The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller
“Arguing with Daddy” has made Arthur Miller an articulate prodigy at each stage of his life as a grand playwright. His argument is familiar, whether the business of a particular play poses a citizen against his society or a father against his offspring. Miller hopes that his work as both playwright and commentator will make society more human and its citizens less alone. His unrelenting close attention to society has been turned into plays and essays therefore. All My Sons (1947) represented his dramatic arrival, and The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977) serves to remind us that the career of this student and spokesman is active as usual. That this critical playwright’s evolving and devolving audience has been the subject of his continuing, magnanimous scrutiny throughout his thirty years in public is also clear from The Theater Essays.
The range of Miller’s subjects in these twenty-three essays and three interviews includes as well the Russian theater, modern drama, roots, the family tree of tragedy, the durability of topical plays, and specific problems such as the economics of Broadway and Lincoln Center. Never one to cater to the audience’s mere pleasure, abroad or at home, Miller has taken pleasure himself in consistently dismantling any public’s simplistic credo of optimism, repression, greed, or arrogant mismanagement. This latter matter has led him almost by himself to speak and write of New York’s Lincoln Center as an enemy of the people. The particularly aggrieved children of this monumental “Cultural Daddy” are the serious audience which repertory theater in this country would now serve. For Miller sees two audiences in the contemporary United States; the serious or alienated one is his. The other, larger group of theatergoers, the unalienated philistines, he also sees but has no meaningful relationship with. Yet he is typically concerned with both audiences, and especially since 1972 he has lost no chance to say or show how much.
Miller’s equally brave, outspoken defense of human rights outside the theater wll be known to many; and it is clearly possible to draw straight lines from his appropriation of Salem history during the witchhunt of the 1950’s, through his expressed concerns about the rights of different audiences to be satisfied, to his involvement in domestic as well as international civil liberties.
However, it is not the world at large or even New York that has the frontrow seat in much of this collection of essays. It is the University of Michigan. Specifically it is Miller’s beloved teacher, Kenneth T. Rowe, the support Miller received through various university prizes, and more recently, the sensitive interest taken in Miller’s career by Professor Robert A. Martin. It is his path that this book cuts through the black-rimmed eyes of the Harlem and Brooklyn boy who became a recognized artist in Ann Arbor as early as 1936.
Martin’s studious appreciation of Miller and his work comes to the conclusion that the playwright is a territorial giant. That’s why “Daddy” should beware. The warning has been carefully arranged: ten essays including “On Social Plays” from the period of Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge, eight pieces written between the publication of Miller’s Collected Plays in 1957 and the completion of his film, The Misfits, in 1961, and eight more messages beginning with the daring introductory remarks for After the Fall in 1964 and ending with the sound historical and economic statements of “Broadway, From O’Neill to Now” and “Arthur Miller vs. Lincoln Center.” It is the second section of this collection that carries the burdens of the long, well-received introduction to the 1957 anthology and the wise and ranging, long-winded chat with other theater people which in 1958 Miller published in Harper’s as “The Shadows of the Gods.”
This piece points up its maker and his principles: “I ask of a play, first, the dramatic question, the carpenter-builder’s...
(The entire section is 1,346 words.)