(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

It is a willful amnesia that Miller finds so distressing in American society. Writing is impossible without any historical awareness, though making connections to the past can also be hazardous. Miller gave the title Danger: Memory! (1987) to two one-act plays he wrote immediately before Timebends. His description, in the autobiography, of their sense of “imploding time,” of “moments when a buried layer of experience suddenly surges upward to become the new surface of one’s attention and flashes news from below,” is as applicable to the perilous exhilaration of Timebends itself as it is to the plays.

“In the sense that we lack any real awareness of a continuity with the past,” he laments, “we are, I think, a country without a theatre culture.” Miller’s plays have been important to whatever such culture there is in the United States, though Death of a Salesman is the only one of his theatrical works to have received largely favorable reviews at its premiere. More than poets and novelists, playwrights are dependent on the verdict of critics, particularly of whoever is writing for The New York Times, and on the vagaries of avaricious producers. Describing his successful adaptations throughout the rest of the world, Miller presents himself as a prophet with little honor in his own country, which once even stripped him of his passport. True, he has been a guest at Democratic and Republican White Houses, but the America he describes is one in which serious drama is increasingly neglected. During the previous four decades, he saw the United States “devolving into a mania for the distraction it called entertainment, day-and-night mimicry of art that menaced nothing, redeemed nothing, and meant nothing but forgetfulness.”

Timebends is a guerrilla action against the insidious appeal of oblivion and an effort to remember when, for all of its difficulties, theater mattered. Miller’s ambitions from the outset were to offer something more important than diversion in the face of war and oppression....

(The entire section is 854 words.)