Timebends

(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.)