and Charley know will never be repaid. Since this job might well be the solution to all his problems, Willy's refusal, from the standpoint of dramatic significance, seems less a product of his insanity than of his lifelong feeling of competition with Charley. Acceptance would have been tantamount to admitting that Charley's philosophy had proved to be the right one, and Willy simply isn't big enough a man to make such an admission.
Add to these characteristics—stupidity, lack of feeling for others, pride, inflexibility, the need to play the big shot—the fact that Willy has destroyed any chances his children might have had to succeed by deliberately indoctrinating them with ideas that, carried to their logical extreme, could only result in their becoming criminals, and you have the picture of a man who defies respect.
But Lear, one might argue, was much the same sort. There is, however, an enormous difference. Though starting out like Willy, Lear, before the play ends, does win our respect—first, by overcoming his insanity; second, by realizing his mistakes; and, third, by facing the consequences of those mistakes with true humility. One has only to compare the attitudes represented by the two speeches, "I am a man / More sinned against than sinning" and "I am a very foolish fond old man," to understand how radically Lear changes before the end of the play.
Willy, however, never changes. At the end he is still the same old Willy, babbling maniacally about how magnificent Biff is going to be with the $20,000 insurance money. Nor does he display the slightest understanding of his own culpability and weakness. The farthest he ventures in this direction is a momentary bewilderment as to how he could have gone wrong. Even in the last scene we find him trying to shift the blame to Biff with the accusation that the son has thrown his life away to spite the father. As for Willy's insanity, not only does he never emerge from it, but there are strong indications that his inability to perceive reality may have been the result of a mental quirk existing in him from birth. (pp. 124-28)
In answering the question of whether or not Death of a Salesman may be regarded as a contemporary King Lear, we must, then, decide whether or not a congenital madman of less than average ability can properly perform the function of a tragic hero. The very nature of tragedy, as we have defined it, will not tolerate such an assumption. Willy's problem … is simply too narrow and specialized to hold any universal significance. The conflict, intense though it may be, never transcends the particular. It might hold significance for students of psychiatry or an audience of mental patients, but for the comparatively healthy, the specific problems of the insane are—at least from the standpoint of drama—of only academic interest, though they may momentarily move one to amusement, horror or disgust. Otherwise, one cannot identify with them enough to feel anything stronger than curiosity or the "dumb animal" kind of pity. Nor does Linda's impassioned plea—that, since Willy is a suffering human being, "attention must be paid" to him—help to raise that suffering to a more universal level.
Because of his insanity we experience no sense of waste at Willy's death. On the contrary, we welcome it as the only means of putting him out of his misery. Biff may represent waste, but Biff is not important enough in the play to fulfill the requirements of a tragic hero. Linda might, since in her love and courage exists the germ of tragic greatness; but for her to function as such, the play would have to be rewritten so that she became the central character.
We conclude, therefore, that the "tragedy" in Death of a Salesman arises not so much from "false dreams" as from pathological delusions. The hero's inability to distinguish fact from fantasy leads him to develop an erroneous image of the world. When the pressures brought about by his lifelong allegiance to this image threaten to shatter it, the hero, unable to face the consequences, destroys himself. Mr. Miller has thus provided us with an impressive demonstration of one of the basic principles of Freudian psychology; he has not, however, made it into a great play. Why then, you might ask, is it effective? For there can be no doubt about its power. It stirs our emotions and, at the climax, moves us close to tears. How, if Willy is just a madman, does it manage to do this?
The secret, I think, lies in the technique. The playwright may not have given us much in the way of characters, but he has done a beautiful job putting their story together. His manipulation of time and space is like the movement of a magician's wand. We watch, mesmerized, confusing our interest in the method with interest in the story. This interest reaches its peak shortly after Willy loses his job and is having what was originally planned as a victory dinner with his two sons in a downtown restaurant. It is then that Mr. Miller drops the final fact into place. With horrified eyes, we behold the earlier scene (in which Biff, then a boy, discovers his father and the woman in the Boston hotel) intruding itself upon the festivities, and its human and dramatic significance is too much to resist; for, though Willy, in his madness, may not constitute a universal, the situation does. Like that one heart-rending line where Linda, having referred to Happy as a philandering bum, says "That's all you are, my baby," it touches something deep within us. Providing the final link in the chain, this hotel incident—in which we share the torment of a parent whose adoring child has caught him in an unsavory act—trips the mechanism, and we react to it and all that has gone before as an overpowering communication of form. It is his ability to create such patterns of meaning in a frame of much broader scope than [Tennessee] Williams that encourages one to hope that Mr. Miller may yet turn out a great play. (pp. 133-34)
R. H. Gardner, "Tragedy of the Lowest Man," in his The Splintered Stage: The Decline of the American Theater (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Company; copyright © R. H. Gardner 1965), Macmillan, 1965, pp. 122-34.
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[In a sense], Miller could be said to have paved the way for that revival of the American theatre which started in 1959, for like O'Neill before him he was a playwright prepared to confront seriously aspects of the human situation ignored by a theatre obsessed with psychology and sociology…. His achievement lies not in his sensitivity to contemporary issues but in his ability to penetrate to the metaphysical implications of those issues. Nevertheless Miller never entirely shakes himself free of the influence of the commercial theatre while even in theatrical form he has tended towards conservatism. In his introduction to The Collected Plays … he disapproves of certain new trends and emphasizes that a play 'must end, and end with a climax' and that he aimed at 'a true climax based upon revealed psychological truths'…. In truth Miller is more of an elucidator than a pioneer. Even the 'continuous present' of Death of a Salesman is less adventurous when placed beside Strindberg's A Dream Play or even [Thornton] Wilder's Our Town…. If Death of a Salesman marked something of a watershed in the development of American drama, however, its achievement was a mark of the victory of sensibility and theatrical power over intellectual and dramatic confusion. (pp. 26-7)
Miller's dramatic career started, thematically speaking, where O'Neill's left off for his first Broadway production, All My Sons, has parallels in Ibsen's The Wild Duck…. While a diffusion of moral purpose together with an obsessional concern with the process of plot leaves the play finally unsatisfactory, Miller does show something of Ibsen's suspicion of the ideal and sentimental attraction for the validity of illusion. The significance of Miller's work, for the purpose of this study, lies in the process whereby he progresses from this tentative affirmation of illusion towards his final belief in confrontation—a process in which the social and psychological become subordinate to the metaphysical. All My Sons is a play which suggests immediately both the deficiencies of Miller and the potential which made him for many the chief hope for a vital American drama, for it raises certain issues which, if they are not confronted here, do nevertheless suggest an awareness of concerns beyond the idealistic egalitarianism of a postwar world. (p. 28)
Ostensibly the moral spine of the play is embodied in the title with its overtones of Emersonian transcendentalism or the more recent Marxism of [John] Steinbeck. Joe Keller is brought from his disavowal of ultimate responsibility to his final acceptance of the rest of society as being, 'all my sons'. In the words of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath …, 'Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody'. It is thus not Joe's legal culpability which is of importance but his ability to accept the necessary relationship between self and society which is implied in his acceptance of the ideal of universal brotherhood. Yet if this post-war egalitarianism is indeed the core of Miller's moral purpose he subverts it in part through a failure of craft and in part through an empirical distrust of the ideal. Over-concerned, as Miller has admitted that he was, with 'telling the story' he succumbs to the temptation to over-emphasize the element of intrigue. While Joe's legal guilt should be subordinated to his moral awakening the chief crises of the play are centred on his admission of this legal guilt and on the discovery (through an outmoded theatrical device) of a direct connection between his crime and his son's death. So that his final statement that they were 'all my sons' follows proof of physical causality rather than moral conversion. More fundamentally, however, this victory of the ideal is undercut by the proliferating examples of savage and self-justifying 'idealists' which Miller presents in the persons of Chris, George—his fiancée's brother, and Jim the next-door neighbour.
If Joe Keller represents the immorality of a society which considers people to be less indispensible than an industrial process then Chris surely represents the immorality of the idealist whose motives … cannot be finally dissociated from individual justification…. His attempts to destroy his mother's illusions stem from his wish to marry Ann while Joe becomes a scapegoat for his own guilt. When he brutally insists on reading a letter in which his dead brother indicates that his death had been a suicide inspired by knowledge of his father's crime, the ideal of truth becomes suspect while 'justice' is secured only at the expense of compassion. So too George, Ann's brother, arrives at the house determined to secure some semblance of justice for his father, Joe's former partner. In effect, however, he too sees Joe as a scapegoat for his own inhumanity, an inhumanity stemming at base from idealism. On returning from the war he had refused to visit his father who as Joe's assistant had been jailed in his stead. He admits the enormity of his action, 'Annie—we did a terrible thing. We can never be forgiven. Not even to send him a card at Christmas. I didn't see him once since I got home from the war!'…. Even Jim, a next-door-neighbour, who as a doctor acknowledges a responsibility to man, shows the same disregard for individual men which does little to recommend the validity of his principles.
The play thus becomes a battle between justice and humanity—a battle in which Miller largely abdicates both moral and artistic control. Far from expressing a sense of conflicting principles, the moral confusion serves not as an expression of paradox but as an indication that Miller here lacks Ibsen's clarity of thought and sureness of vision. If his intellectual assent is given to the Marxian ending his sympathies clearly lie with those whose world has collapsed under the impact of truth. In this play, as in The Wild Duck, the idealist is left stunned by the destruction which he has caused. (pp. 29-30)
All My Sons is in many ways a compromise. It is a compromise between the social dramatist, eager to endorse the message of brotherhood and integrity, and the empiricist, all too aware of the reality behind the ideal. If his message in this play amounts essentially to an acceptance of Emersonian transcendentalism then the unresolved issues which persist below the surface reveal his flirtation with the oversoul as an uneasy relationship. Even Stockman, depicted as the outstanding example of the individual finding values in his own conscience and shunning the corruption of society, had evidenced a callousness towards his family which is hard to reconcile with his ideals. It is clear that transcendentalism does not incorporate the sense of guilt—a guilt surpassing the mere legal culpability of Joe Keller—which many of his characters feel. Neither does it account for the cruelty which seems a natural corollary of those individuals who are released from the illusions of success society…. It is not until After the Fall however that he finally resolves these issues and begins fully to understand their significance.
All My Sons remains an unsatisfactory play because of its failure to come to terms with the issues which it raises and because, in his desire to master form, Miller has produced an example of [Eugène] Scribe's pièce bien fait…. If its theme owes something to Ibsen so does its style. The painfully symbolic tree which dominates the stage at the beginning of the play is little more than ill-digested Ibsen while the final shot which echoes round the stage had similarly concluded many of the Scandinavian's plays.
Nevertheless while he demonstrates a continued concern with the moral absolutes of the nineteen-thirties he does avoid the immediate simplicities of caricature. Joe Keller is no hard-skinned business-man intent on making a fast buck at the expense of his fellow man. For all its faults All My Sons already demonstrates Miller's perception of issues which transcend the immediate social situation. Already his concern with identity, guilt and the need to re-affirm innocence indicate that for him the social and the psychological could ultimately be traced to their source in the metaphysical. Already, too, it is clear that even at the beginning of his career he could not fully endorse O'Neill's and Ibsen's faith in the validity of illusion and that for all his social-consciousness revolt had begun to retreat before affirmation. (pp. 31-2)
C.W.E. Bigsby, "Arthur Miller," in his Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959–66 (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1967 and 1968 by C.W.E. Bigsby), University of Missouri Press, 1968, pp. 26-49.
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Willy Loman, the salesman who sacrifices himself upon the altar of the American dream, has become as much of an American culture hero as Huck Finn. Like [Mark] Twain's boy, Willy has met with enormous public success and is capable of moving the middlebrow audience as well as the intellectual sophisticate. The latter, however, has belabored Death of a Salesman to no end with two questions: Is the play primarily a socio-political criticism of American culture, or, does Willy Loman fall far enough to be a tragic figure?
While these issues are continually provocative, they, as Miller points out in his famous Introduction to the Collected Plays, have been explored ad nauseum and to the point of meaninglessness. Perhaps Miller's stand arises from his awareness that either conclusion is too simple and too pat, each utterly destroying the other's possibility. Certainly a play cannot be both tragic and social, as Eric Bentley notes, for the two forms conflict in purpose. Social drama treats the little man as victim and arouses pity but no terror (for man is too little and passive to be the tragic figure), whereas tragedy destroys the possibility of social drama, since the tragic catharsis "reconciles us to, or persuades us to disregard precisely those material conditions which the social drama calls our attention to and protests against."
It seems to me that the brilliance of Death of a Salesman lies precisely in its reconciliation of these apparent contrarieties, that Arthur Miller has created a sort of narrative poem whose overall purpose can be understood only by a consideration of its poetic as well as narrative elements. Death of a Salesman, the major American drama of the 1940s, remains unequalled in its brilliant and original fusion of realistic and poetic techniques, its richness of visual and verbal texture, and its wide range of emotional impact. (pp. 273-74)
[Miller] presents a sort of total theater and, in a sense, is the transitional genius of the American stage, 1930–68. As [T. S.] Eliot might say, on the one hand he represents the turning point of the literary current, for he continues the human values and forms of the past in the terms of the present. He concentrates upon human endeavor and heroism with the contemporary, fragmented, anguished (in existential terms) world of the middle class citizen. But on the other hand, considering once again the drama preceding and following Death of a Salesman, he recreates a total theater by harmonizing subjective and objective realism, or in theatrical jargon, expressionism and realism. (p. 275)
Miller finds the appropriate concrete symbols for the social realities of his time and place. He achieves through a series of emotional confrontations among the members of a single family an emotionally valid psychological statement about the particular conflicts of the American family, as well as the universal psychological family struggle. And by placing all of these events within the context of one man's thoughts, rambling over his past and present life, he achieves an internal drama of a man's epic journey to self-knowledge through experience. The entire play is, in this last sense, a recognition scene. (p. 276)
Willy, as victim of [the] inexorable social system which drives its men to frantic, all-consuming dreams of success, is doomed not only by their grandiosity but also by their inherent contradictoriness. And as social victim, he is given his elegy in the last scene by his friend Charley, who, ironically, by a kind of indifference and lack of dream, has succeeded within the American system. Charley points out that a salesman must dream of great things if he is to travel the territory "way out there in the blue," but that he is also a man who really has no trade like the carpenter, lawyer, or doctor, and when the brilliant smile that has brought his success begins to pale, he must fall, though "there is no rock bottom."
Because this portrait rings true, the play seems to indict a system that promises and indeed demands total commitment to success without regard to human values, a system that, as Willy says to Howard, will "eat the orange and throw the peel away." (pp. 276-77)
It is a system symbolized ultimately in the play by the car, that strange, uniquely American obsession, which Willy and his sons (in Willy's glorious recollection scene in the first act) polish, love and cherish as a manifestation of their manly glory. But the car is something that wears out and breaks down, and soon enough, unless one can afford an ever-shinier, newer one, he is driving an old Studebaker, smashed up many times, with a broken carburetor. He is driving the symbol of an outlived usefulness. (p. 277)
Even more than this social theme, it is undeniably Miller's psychological drama—his story of a family with its multiple loves and antagonisms, its conflicting aims and yet total involvement—that drives his audience to tears shortly after the play's beginning. Miller's psychological setting is particularly American, for we are largely a second and third generation country.
The first generation (Willy's father) has been forced, in order to make a living, to break up the family. But, while Willy's father achieved and was creative, he left behind him a wife, a young son-become-fatherless, and an older son driven to find success at the expense of love.
Willy, the second generation, is his father's victim. While he wants to love and "do right" by his sons, (His poignant "Was I right?" echoes throughout his lifetime), he is driven to use them as heirs to the kingdom that he believes must be built. Thus, he must pass on to them not only love but the doomed dream. He cannot relent even now, in the present time of the play, with his son thirty-four years old, a boy obviously not destined to achieve the greatness Willy wanted for him. Willy must still, at the expense of endless quarrels and his son's hatred and contempt, give Biff minute instructions in big business morality…. (p. 278)
Yet because Willy did remain at home with his mother and receive more in the way of love and human affection, he has come to know their value. For this reason he stays in New York with his wife Linda, whom he loves, rather than go to the New Continent; he looks forward to being with his boys more than travelling; and, at the play's end, he finally knows an exultant peace in a momentary spiritual communion with his son.
In recalling his father, Willy says to Ben in pride: "Please tell about Dad. I want my boys to hear. I want them to know the kind of stock they spring from." But his comment is filled with an anguish that permeates and gives richness to Willy as a man: "Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel—kind of temporary about myself." Willy has searched for a father's approval throughout his life, through living out his fantasy of what his father was and would have wanted. So too, Willy's sons are trapped by their father's fantasy, even more hollow for them, and its fulfillment remains their means to gain his love. (pp. 278-79)
Biff is the third generation, a representative of the sons of the middle class for whom the middle class dream has failed but for whom the only alternatives are various, all-embracing idealisms totally free from social structure. He is the beatnik, the hippie, and the radical, in whom one cannot help but see that the potent part of idealism is rebellion against the father and the father's way of life but in whom a desperate longing for father-love remains.
Hap, the younger son, less favored by nature and his father, perhaps as Willy was in comparison with Ben, has escaped the closeness with his father that destroys Biff in social terms. Thus worshipping his father from afar, Hap has never fully come to realize that phony part of his father and his father's dreams. He does have longings to be outdoors and to get away from the crippling fifty-weeks-of-work-a-year routine, but because he has never seen his father's feet of clay, he has more fully than Biff accepted his father's dream. He is not a social rebel, and he will carry on with the life of a salesman, and, one suspects, go on to the death of a salesman. He will violate the boss' wife out of some lonely desperation, as Willy sought support and solace in his Boston woman. He will also prove his manliness with fast cars and fancy talk, but again like Willy, he will never really believe in his own manliness in any mature way. Just as Willy is called a kid throughout, and referred to as the diminutive Willy by everyone except Ben,… Happy has been trapped by the infantile American Playboy magazine vision of the male.
Linda, as the eternal wife and mother the fixed point of affection both given and received, the woman who suffers and endures, is, in many ways, the earth mother who embodies the play's ultimate moral value—love. But in the beautiful, ironic complexity of her creation, she is also Willy's and their sons' destroyer. In her love Linda has accepted Willy's greatness and his dream, but while in her admiration for Willy her love is powerful and moving, in her admiration for his dreams, it is lethal. She encourages Willy's dream, yet she will not let him leave her for the New Continent, the only realm where the dream can be fulfilled. She wants to reconcile father and son, but she attempts this in the context of Willy's false values: She cannot allow her sons to achieve that selfhood that involves denial of these values.
While these are the basic social and psychological themes of the play, they subserve its central theme. (pp. 279-80)
Death of a Salesman is a drama of a man's journey into himself; it is a man's emotional recapitulation of the experiences that have shaped him and his values, a man's confession of the dreams to which he has been committed; and it is also a man's attempt to confront, in what is ultimately a metaphysical sense, the meaning of his life and the nature of his universe.
The play has been criticized because there is no recognition scene in the traditional sense. There is a notable absence, it has been said, of the classic, tragic, articulated awareness of self-delusion and final understanding. But, in emotional terms, the entire play is really a long recognition scene. Willy's heroism and stature derive not from an intellectual grandeur but from the fact that, in an emotional way, he confronts himself and his world. As Lear in madness comes to truth, so does Willy Loman. (pp. 280-81)
The road and Willy's car, for all their social and psychological significance, have metaphysical meaning. Willy's soul can no longer travel the road; it has broken down because the road has lost meaning. That multiplicity within himself, his creative yearnings, and that part of himself which sees creativity as a moral value, now intrudes on consciousness. The woods burn, and he is thrown into a hell of disorder and conflicting value within himself. The two bags which are his salesgoods, his emblems of material success, the two bags which his sons would carry into the capitals of New England and so carry on the tradition of his dream, are now too heavy. His sons will never bear them for him, and the values which they represent are now the overwhelming burden of his existence.
The refrigerator and the house, though paid for, will never house the totality of his yearnings. They will never be the monuments to his existence that he has sought to make them. His sons, who would also have been the immortality of his dreams, his mark on the world, have failed him. As the play progresses and Willy's sons finally leave him kneeling in a bathroom to take their chippies, in consonance with the manliness they have learned from him, they leave him alone to face the void within his soul.
In the play Willy has no traditional religion; his religion has been the American Dream; his gods have been Dave Singleman, Ben, and his father, but they are now all dead—to the world and as meaningful values for himself. When Willy goes to Howard to demand his just due and winds up confronting a babbling recording machine, which he cannot turn off, he is confronting the impersonal technologic society which metes out its own impersonal justice. But he is also confronting a world without justice, a world where final truth is a babble. Ironically, the capitals which elsewhere function as symbols of the pioneer spirit and Willy's pride in his own travels, are now controlled by a child, and Willy's own sword of battle is turned against him.
The play is about the death of a salesman. The wares which Willy has sold, as well as being symbolic of his role in a capitalistic society, are, as Miller has said, "himself." In the final analysis, it does not matter what he sold, or in objective terms, how well he succeeded. (pp. 281-82)
Willy's death is not just his driving a car to a suicide which will bring some much needed money to his family. It is Willy's soul in triumphant revenge upon the dream that has broken him. It is a final act of will in defiance of a chaos which he cannot end, and it is made possible by his realization of a human value, his son's love, which he cannot live by, because the world is too complex, but which he can die for. If it is ironic, it is because fate, social law, psychological law, and the illusions of life are necessary, inevitable and always, of course, victorious over the individual man in the end. (p. 283)
Lois Gordon, "'Death of a Salesman'; An Appreciation," in The Forties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1969 by Warren French), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969, pp. 273-83.
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For a play that was often dismissed as a political tract for the times, Arthur Miller's The Crucible has survived uncommonly well. In addition to wide use in English and drama courses, it has become a staple of courses in American Civilization both in high school and college. In the theater its popularity continues undiminished, both in this country and abroad…. Next to Death of a Salesman, The Crucible remains Miller's most popular play. (p. 8)
The contemporary appeal of The Crucible can hardly be attributed to any analogy it draws between the Salem witch hunts of 1692 and Joe McCarthy's Communist hunts, however, since the majority of those who see or read the play today are probably too young to remember the Wisconsin Senator. Foreign audiences must be even less conscious of the analogy. Why then has The Crucible held up so well? What makes it still worth reading and performing? One can perhaps begin to answer these questions by quoting something that Miller said in an interview about his later play, After the Fall: "I am trying to define what a human being should be, how he can survive in today's society without having to appear to be a different person from what he basically is." Despite his seventeenth-century setting, he might have been talking about a central theme of The Crucible, not only for audiences of the McCarthy years but today as well. Certainly the play more than bears out Miller's belief that drama is "the art of the present tense."
Put simply, Miller believes a man must be true to himself and to his fellows, even though being untrue may be the only way to stay alive. Out of the ordeal of his personal crucible, each of the principal characters comes to know the truth about himself. A man must strip away the disguises society requires him to wear in order to confront his essential self, to discover that self in the void between being and seeming. John Proctor, refusing at the moment of truth to sell his friends, tears up his confession…. Once the self has been revealed by this process, a man must be true to it. Much more than Proctor's or the Cold War period, ours is a time when traditional values are eroding. The individual feels compelled to look inward for new ones. A man must either stand or fall alone, once the fog of old standards has been burned away in the crucible of crisis. Stand or fall, though, he can achieve wholeness of being or "a sense of personal inviolability," in Miller's words, that justifies new faith in himself.
The possibility for genuine self-awareness is a remote one for most people today—not so much because few are tested as Miller's characters are, but because few, to paraphrase [Henry David] Thoreau, are able to live deliberately and confront the essential facts of life. The concern of writers with the loss of the self in modern society has given rise to a whole literature of existential search for identity. It is precisely his identity, his "name," that Proctor will not surrender. The size, complexity, and diversity of our urban technological civilization, in alliance with Madison Avenue techniques for manipulating the mind and stereotyping the personality to a collection of consumer wants, make it difficult to identify the essential self beneath the layers of pseudo-self. The real measure of Proctor's heroism as a standard for today lies in this ultimate discovery that life is not worth living when lies must be told to one's self and one's friends to preserve it.
Since self-understanding implies dissent, the spirit of dissent is strong in The Crucible, as strong perhaps as it was among the original Puritans. In the play the word "authority" always means authority without inner sanction and always implies skepticism. Whether it ought to or not, Proctor's "I like not the smell of this 'authority'" strikes a responsive chord at present. The struggle of Proctor and the others against the theocracy's repressive, irrational, and destructive use of authority is not without parallel in times more recent than the early 1950's. Proctor's gradual rejection of it is a paradigm of the intellectual misgivings of many today. He is shown first to be merely independent-minded about going to church. His excuse is that he needs the extra workday if his farm is to produce to capacity. We learn next that the real reason is his resentment of the Reverend Mr. Parris' grasping materialism, hypocritically concealed behind a facade of piety, and also his preoccupation with his congregation's possible future in hell instead of its actual spiritual needs in the present. Though Proctor has never "desired the destruction of religion,"… he can "see no light of God" … in Parris and is "sick of Hell."… His disillusionment is not complete, however, until he is arrested for witchcraft. At that point he is convinced that "God is dead!" (pp. 8-10)
If not dead, then certainly He has withdrawn His blessing from a system engaged in persecutions worse than the Anglican Church's persecution of the Pilgrims, from which they had sought refuge in the New World. Like many revolutionaries and reactionaries today, Danforth and Hathorne are convinced that since their cause—the extirpation of Satan and all his works from the New Canaan—is right and just, any means is justifiable in serving that end. (p. 10)
Proctor rebels against the essentially totalitarian view of society that Danforth and Hathorne uphold. It is the view that the state knows best how a man should think and act. Carried to its extreme, as it was in the witchcraft trials, it bears out [Friedrich] Nietzsche's dictum that the basis of society is the rationalization of cruelty. Proctor represents the view of society held by the Enlightenment thinkers—that society should be founded on the common good, as agreed upon by all reasonable men. This may be seen in his attitude toward adultery with Abigail. He feels guilt not so much because the Church has decreed adultery a sin as because it goes against "his own vision of decent conduct."… Rather than an oppressively paternal state prescribing what he does, man needs a community whose essence is human with friends who share common goals and beliefs. The witch trials demonstrate that the theocracy in effect suppresses the growth of such a community by inducing and finally forcing people to betray one another.
The position of the theocracy in 1692 was that witchcraft was both a sin and a crime, albeit an invisible one. Its very invisibility, however, showed it to be a phenomenon of great mystery and, as such, best dealt with by those qualified to deal with mysteries, namely the civil and ecclesiastical officers of the theocracy. The Proctors, and finally Hale, want no part of mystery when a man is on trial for his life. Nevertheless, Americans are a people who religious roots bind them to a belief in mystery. They are also a people whose traditions, both secular and religious, bind them to a belief in rationalism. Miller believes the American audience will side with Proctor in his encounter with Hale in Act One. When Hale arrives in Salem with armfuls of books on witchcraft, Parris takes some and remarks on how heavy they are. To Hale's reply that they are "weighted with authority,"… Proctor says that he has heard Hale is "a sensible man" … and hopes he will leave some sense in Salem. (p. 11)
The Salem episode can be seen as the inevitable explosion of a social schizophrenia suppressed for sixty years. To the extent that this condition was the product of real or imagined threats from without the Puritan enclave, war with the pagan Indians or the French Papists might have been the result. But in fact the Salemite found exorcism of his schizophrenia in the hysteria of the witch trials and the sacrifice of the twenty scapegoat victims. The Reverend Mr. Hale, comprehending at last the enormity of the witch trials, denounces them at the same moment that Proctor concludes God is dead. A churchman in conflict with the Church, a convert to humanism opposed to all he once epitomized, Hale denounces the theocratic system. Faced with a Church that will hand a person on the strength of a controversial passage of Scripture, Hale concludes that "Life … is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it."… One of these Scriptural principles was the charitable obligation of each Christian to be his brother's keeper, a principle which in 1692 had been perverted to sanction malicious gossip and informing. If the witch trials marked the end of the theocracy's power in Massachusetts, it was because the theocracy had ossified into a monument to dead ideas as far as the John Proctors were concerned…. In the play the failure of the parents to see through the children's pretense of witchcraft is consistently ludicrous until it becomes tragic. Expecting children to behave as adults, the Puritans nevertheless refused to respect them as adults. In this way they assured rebellion against their authority, whether in the form of a childish prank that gets tragically out of hand, or the plain refusal of a Mary Warren to stand for whippings and being ordered to bed. "I am eighteen and a woman," she says. (pp. 12-13)
It must be said, in extenuation perhaps, that the Puritans believed in witchcraft much more firmly than they understood the natural penchant for mischief of the young, which could also be assigned to a diabolical source. Even had they understood, doubtless they would have felt that to dismiss the phenomenon before their eyes as a childish prank was exactly what Satan wanted them to do. They had no knowledge of child psychology, much less the psychology of hysteria. Rebecca Nurse is the only one to state what seems so obvious to us, but no one listens. A mother of eleven children, Rebecca has "seen them all through their silly seasons, and when it comes on them they will run the Devil bowlegged keeping up with their mischief…. A child's spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and, for love, it will soon itself come back."…
Part of the contemporaneity of The Crucible lies in its universality. The right of dissent versus the claims of authority makes up a conflict as old as organized society. Both Sophocles' Antigone and Shaw's Joan of Arc afford parallels with The Crucible in this connection. Names like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Henry Thoreau, Martin Luther King and indeed the whole tradition of minority dissent in America come to mind. The witch trials confront the mind with another age-old question too: how should we respond to evil? and its equally ancient corollary: what if the evil lie in us? (p. 13)
[If] The Crucible is a social play it applies to all societies rather than to any particular one. The setting of 1692 and the sociopolitical climate of 1953 take on the quality of timelessness found in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. The persecution of both periods becomes the persecution of any period. But although Miller is careful to show how personal interest can infect society, the play seems less concerned now with a social condition than with a moral dilemma that continues to be part of the human condition for each one of us. In the same way perhaps King Lear is not, at least for modern readers, a tragedy about the social, much less the cosmic, effects of a king's misrule, but rather the personal consequences of an old man's perversity for himself and his immediate circle. (p. 14)
From a literary standpoint, the best reason for reading or performing The Crucible today is simply that it is a good play. It has always been recognized as absorbing theater, with Miller's skill in sustaining excitement and suspense never in question. But the tendency among earlier critics was to over-stress the defects that accompany these virtues. Certainly most of the cliches indispensable to courtroom melodrama are present in the trial and prison scenes. We learn virtually nothing of the background of even the major characters, and all of them fall too neatly into groups: those who grow morally like the Proctors and Hale; those who remain static like Danforth, Hathorne and Abigail; and those who flounder somewhere in between like Parris, Tibuba and the girls. It is a question, too, whether Proctor's guilt as an adulterer is not more of a box-office device than an adequate foundation for the larger implications of the play. Structurally, the action seems slow in getting under way because of the clutter of minor characters and the clumsiness of the exposition in Act One—a clumsiness the more surprising in view of Miller's awareness that exposition is "the biggest single dramatic problem." The fourth act, too, omits the scene of confrontation between John and Abigail which the play has been building toward. Once these concessions have been made, the play can hold its own.
To classify it as a morality play is to misread it badly. The Proctors, together with Giles and Rebecca Nurse, have human failings which make their goodness more convincing, and Danforth and Hathorne among the villains are also men of conscience and principle. Their principles are not wrong simply because they are inflexible. One of the most baleful ironies in the play is that both Proctor and Danforth believe they are fighting against the same evils of irrationality and ambiguity in the administration of justice and against their anarchic influence. Locked into the "contention of the state … that the voice of Heaven is speaking through the children,"… Danforth must in conscience regard attacks upon the court as attacks upon God—which is to say the theocracy. Proctor is convinced the theocracy is an offense against God because it would deny the humanity of His creatures. (His equally stern conscience reflects a kind of secular Puritanism, as rigid and self-righteous in its way as Danforth's orthodox variety). Though he must seem obtuse to us, Danforth does not know the trials are a fraud, as Proctor alleges he does; and it is conscience as well as egotism that virtually closes his mind to this possibility. He is fully aware that he has already condemned seventy-two people to death for witchcraft…. It is noteworthy, too, that at least one critic of the court's methods plays fast and loose with the evidence himself. Giles Corey's "proof" that Putnam is conniving to gain a neighbor's property by having his daughter cry witch upon the neighbor is that Putnam admitted as much to an "honest man" who told Corey. Since Corey refuses, however, to name the man, he cannot be called to testify and the evidence remains purely hearsay. (pp. 15-16)
As for belief in witchcraft, the characters cannot be easily classified as enlightened skeptics on the one hand and superstitious dupes on the other. Knowing their neighbors and themselves, the Proctors believe that the origin of the troubles in Salem is all too human. Yet they do not deny that witches exist, simply that there are any in Salem. And as Miller says, "Danforth seems about to conceive of truth." The girls regard witchcraft as "sport," but Abigail does choke down some chicken blood, believing in its power to kill Elizabeth. It may be, too, that in Act One Betty Parris is not merely dissembling, but in a state of shock and fearful guilt after the escapade of the previous night…. Given the common belief in witchcraft, which the girls may have shared, it is possible that any inclination to nervous instability combined with suspected malice in others could have produced the psychosomatic effects found in Betty and Ruth Putnam. Similarly, in the superstitious society of the Australian aborigine, a scapegoat may become paralyzed and eventually die as a result of psychological terror induced by the which doctor's pointing a bone at him.
The language of the play should also be remarked. Miller has received consistently poor marks for the leaden realism of the dialogue in his other plays. In this, his first "history play," he has again chosen prosaic characters, but their historical remoteness allows him to use a semiarchaic language whose stark, rough eloquence nevertheless lends the drama much of the immediacy of the realistic mode. The language is a means of escaping the bonds of conventional dramatic realism at no sacrifice of strength. On the whole the attempt is successful, since the language not only avoids the extremes of melodrama inherent in the playwright's subject, but fuses feeling and awareness in a way that had previously eluded him. Biblical-sounding, seventeenth-century speech rhythms often serve to charge events with a momentous, awesome significance, and at the end lift the language to the agonized lyricism of the speeches of the Proctors and Hale. Like the mind of its hero, the play's language is informed by a "heightened consciousness" that can manifest a much greater degree of self-awareness on the part of the characters than the tortured rhetoric of Joe Keller, Willy Loman, or Eddie Carbone. (pp. 17-18)
John H. Ferres, "Still in the Present Tense: 'The Crucible' Today," in University College Quarterly (© 1972 by the Board of Trustees of Michigan State University), Vol. 17, No. 4, May. 1972, pp. 8-18.
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It is hard for me to say whether I liked [Playing for Time] itself. Ice cream is something you like, vanilla or chocolate. The movie was a morbid, frequently horrifying drama—as sickening and shocking a television experience as I've had since Holocaust….
The situation was not helped by the German guards coming across as music lovers, making you think at times that Auschwitz was a perverted camp in the Berkshires. Especially disturbing was the incomplete portrait of Dr. Mengele, Herr Kommandant. What did this little man in the white lab coat do, I kept thinking, aside from listening to good classical music?
The basic shortcoming was Miller's script. He never really managed to tell us why the Nazis were torturing the poor people we saw. For three hours the movie showed us how cruel the human race can be. But what did it all mean? You had to read between the lines for any kind of historical context.
Television dramas usually are starkly simple. All conflict is presented in black and white, so that we can get the point quickly. Here, suddenly, we were given subtlety. How inappropriate for a presentation recapitulating such awful events almost four decades after they occurred. The assumption, I suppose, was that everyone watching already knew what went on during World War II. I'm not so sure. Certainly for most young TV viewers, World War II is Hogan's Heroes.
What should Miller's message have been? I usually leave such questions to the playwright, but as a starter how about "This is bad." There seems little point in a dramatist getting involved in a project like this one unless he can shout something to the sky: "Look at what they did" or "How are we going to prevent it from ever happening again?" Miller is one of the great moralists of our day, according to the New York Times, yet he apparently couldn't find a lesson in all the horrifying experiences he was portraying, couldn't make a simple statement for the masses. There is more morality in an episode of M∗A∗S∗H than in all of Playing for Time.
Maybe it was a mistake to have a Jew like Miller do the script in the first place. Perhaps the assignment should have gone to William Styron, who covered similar ground in Sophie's Choice. A WASP dramatist might at least have been appalled by the material. I'll bet Miller would have drawn a powerful moral if he was dramatizing the My Lai story. Anything about Vietnam would have stirred his rage.
Miller had our horrified attention for three hours. What a moment for him as a playwright and as a moralist. Yet he blew it. (p. 22)
Marvin Kitman, "Playing for Bucks," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 20, November 3, 1980, pp. 21-2.∗
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An individual's assessment of Miller as a playwright will depend,… on his own biases and presuppositions. If he is primarily interested in theatrical experimentation and novelty, he will find little to interest him in the plays. Miller's explorations of form have never taken him far from the highroad of realism…. From the rich storehouse of theatrical trickery accumulated in this century by the expressionists, symbolists, surrealists or absurdists, Miller has borrowed practically nothing.
This is not to suggest that Miller has been indifferent to dramatic form. Quite the contrary. Indeed each new play has been a fresh attempt to find a suitable vehicle for his dramatic vision. When he has experimented with modernist techniques, however, it has always been in an effort to make his characters more psychologically real, never to render them mechanical, faceless or depersonalised. It has been to render the causal connections between things more understandable, not to suggest a world without meaning. To Miller, whatever their limitations, reason and language remain man's most reliable tools for understanding himself and his world, and attempts to discredit them or to substitute a 'poetry of the theatre' for poetry in the theatre have seemed misguided.
Miller's experiments with symbols, stylised or free-form settings, or choral figures to suggest a 'generalized significance' have not, on the whole, been particularly successful. Where he has made a significant contribution is in his creation of an effective stage speech combining the power of formal rhetoric with an impression of colloquial conversation. His most extreme experiment with deliberately heightened speech is The Crucible where the historical setting gives a certain licence for highly figurative dialogue. Miller's evocation of seventeenth-century language in this play has been much admired, but it seems to me less successful than his metamorphosis of contemporary American speech in several of his other works. Willy Loman's indignant or despairing outcries ('a man is not a piece of fruit' or 'the woods are burning') or Gregory Solomon's expostulations ('five hundred dollars they'll pay a lawyer to fight over a bookcase it's worth fifty cents') are random examples of the way in which Miller transmutes the idiom of the New York streets into something powerfully moving. Such approximations of the language really used by men seem to my mind greatly superior to the 'antique' locutions of The Crucible or the improbable rhetoric of Linda's 'Attention, attention must be finally paid.' Miller's best dialogue is that based on the slangy, wise-cracking speech of ill-educated or bilingual New York immigrants, mainly. Jewish and Italian. Within this seemingly narrow compass of regional idiom the playwright expresses a remarkable range of feeling.
Miller's contribution to the development of a distinctively American stage rhetoric is important, but it is his attempts to extend the limits of conventional realism that will win him whatever reputation he achieves as an innovator…. It is [the] symbiotic relationship between man and his social and intellectual environment that has always fascinated Miller, and he has gone further than any dramatist of his time in his exploration of the subjective on the stage. Earlier playwrights had used devices such as masks and soliloquies to reveal the unspoken thoughts of stage characters, but no one had dramatised the inner life of a character as Miller did in Death of a Salesman…. What is most novel is not the 'flashback' technique of dramatising events from the past so much as Miller's skilful interweaving of memory and reality. In this play Miller found a way to explode the chronological framework of conventional realism, and substitute for it the subjective reality of a continual present. It is precisely this ability of the brain to relate an event to a whole universe of memories, ideas, dreams and hopes that Miller has always wanted to duplicate on stage.
As he found in Death of a Salesman (and still more in After the Fall), however, the 'stream of consciousness' drama has as many drawbacks as advantages. Among the former is the lack of accepted conventions that enable the playwright and the audience to set boundaries to the stage world. In the absence of some means of establishing 'objective' reality, there is a real danger that instead of suggesting a universal experience, a subjective play like After the Fall will seem no more than self-indulgent narcissism. (pp. 149-52)
It is not the 'formalists' who are attracted to the work of Arthur Miller so much as the critics who continue to see in the drama one of man's most powerful means of exploring his own destiny. To such critics, Miller's determination to deal with the eternal themes of life, death and human purpose is one of his greatest virtues. But even Miller's admirers have not always been able to agree about the relative importance of various elements in his work.
Some see him primarily as a 'social dramatist'. Considered in this perspective, Miller is part of a tradition which descends from Ibsen through Shaw and the playwrights of the 1930s. Such dramatists, so the theory goes, present man in conflict with a repressive social environment. The underlying implications of their plays are that society is flawed, that the majority of men are too blind, superstitious or venial to see it, and that what is needed is a radical re-examination of conventional ideas in preparation for a complete overhauling of the system…. But few of his plays are 'social' in the usual sense of that term. Their thrust does not seem to be outward toward the changing of political systems so much as inward towards the world of private relations and emotions. This has led some critics to describe Miller as essentially an observer of the family.
There is no question that one of Miller's greatest strengths is his penetrating insight into familial relationships. But to call him a dramatist of the family is also misleading if only because the range of his plays is surprisingly narrow. The typical Miller family consists of an ill-educated father, a mother with some cultural aspirations, and two sons. Sisters, grandparents and very young children hardly ever appear nor are their problems discussed. Furthermore, the families are almost invariably lower-middle-class. There are no 'movers and shakers' in the plays, and little concern with the problems of the 'rulers', whether these are considered to be politicians, scientists, engineers, financiers, or even writers and artists. The professional class is represented almost exclusively by lawyers, and the intellectual questions raised in the plays are discussed, for the most part, by non-intellectuals.
Even within this limited family unit it is only the men who are convincingly portrayed. It is one of the weaknesses of the plays as a whole that Miller fails to create believable women. The female characters in the plays are rarely shown except in their relationship to some man. They are not presented as individuals in their own right, but rather as mothers, wives or mistresses. The moral dilemma in a Miller play is almost invariably seen from a man's point of view, and to a large extent women exist outside the arena of real moral choice, because they are either too good (Linda, Beatrice, Catherine) or too bad (Abigail). They never experience the career or identity crises that affect men, nor are they shown having trouble relating to their parents or lovers. (pp. 152-53)
Miller's tendency to see society as a 'home' and the family in terms of politics has led some critics to suggest that he should make up his mind which he is really interested in—sociology or psychoanalysis, politics or sex, Marx or Freud. But Miller never makes such distinctions. For him man is inescapably social …, and it is impossible to understand an individual without understanding his society. What distinguishes Miller from some other 'social' dramatists is his recognition that the social environment is a support as well as a prison. Unlike Ibsen, for example, whom he otherwise resembles, Miller never shows self-realisation as a desirable end in itself. Selfishness in its various forms of materialism or self-indulgence is one of the cardinal sins in Miller's world. Man finds his highest good in association with others. On the other hand, that association must be voluntary, not coerced. Thus the other evil in the plays is an uncritical other-directedness (the handing over of conscience to others, or the pathetic desire to be thought well of by the neighbours). Miller focuses on the point of intersection between the inner and outer worlds, sometimes approaching it from one side, sometimes from the other.
It becomes apparent, I think, that in the final analysis Miller can best be described as a religious writer. He is not so much concerned with establishing utopias as with saving souls. This is why he is always more interested in the individual than the group. Systems—whether they be capitalism, socialism, McCarthyism or even Nazism—are not Miller's prime concern. They provide the fire in which the hero is tested. But it is not the nature of the precipitating crises that interests Miller; it is the way in which the protagonist responds in that crisis. It is in this context that one can speak of 'sins' and indeed Miller sometimes seems almost medieval in his concern with such topics as conscience, presumption, despair and faith. Miller is quintessentially an explorer of the shadowy region between pride and guilt. His characters are a peculiar combination of insight and blindness, doubt and assertiveness, which makes them alternately confront and avoid their innermost selves. To the tangled pathways between self-criticism and self-justification there is probably no better guide.
Miller's heroes undoubtedly reflect many of the playwright's personal concerns. His entire career as a writer can be seen as an attempt to find justification for his own hope. In his youth he believed in the inevitability of socialism; later he sought salvation in personal relationships; in his most recent work he seems to have formulated for himself a kind of existential optimism. Miller's disillusion with an early faith and determined effort to find an acceptable substitute are in many ways the quintessential 'modern' experience. They can be duplicated repeatedly in the pages of literature from [William] Wordsworth at the beginning of the nineteenth century through [Alfred, Lord] Tennyson, [Thomas] Carlyle, John Stuart Mill up to the present. Where Miller differs from many of his contemporaries, however, is in his guarded optimism in the face of the great mass of evidence that has accumulated in the twentieth century to undermine it. This is partly a matter of temperament, and partly because his experiences have been different from those of the European intellectuals who have been most articulate in their expressions of despair and nihilism. The Depression (the most formative crisis in Miller's life) was in many ways a positive force in that it often brought people together and elicited the best from individuals. The experiences of war, occupation and the Nazi terror (which were the nursery of existentialism and absurdism) tended to alienate people and bring out the worst in human nature. Miller's refusal to believe that man is a helpless victim of circumstances, therefore, is not so much his 'naiveté' as his exposure to different facts.
Miller is the spokesman for those who yearn for the comfortable certainty of a belief, but whose critical intelligence will not allow them to accept the consolations of traditional religions. What seems certain to ensure his continued popularity in a world grown weary of the defeatism of so much modern literature is his hopefulness. Like the Puritan theologians of old, Miller has come to realise that the greatest enemy to life is not doubt, but despair. And against despair, the individual has only faith and hope. In Playing for Time Miller presents the artist as the individual who refuses to avert his eyes from the horrors of the concentration camp in order that he may bear witness before heaven and mankind. It is Miller's chief merit as an artist that the evidence he presents in his plays seems, on the whole, more balanced than that of some of his contemporaries. If he has not hesitated to look on the evil in himself and in mankind, neither has he been willing to shut his eyes to the good. (pp. 154-56)
Neil Carson, in his Arthur Miller (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; copyright © 1982 by Neil Carson), Grove Press, 1982, 167 p.
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