Echoes Down the Corridor

by Arthur Miller

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1815

Steven Centola’s collection serves as a companion to The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (1978; rev. ed., 1996). While most of the pieces in the present volume treat other subjects, Centola has included several that deal with the stage, and these consistently entertain and inform. One of the themes that recur in these essays on the theater is the dominance of money on Broadway. Miller imagines, perhaps unrealistically, a time when financial considerations were not paramount. In “Notes on Realism,” he observes that The Crucible (pr., pb. 1953), his most frequently produced play, never would have seen the white lights of Broadway had he first offered it to a producer in 1999. The play requires twenty-one actors and four different sets, making it too expensive for any end-of-the-century commercial theater. All My Sons (pr., pb. 1947) or Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) could be mounted for under $40,000 in the 1940’s. A playwright could thus convince a few friends to provide enough capital to give a work a chance. By the end of the century, such a play would cost at least a million dollars.

The influence of money also manifests itself in ticket prices. Whereas in 1949 the most expensive seats cost less than five dollars, fifty years later the prices begin at seventy-five dollars. A producer will therefore not take a chance on a work that might prove controversial or even stylistically challenging. Indeed, the ideal play for a Broadway theater in 1999 is one that has proved itself successful in London, thus involving little risk. Nor are producers the only ones driven by money. Film and television offer higher pay and greater recognition. Lee Cobb left the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman for the less-challenging but higher-paying role of a sheriff in Hollywood.

Miller’s solution to this problem is a subsidized theater. He acknowledges that actors and playwrights at the end of the twentieth century could sometimes turn to off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway.The Crucible, however, would be no more acceptable in these venues than in the high-priced theaters because the play requires a larger stage than off-Broadway could provide. The imports that so delight the money-minded, Miller notes, often begin life in London’s subsidized theaters. Writers Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Michael Frayn and actors Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud got their start in such government-funded playhouses. Miller’s experience with subsidized theaters in Sweden and China reveals problems, particularly of bureaucracy. Still, the work he has seen in those countries surpasses anything he has witnessed in money-driven New York. Miller does not want to abolish commercial theater, only to supplement it in order to revitalize what he sees as drama’s moribund condition.

As Miller’s 1956 “Concerning the Boom” reveals, his image of the golden days of theater may contain an element of myth. Here he already laments the triumph of commercialism over aesthetics and claims that audiences come to see performers, not performances. Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (pr. 1954), one of the best plays of the year, succeeded with the public, Miller argues, only because of Ruth Gordon’s presence in the piece. When Paul Muni temporarily left Inherit the Wind (pb. 1955), many ticket-holders asked for a refund. Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams hated the commercialism of the theater of their time but still wrote critical and popular successes. (One of the most moving pieces in this anthology is a 1984 tribute to Williams that first appeared in TV Guide.) Even Death of a Salesman had its doubters; director Josh Logan withdrew $500 of his $1,000 investment after reading the script, and others pressured Miller to change the title. The Crucible was indeed produced on Broadway, but initially failed commercially. The mid-twentieth century was thus not as bright as Miller sometimes implies, and the end of the century was not so bleak. In 1999 Helen Hunt, despite her extensive television and film work, undertook the role of Olivia in the live Lincoln Center production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (pr. c. 1600-1602). Tony Danza, noted television actor, appeared in 1999 in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (pr., pub. 1946), and Judith Light from ABC’s Who’s the Boss assumed the lead in Margaret Edson’s Wit (pr. 1995, pb. 1999). This last production proved a commercial success even though it draws on the poetry of John Donne and deals with the death of a teacher, ostensibly recondite and depressing themes that Miller implies are no longer welcome on the boards. Miller’s own plays continue to earn royalties, proof that audiences and producers do not necessarily demand felines with British accents.

Whenever Miller speaks about the theater, though, he is worth attending, especially when he discusses his own work. His 1999 essay “The Crucible in History” is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand that work. Miller observes that as he was seeking a way to protest the witch-hunt by anticommunists in Congress he happened upon Marion Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts (1949), which deals with the Salem witch trials of 1692. Here, Miller decided, was the ideal metaphor to anatomize the political mood of the moment. In both 1692 and the early 1950’s, imagination invented a conspiracy by the forces of darkness: Satan in the one case, communism in the other. In both events, neighbor turned against neighbor, and the only way to prove one’s innocence was to implicate another. Even the legal proceedings in the two events were similar. Normal rules of evidence were jettisoned: Action no longer mattered, but only thought.

Miller speculates that The Crucible has become so popular around the world because political persecution is rife. When Yuen Cheng, who spent six years in solitary confinement during China’s Cultural Revolution, first encountered Miller’s play, she could not believe that the author was not Chinese. No place is immune to the threat that The Crucible exposes. As Miller expounds the work’s message, “A kind of built-in pestilence [is] nestled in the human mind, a fatality forever awaiting the right conditions for its always unique, forever unprecedented outbreak of alarm, suspicion, and murder.”

A lifelong liberal, Miller has repeatedly addressed political matters not only in his plays but also in essays, many of them gathered here. As the title of “A Modest Proposal for the Pacification of the Political Temper” (1954) suggests, Miller in this piece draws on the satire of Jonathan Swift to highlight the excesses and absurdities of Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Equally Swiftian are Miller’s 1992 attack on capital punishment, “Get It Right: Privatize Executions,” and his 1995 “Let’s Privatize Congress.” In the latter, Miller observes that members of Congress already support business interests. Hence he proposes that corporations rather than voters choose the Congress. Then everyone would know whom a legislator was representing. Miller acknowledges the objection that under this plan the public interest would yield to private concerns. However, that condition already obtains; Miller is merely trying to end the hypocrisy of the present arrangement.

Miller was a delegate to the 1968 and 1972 Democratic conventions. In the former he supported Eugene McCarthy and so found himself in the minority. His essay on his experience in Chicago in 1968 serves as a companion piece to his 1964 comments on the trial of twenty-two former SS members in Frankfurt. The establishment delegates and the SS men put aside principle, refused to exercise free will, and chose to follow the orders of others. In 1972 Miller sided with George McGovern, who secured the party’s nomination. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps because of Miller’s now greater understanding of conventions, his essay about Miami is more indulgent. In 1972 he sees nominating conventions not as a battle between unprincipled professionals and committed amateurs but rather as theater. He has come to understand that issues are secondary, that delegates attend and audiences watch for the spectacle.

Most of the political pieces in this volume were written for the moment. A few, such as “Miracles” (1973), offer reflection. In this essay Miller looks back on the 1960’s and compares that decade to the 1930’s. He sees important differences between the old rebels and the new. The goal of the former was power, which would be used to create a more just economic and political system. Miller maintains that in the 1960’s rebels eschewed power and sought enjoyment of the present. However, both decades harbored a belief in an imminent golden age in which evil would disappear. Neither rebellion effected a fundamental shift in power, but both changed the way people would look at themselves and their world. Such a shift in consciousness is for Miller nothing less than a miracle.

“The Good Old American Pie” (1993) considers the matter of censorship, which Miller encountered firsthand. In 1947 the Catholic Church in Boston insisted that Miller remove a line from All My Sons. Miller refused. Similarly, in 1961 Miller refused to cut a scene from The Misfits. Miller argues that censorship can and does attack good art as well as bad. Instead of censorship, Miller advocates an open marketplace of ideas. Let the censors create their own art; let the public choose.

“The Parable of the Stripper” (1994) again addresses a universal concern, national and ethnic divisions, though its particular context is the Balkan conflict. Miller tells of going to a nightclub in the 1960’s with four fellow writers: a Serb, a Slovenian, a Croat, and a Montenegrin. At the nightclub they watch a woman disrobe, and Miller asks his companions to guess her nationality. The Serb says she is Croatian. The Croat says she is Slovenian. The Slovenian says she is Montenegrin, a proposition the Montenegrin firmly rejects. In fact, the stripper is German. Miller concludes, “None of the writers allowed himself to laugh, though I thought one or two blushed at the irony of the situation,” which lay in the fact that all four belonged to an organization that had been established to promote the universal values of literature and thereby tear down the “geographical and psychological barriers of nationalism.”

Still, Miller understands the charms of the local. In “A Boy Grew Up in Brooklyn” (1955) he recalls the mood of the borough in the 1930’s. Despite its proximity to Manhattan, Brooklyn then felt like a collection of villages, complete with eccentrics. “Suspended in Time” (1983) discusses Miller’s particular relationship with the Brooklyn Bridge and the night he almost died on this magnificent structure. Among the other autobiographical pieces here is a paean to gardening and a meditation on losing much of his two-hundred-year-old Connecticut house to fire.

Whether writing about Broadway, Brooklyn, or Bosnia, Miller proves an entertaining and informative companion. Centola’s collection should be welcomed by anyone interested not just in Arthur Miller but in the history of the past half century as well.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (September 15, 2000): 204.

Library Journal 125 (September 15, 2000): 80.

Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2000, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (November 12, 2000): 42.

Publishers Weekly 247 (August 28, 2000): 65.

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