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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Arthur Miller–Is He Still Relevant?

Have Arthur Miller's great tragedies, especially Death of a Salesman, lost currency, relevance, and favor?  There is no doubt that Death and  other important tragedies such as All My Sons and The Price are performed regularly in repertory theaters throughout the country and abroad (there have been Hindi and Malayalam productions in India), but is it out of deference to a renowned playwright or are the starkly moral visions of Post-War and Post-Depression America still as distinctly relevant as they were 70 years ago?

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Miller was not alone in writing plays of a distinctly demanding moral character.  Many other dramatists and screenwriters uncompromisingly portray moral and ethical failings and/or the courageous stands of heroes who refuse to given in to an unprincipled society.  The films On the Waterfront, All About Eve, and The Hustler are but a few.

In fact Miller’s plays are the very best of this genre, especially because they are set within the confines of family.  Immoral actions or the deceptions and lies which are in the borders of immorality destroy families. The dramas all have the backdrop of a wider perspective – WWII and The Depression are never far from the central issues of Salesman and All My Sons – but the action is clearly domestic and obsessive. The Price, although set in a period twenty years later, is still characterized by the same narrow confines of poverty of the needs and demands of family.  Miller carried the memories of The Depression in which his family lost everything in The Crash, and of WWII.

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The central issue of Salesman, not revealed until late in the play, is that Willie Loman’s young son, Biff, discovers his father in a cheap hotel room with another woman.  Biff has rushed to Boston to have his heroic, godlike father, save him; and instead he finds tawdry deception and failure.  He can never get over this shocking and totally unexpected revelation.  For years he has believed his father’s fictions and fantasies, and when they are destroyed, so is he. 

Does this crucial scene play well with today’s audiences which have little experience with the tight nuclear families which depended on each other to survive the Depression, or who suffered through tremendous losses in the War? At the time of Miller’s early, classical plays everyone suffered from The Depression and WWII; but only 51 percent of Americans are married today, and many of those marriages are second or third unions.  They are extended families in a modern terms – not the extended family of cousins and other relatives in Miller’s View from the Bridge, but the family of his, hers, and ours.  Responsibility as well as allegiance and affiliation have become diluted. 

The theme of the play is deception and illusion – that of Willy, his son Biff, and his wife, all of whom refuse to accept the truth of the limitations of Willy, the dismal nature of their life, and the historic destiny that will keep them forever in it.  Miller is a good socialist, and his plays, while never screeds, always show the dark and destructive side of capitalism; but this bias may also be outdated and romantic by today’s standards.  It is not that capitalism is finally seen as the shining temple on the hill, but that its failings are corporate, financial, multinational – diffuse and difficult or impossible to dis-aggregate and to assess blame.  Can audiences today relate to this grand, dark scheme which is the nature of Death of a Salesman?

All My Sons paints the moral universe even more harshly.  Frank, the patriarch of the family has knowingly shipped defective airplane engine parts to the Air Force which installed them in planes which later crashed because of them.  He, however, blamed the error on his friend and partner who went to jail for it.  The entire family and those associated with it either know about or suspect the lie; but because of the need to keep the family together – especially since one of their sons has been reported MIA in the War – they maintain the fiction and the illusion that the father is without blame.

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The play deals with the gradual revelation of the truth and how each of the family deals with it.  The father must confront his lies and the horrible truth that he sent an innocent man to jail.  His son has conveniently pushed the likelihood of his father’s crime into the far outer reaches of his conscience.  His wife, who knows, transfers all her emotion to the MIA son who everyone but her knows is dead.
As above, today’s world is very different.  No one person ever – or very rarely – is or could be as responsible as Frank.  It is unthinkable that one person could now have total control over a critical,
life-or-death decision.  There are quality control measures, computerized magnetic imaging, three levels of checking and supervision, legal conditions and codicils to those conditions.  Blame and responsibility are spread so widely that pinpointing one person is difficult, if not responsible. 

In The Price, the play centers around the relationship between the two brothers, Victor and Walter Franz.  Victor has chosen to stay with his aged father and take care of him, and Walter has gone out into the world to become a successful surgeon.  The resentments that have built up during the course of the brothers’ lives come to the fore during the play.  Just as in All My Sons, where a veneer of illusion has covered the truth, so does it in this play.  Victor has been taking care of his father, and has been all-suffering, but not patient and frustrated with the poverty and the drudgery of his existence.  It was Victor who went off to medical school and had a successful career, not he. 

As the play develops, Walter, after a lapse of many years, shows up at the home of Victor and his mother and eventually confronts Victor with the revealing fact that their father has always had money – four thousand dollars - enough to live comfortably.  He contends that he had told his brother about this, although somewhat indirectly, but in any case, Victor knew or must have known.  Victor, according to Walter, wanted to stay with their father.  Victor needed his father far more than the father needed him.  Caring for the father in impoverished times, scrimping and saving, ‘eating garbage’, gave Victor self-respectability, purpose, and value; and most importantly, said Walter, avoiding taking the risks that would lead him to as successful a life as his brother.

This play has in my mind more relevance to today than All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.  I know families who have siblings as all-suffering as Victor, and who have harbored even more intense and corrosive resentments than he.  One or more siblings have moved on, gone on to successful careers and lives, while the resentful one stayed with the aged mother or father.  The siblings who left always assumed that there were good reasons why their brother or sister stayed behind.  Just like Victor, they must have needed the value and definition of caring, especially if they had no families of their own.  The resentment and hostility in all cases was never understood by the siblings who had left.  They thought that the arrangement was clear. 

This family drama will assuredly become less common in one more generation. Today’s modern society is all about geriatrics, enriched comfort care, and out-of-home competence.  Whether older Americans get the care that their children hope for is another issue.  The fact remains that the options for the children are many, impersonal, and extra-familial. 

There are not many eternal playwrights.  Shakespeare is certainly one, Aeschylus another.  Their themes are most definitely eternal, and until we remake human nature they will continue to be.  No one notices that Aeschylus wrote 2600 years ago and Shakespeare 500; but we do notice and are very much aware of the historical context of Miller.  It is not his relative modernity or enclosure by the walls of The Depression or WWII that sets this stage.  Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944, and while it does not deal with personal or family tragedy, it is about existential tragedy and is relevant and salient today.  Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in 1948-49 and it, like No Exit is an incomparable philosophical work, dealing with Man’s place in a larger universe.

This said, not only is Miller a great dramatist, but a superb storyteller. None of the works of  Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Beckett, Sartre, or Tennessee Williams are page-turners.  In Miller’s plays the reader is never diverted from the central plot and action.  There is little symbolism or subtle, intricate language.  The stage directions for Salesman describe the Loman house, the lone single-family dwelling amidst apartment buildings, and the symbolism of the new age overshadowing and eventually destroying the old is clear; but there is none of the elaborate symbolism of Williams.

Miller’s story lines are clear from the beginning, and although you suspect that things will turn out badly, you want to keep reading to find out how.  Shakespeare’s plots, particularly of the Histories and the Comedies are intricate as well as his language, and the reader has to sort through lineages, puns, cross-dressing and disguises, and plays within plays to come to the conclusion.  The meaning of Beckett’s, Sartre’s, or Ionesco’s plays is never evident until the end, if that.

Deception and illusion, the main themes of the Miller works are also important themes in works of other authors.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Williams) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Albee) - center around self-deception.  The Pollitt family in Cat all skate around the truth, ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist.  ‘Duplicity’, as Brick calls it, is the source of family discord and disintegration; and yet he cannot face the truth about his own relationship with Skipper.  Big Daddy refuses to accept his cancer.  Big Momma invents a happy life with Big Daddy.  George and Martha in Virginia Woolf have created a fictitious son to serve as the centerpiece of a marriage of cruel games.  Neither wants to admit that they need each other, that their life has been a fiction and that they will never be happy unless the face the truth.


Miller’s work is the equal of Williams and Albee in dealing with self-deception.  Frank in All My Sons chooses to forget a heinous and unforgivable act – his cowardice and greed caused the death of 21 airmen.  Willy Loman brought his sons up in a world of unrealistic aspiration and illusion.

Neither he, nor they, nor the world around them was as Willy painted it.  He sold the illusion to his sons who were destroyed by it.  Only he, going mad, realizes the damage his lies and deception have caused; and he takes his life in an act of atonement and restoration.   We never like either of his sons, Biff and Happy, because they should have known better and whose characters were ready to be distorted further.  We lose patience with Willy’s patient but inactive wife; but we somehow like Willy.  He can’t help himself.  He has to struggle against insurmountable odds – in Miller’s vision, the onslaught of modern capitalism; but really his own delusion and advancing age.  He of all family members, realizes what he has done and what he must do.

The works of Tennessee Williams are transcendent.  The Glass Menagerie and Eccentricities of a Nightingale are not bound by historical context.  They are about courage within frailty, hope, despair, strength, and longing. They are lyrical, poetic visions of every life.  Streetcar with its depiction of raw sexual power, male and female desire, sexual dominance and willing passivity is about every sexual relationship.  Shakespeare's plays have endured because they too have transcended the eras about which they were written. The Histories may well chronicle the lives of English kings from Henry II to Henry VIII, but they are less about the events of history than the common, ineluctable human nature that determines them.  Greed, venality, arrogation of power, deceit, and ambition are the desires of kings and commoners.

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Miller's almost Biblical view of morality - stark, absolute, and demanding - is important because it forces a fundamental interpretation of right and wrong on his audience - playgoers who live in a more morally permissive world, an impossibly complex one where right and wrong are not always clear, where actions are mitigated by factors never even imagined by Miller.  Actions are seen through the lens of psychology, family history; or race, gender, and ethnicity.  What made us do something has become as important as the act itself.   Works of fiction and drama which capture this moral ambiguity and social determinism may be more appropriate for today and make Miller's Mosaic vision obsolete.

Not so the plays of Williams or Shakespeare which were never tethered or moored.  They were about the human nature and the irrepressible human spirit which is derived from it.  They were about will, determination, canniness, and character - attributes which will never change.

Shakespeare in particular was a modern playwright because he understood the relativity of morality.  He was never concerned with right or wrong actions and only actions.  His nihilism is both modern and enduring.

The characters of Miller are memorable, but those of Williams are unforgettable.  There is a bit of Blanche, Alma, and Laura in all of us.  Willy Loman is not real but tragedian and iconic; and that is the difference.

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