Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
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. “I could not imagine a theatre worth my time that did not want to change the world,” he declares. In its earnestness, this autobiography is worthy of Miller’s seventy-two years and the several hours a reader might spend on it.
“Celebrity is merely a different form of loneliness,” writes a man who, during the moments of his greatest public triumphs, mistrusted success and fled from the public gaze. “He is strongest who is most alone,” according to a line Miller quotes from Henrik Ibsen’s En folkefiende (1882; An Enemy of the People, 1890), a play he adapted into English. Though reticence is one of his themes, it is a disingenuous pose for an autobiographer. Critical of a culture in which “most people would much rather laugh than cry, rather watch an actor being hit on the head by a pig bladder than by some painful truth,” Miller presents himself with self-righteousness and self-pity as a solitary seeker of truth who defies the frivolousness of the American public. He is wary of the kind of acclaim that is capable of destroying its own object: “The story of American playwrights is awfully repetitious—celebratory embraces soon followed by rejection or contempt, and this without exception for any playwright who takes risks and does not comfortably repeat himself.” The story that this playwright tells of himself is of an author who refused to bask in early success and whose attempts to challenge himself and his audiences sabotaged his popularity. Timebends is a statement of artistic credo and a justification for the shape of its author’s career.
Miller’s extraordinary second wife made him the object of massive publicity, and, among those with more taste for melodrama than for drama, he probably remained best known as the husband of Marilyn Monroe. The marriage seemed a pairing of theater and Hollywood, of brains and beauty, of Jew and Gentile, and it did not survive the filming of The Misfits (1961), a screenplay that Miller wrote expressly to fortify a woman who was “dancing at the edge of oblivion.”
Among the thirty-two pages of photographs in Timebends are four shots of Monroe, captioned “the best of times.” Yet Miller also describes his twenty-five years with photographer Inge Morath, his third wife, as “the best of my life.” First wife Mary Slattery, the Midwestern Catholic whom the Brooklyn Jew claims to have outgrown, is only a spectral presence.
Timebends is not the definitive biography of Arthur Miller. Too many omissions, such as the absence of any mention of his 1980 television film about the Holocaust, Playing for Time, keep this from being a complete record of the man who “wanted to write a play that would stand on the stage like a boulder that had fallen from the sky, undeniable, a fact.” Timebends stands as the testimony of a decent, thoughtful, occasionally sanctimonious man. It is the self-portrait of a playwright in a world where theaters are going dark. His epitaph for Marilyn Monroe might do double service for himself: “She was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” Miller wears his duds with dignity.
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