Courtesy: The Tribune, Sunday, April 17, 2005
Sunday, 15 May 2011
Remembering Arthur Miller
Great Drama is Great Questions
Nibir K. Ghosh
IT is perhaps a strange coincidence that Arthur Miller died exactly 56 years to the day that his immortal classic Death of a Salesman began its life on Broadway. Death of a Salesman brought Miller not only the Pulitzer Prize but also international acclaim. Set against the backdrop of a nation emerging out of the great depression of the 1930s and the Second World War, the catastrophe of the tragic hero, Willy Loman, reflected the catastrophe of an average American caught in the nightmare of the American Dream. The play brought to the forefront the inhuman dimensions of capitalism where a salesman approaching 60, who has served his employer faithfully for more than half his life, is thrown away, as he says, like a piece of orange peel.
Weaving together, with exquisite skill, realism and memory, Miller brought broad societal themes within the ambit of the ordinary lives of his characters. And yet the play refuses to be circumscribed as a period piece because it foregrounds Willy not as a mere victim of inhuman forces that control the economic and social environment, but as a victim of his own delusions. Knowing that he is worth more "dead" than "alive" on account of the $20,000 life insurance he carries, Willy believes that this attractive sum can be used to restore his son Biff’s love for him, a belief that sends him to his death.
Miller endowed his hero with the tragic appeal that would endear him to readers beyond the limits of space, time and clime. Miller’s protagonist is not a man of renown, but an ordinary soul who yearns for the bare minimum to keep his life and that of his family going.
Besides Death of a Salesman, Miller’s probing dramas—All My Sons, Crucible, The Price, The Misfits etc.—would remain as barometers of the conscience of the times in which Miller lived and wrote. Like a perfect physician, he could feel the pulse of economic pressures that drove a human being to desperation. He stated in The Price: "The car, the furniture, the wife, the children—everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is—shopping." To the critics who would be quick to label his works as mere "social problem plays", he would say: "I’ve never written about society that way. If my plays were about the social problems of their day, nobody would keep doing them. The problems would have changed."
His plays portray an instinctive striving to understand how people confront disasters and strive to survive in a world they never made. Miller’s strongest plays are fired by convictions that assail some of the central ideals enshrined not only in American culture, but in all cultures the world over. "Great drama is great questions," he wrote in his autobiography, "or it is nothing, but technique."
Made out of the stuff that go on to providing themes for immensely popular bestsellers, the story of Miller’s life, like that of his plays, had an intense dramatic appeal. Miller was married three times: to Mary Grace Slattery, to Monroe and to Inge Morath. He married Morath in 1962; they were together for 40 years, until her death in 2002. His tumultuous marriage to screen legend Marilyn Monroe created tremors in American society.
In the words of Norman Mailer: "Theirs was a union between ‘the Great American Brain’ and ‘the Great American Body’.’’ The marriage, which ended in divorce, did provide material for two of his plays: After the Fall and Finishing the Picture. In 1995, he reportedly punched a male journalist who asked him whether he still dreamed about her.
Alongside the writing, Miller’s life demonstrates his faith in the ability of an individual to resist conformist pressures. All his life, he remained a staunch supporter of free speech.
He stated: "A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself," a statement that should remain the guiding principle of the fourth estate all over the world.
His courageous stand against McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities Committee that had tried to frame him in 1956 over a supposed Communist conspiracy to misuse American passports speaks about the strength of his conviction.
He willingly answered all questions about himself, but he refused to name names on a point of principle saying: "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him."
Like a crusader, he involved himself in the defense of foreign writers through the International P.E.N. organization. He was undoubtedly a bold playwright whose convictions challenged conventions.
So long people continue to see or read Miller’s plays and say for his endearingly human creations, "That was my father. That was my uncle. That was me," we have every reason to believe "Death is dead, not he."