(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

When Arthur Miller wrote two of his most important plays, the now-classic Death of a Salesman (1949) and the seemingly autobiographical After the Fall (1964), he conceived of their structure in a nontraditional way: Instead of proceeding in a strictly sequential fashion, they would replicate the psychological processes of a mind in tension with itself, replacing linearity with concurrence. To describe this method, Miller borrows from cinema language the notions of montage, of fade-outs and fade-ins, of multiple exposures. In Timebends, he adopts this same liberating, nonchronological form, roaming through a subjective mindscape where everything is now and never-ending. The connective tissue is memory, which “keeps folding in upon itself like geologic layers of rock, the deeper strata sometimes appearing on top before they slope downward into the depths again.” Yet, unlike his fellow playwright Lillian Hellman in her last volume of memoirs, Maybe: A Story (1980), Miller is content to leave unexplored the notion of memory as an active creative agent and to leave unquestioned the issue of its reliability.

While Miller warns that such a nonconsecutive structure will lack transitions, in practice that proves as little true of Death of a Salesman as of Timebends, where associations of one object or event with another help bridge the leaps in time and space: The dining-room table from the family’s first apartment on Central Park turns up forty-five years later on the stage set for The Price (1968); the Prague writers in the late 1960’s look to the East for liberation, as had the leftist intellectuals in the United States in the 1930’s; the shaky beginnings of a repertory theater at Lincoln Center recall the glory days of the Group Theater; the University of Michigan welcomes an antiwar teach-in during the Vietnam conflict just as it was home to a large Socialist enclave during Miller’s undergraduate days; the homeless in New York today exceed the displaced in Rome after World War II. Sometimes, it is hundreds of pages on when the full resonance of Miller’s technique reveals itself. The book opens with a series of vignettes of Arthur and his mother, first when he is lying on the floor looking up at her, “then, later . . . from about two and a half feet above the floor”; “still later . . . from about five feet above the floor”; and later yet, after the Depression when the family has moved with the times out to Brooklyn. In these scenes, the son appears as audience to the character of the mother. In reality, however, the child competes with his siblings to win the mother’s approval and love, which equates with “God’s love.” The mother, “in a most primordial sense,” was “the first audience"—what Miller’s second wife, Marilyn Monroe, the “sanctifying woman” as muse, would become.

The author paints Monroe largely as the victim of a society which demands that its celebrities be objects for vicarious gratification and little more. Her power over others is remarkable: The chairman of the congressional committee investigating former Communist sympathizers offers to cancel Miller’s testimony if only he might be photographed with Marilyn; later, a South African general orders the release of Wole Soyinka (who would win the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature) simply on the assurance that the petitioner is married to Monroe. A curious blend of childlike naïveté and voracious sexuality, simultaneously exalted and abused, worshipped and preyed upon, she enters Miller’s life already seriously disturbed emotionally: Feeling orphaned and worthless because of her illegitimacy, she longs for self-respect, only to find herself used as a fulfillment of its erotic dreams by a public unable to admit that brains and wit might inhabit a beautiful body. Perhaps drawn to Miller as someone who can provide protection and security, she releases the sensuality which he always sensed needed fusing with his intellectuality and thereby renews his creativity. The eternal feminine becomes his inspiration. Yet they ultimately fail to transform and save each other—which Miller guiltily admits was an...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

While All My Sons was opening in Boston in 1947, Arthur Miller was already dreaming of another play that wouldcut through time like a knife through a layer cake or a road through a mountain revealing its geologic layers, and instead of one incident in one time-frame succeeding another, display past and present concurrently, with neither one ever coming to a stop.

Two years later, Death of a Salesman, the American play most firmly established in the world repertoire, achieved that structure of simultaneity and, as far as anyone can predict, artistic timelessness. “Attention must be paid,” says Linda Loman about her husband Willy, and audiences have concurred—even in Beijing, where, despite a lack of traveling salesmen, a Chinese production of the Miller play was a success in 1983.

Attention must also be paid to Timebends. Its eight sections are arranged in loose chronological order, but within each the author proceeds according to the dictates of thought and theme rather than the calendar. Past, present, and future blend in a Sargasso Sea, and anyone who would jump in and out abruptly is vulnerable to temporal caisson disease: “timebends.”

Miller rehearses the story of a working-class Jewish childhood in New York, an early job in an automobile parts warehouse, and student days at the University of Michigan. He recounts the failures of his first two marriages. The first, to Mary Slattery, an Ohio Catholic, was opposed by her parents and is presented as a casualty of Miller’s burgeoning success. The second, to Marilyn Monroe, was much more passionate and publicized, and Miller sees it as a victim of...

(The entire section is 684 words.)