Politely Ignored at Home, Miller Is Venerated Abroad

Arthur Miller: His Life and Work , by Martin Gottfried. Da Capo Press, 484 pages, $30.

“A playwright lives in occupied territory,” Arthur Miller once said. “He’s the enemy.” Bitterness has become an occupational hazard for theater folk in modern times (blame the movies), but perhaps there are other reasons for the playwright’s siege mentality. Over the course of his 87 years, Mr. Miller has endured slings and arrows from politicians and the press. He’s been indicted for contempt of Congress-in 1957, for refusing to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities-and has seen terms like “self-serving,” “incredibly turgid” and “moral flatulence” applied to his work. His marriage to Marilyn Monroe incited a media feeding frenzy of Ben-and-J.-Lo. proportions. And though recent decades have brought him veneration in England, America more often treats him like an honorable but unsexy artist whose best work is long behind him. Put Arthur Miller’s name alongside that of a hot young playwright such as Suzan-Lori Parks or Adam Rapp, some might say, and it’s like comparing The Sopranos to The News Hour with Jim Lehrer .

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the dramatist should have deflected the investigative forays of Martin Gott-fried, whose Arthur Miller: His Life and Work has just been published. A former drama critic for the New York Post and Women’s Wear Daily , with biographies of Bob Fosse, Jed Harris and Angela Lansbury among his credits, Mr. Gottfried explains in his introduction that “Arthur Miller decided not to cooperate with the writing of this biography when he realized that it would deal with not only his work but his life.” Mr. Miller’s retreat must have pained Mr. Gottfried, who explains that his intentions were strictly honorable-he wanted to counter “the shameful disrespect that has been heaped upon this master playwright. Seldom has an artist been so abused in his homeland while being esteemed the world over.” As it is, Mr. Gottfried was obliged to gather information from correspondence and other documents in various Miller archives, and from sources who did cooperate, including Mr. Miller’s sister, Joan Copeland.

The result is a dense but fascinating book which occasionally lapses-especially in the early chapters-into wistful speculation. Did Arthur Miller, born in New York City in 1915, join the Communist Party during his formative years at the University of Michigan, which was then a hotbed of student radicalism? Why didn’t he protest when Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie On the Waterfront so closely echoed Mr. Miller’s unfilmed screenplay The Hook , which he and Kazan had shopped around Hollywood in 1951? Mr. Gottfried can only hypothesize. Mr. Miller’s inscrutable silence in these pages on these and other topics will startle readers familiar with the voluble interlocutor in Mel Gussow’s Conversations with Miller , or with the cascading memories in the playwright’s own memoir, Timebends (1987).

Fortunately, as this biography points out, Mr. Miller’s life has merged with 20th-century history. Mr. Gottfried has been able to gather enough evidence from the public record to reconstruct the story.

Mr. Miller’s first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck , fizzled in 1944-closing after four performances-but All My Sons in 1947 proved such a hit that the overwhelmed author briefly took a job in a beer-box factory to make sure success didn’t go to his head. Two years later, the rapturously received modern tragedy Death of a Salesman began the transformation of Arthur Miller into an icon of social and moral conscience, a reputation he shored up with his anti-McCarthy parable The Crucible (1953), his refusal to cooperate with the HUAC and, later in life, his work as president of the anti-censorship organization P.E.N. Interestingly, Mr. Gottfried gives the HUAC episode fuller resonance by describing in detail the contrasting behavior of Kazan, who notoriously fed names to the committee in 1952.

Deftly interweaving the political and the personal, the biography offers a compassionate portrait of the emotionally fragile Marilyn Monroe, who was so smitten with Mr. Miller that after he spoke highly of Abraham Lincoln to her, she bought Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of the President and stood it on her night table-a gesture of devotion if ever there was one. In what Life magazine called the most unlikely pairing “since the Owl and the Pussycat,” the playwright and the movie star married in 1956, only to divorce in 1961. (He refused to attend her funeral the following year.) In Mr. Gottfried’s opinion, it was Mr. Miller’s thinly veiled portrait of Monroe in his 1964 play After the Fall that initiated the playwright’s gradual alienation from the New York theater world: The play was seen as “an attack upon a beloved figure of vulnerability who was now dead and defenseless.” In The New Republic , for instance, Robert Brustein called the play “a three-and-one-half-hour breach of taste”; his fulminations were a harbinger of things to come.

In subsequent years, U.S. reviewers would grow increasingly hostile and U.K. audiences increasingly appreciative-a phenomenon that Mr. Gottfried meticulously documents, making a persuasive case that the skepticism toward Mr. Miller in this country has verged on gratuitous malice. After several hundred pages of narrative peppered with instances of American journalistic venom (“That Miller came to regard himself as a great thinker is one of life’s terrible misunderstandings,” wrote James Wolcott in Vanity Fair in the late 80’s), Mr. Gottfried pauses to consider the transatlantic divide: “Emotional power and theatricality count for much on the American stage, while the dramatic tradition in England is more mental and linguistic …. American critics seem put off by [Mr. Miller’s] uncompromising morality, tending to be cynical about it, taking moralizers for preachers and preachers for hypocrites …. Perhaps morals are not so suspect in England, and perhaps there too it is felt that standards hold whatever the weaknesses of the standard bearer.” In passages like this, Mr. Gottfried’s knowledge of theater past and present lends his Miller revelations a satisfying historical and cultural resonance.

His analysis of individual plays, however, can be tedious, especially when he spends paragraph after paragraph on plot summary (seven long pages on The Crucible , for example). An excerpt from The Golden Years , Miller’s 1940 training-wheels play about Montezuma, does have piquancy as wacky trivia, but other bouts of close reading, like the scrupulous comparison between Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and Mr. Miller’s adaptation thereof, may strike the general reader as tiresomely academic.

But the sheer intensity of Mr. Gott-fried’s scrutiny drives home his larger point: To borrow the famous line from Death of a Salesman , attention must be paid. After all, Arthur Miller continues to write provocative plays, like his latest, Resurrection Blues , whose plot (believe it or not) involves the televised crucifixion of a revolutionary messiah in a fictitious South American country. As Mr. Gottfried’s biography demonstrates, this octogenarian playwright is more than a high-school-English must-read. He may be living in occupied territory, but the occupiers should remain on the alert.

Celia Wren is the managing editor of American Theatre magazine.