BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 5, 2009
By Christopher Bigsby
(Harvard University Press, 739 pp., $35)
Arthur Miller could hardly have hoped for a more sympathetic biographer than Christopher Bigsby. He is the director of the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia, and the author of a long commentary on Miller’s work and a book-length interview with the playwright. To write this biography, Miller granted Bigsby exclusive access to his papers, including unpublished manuscripts, and sat for what Bigsby describes as “many hours of interviews” over a twenty-five-year friendship.
So it is not surprising that the substance of Bigsby’s book is wholly admiring of Miller, and takes his stature as a great American writer for granted. What is surprising is the peculiar form of the book, because it makes a rather severe judgment. Bigsby spends 650 pages narrating Miller’s life and times, from his birth in 1915 to 1961, the year he divorced Marilyn Monroe. The last forty-four years of Miller’s life are covered in the remaining twenty-five pages of the book, almost all of them dealing with his courtship of Inge Morath, who became his third wife in 1962. This would make sense if Bigsby’s book, enormous as it is, were merely the first of a two-volume biography. But while the book’s title page includes the subtitle “1915–1962,” the years do not appear on the cover, and there is no suggestion that Bigsby is working on a sequel.
It is as though Miller’s life effectively ended when he was forty-seven years old. In Bigsby’s hands, its entire second half was a superfluous coda.
If this is Bigsby’s implied judgment, it seems also to have been Miller’s. Timebends, the entertaining and voluble autobiography that Miller published in 1987, also effectively cuts off in the early 1960s, with only a few episodes from the later years that saw Miller flourish as the president of PEN and an elder statesman of American letters. He has little to say even about the many plays that he continued to write and stage in those years, and he confesses that the 1960s marked a rupture in his creative life: “It was no good simply saying the past was canceled. But why did it seem to have no particular connection with the present and who I was now? Cancellation was the beginning of the sixties for me, the great disconcerting wipeout of all that had gone before.”
This sudden cancellation--the abrupt expulsion of Arthur Miller from the living heart of the American theater to the more serene eminence of the textbook and the anthology--is the real mystery of his life. Bigsby’s biography brings home to the reader just how brief Miller’s period as a major playwright really was. His reputation rests primarily on four plays--All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge--that debuted between 1947 and 1955. And even that span might be misleadingly broad, since A View From the Bridge, first produced as a one-act in 1955, grew out of a story Miller had been pondering since the late 1940s, and had already treated in a screenplay, never produced, called The Hook. So if you date the end of his most fertile period to the writing of The Crucible in 1952, you find just five
or six years of greatness, preceded by a decade of apprenticeship and followed by more than fifty years of respectability.
“There is never a moment when an Arthur Miller play is not being staged somewhere in the world,” Bigsby claims on the last page of the book; but that play is not The Creation of the World and Other Business or The American Clock or Broken Glass. Bigsby does not offer a new solution to the problem of Miller’s career. Rather, his biography annotates, at length, the explanation that Miller himself provided--directly in Timebends and his autobiographical play After the Fall, indirectly in other late works from The Price to The Ride Down Mount Morgan. Melodramatic as it sounds, it seems to be true that his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, which lasted from 1956 to 1960, was what broke the spring of his imagination.
Before Monroe, Miller wrote out of the conviction--necessary to all great writers, perhaps, but especially to playwrights--that his private experience was representative of the public’s experience. When All My Sons, his second play to be produced on Broadway, was a smash hit in 1947--the first, The Man Who Had All the Luck, had closed after three days in 1944--Miller became convinced that “some kind of public business was happening inside me, that what perplexed or moved me must move others. It was a sort of blessing I invented for myself.”
All My Sons ran for 328 performances. His next play, Death of a Salesman, ran for 742, amply justifying Miller’s sense of being in tune with the times. On Salesman’s opening night, February 10, 1949, Irene Mayer Selznick, one of the show’s producers, sent Miller a telegram: “TONIGHT AT EIGHT AND THEN THE WORLD IS YOURS.” “Her Hollywood background may have been showing through,” Bigsby comments, “but she was far from wrong.” Box office was assured when Brooks Atkinson, the influential theater critic of The New York Times, gave the play a rave review: “masterly,” “heroic,” “superb.” (A friend of Miller’s read him the review over the phone as Atkinson typed it, in a scene that itself reads like something out of a play.) The Pulitzer Prize and the Tony followed, as well as less conventional honors, which showed how deeply Miller had touched the American public. The National Council of Salesman’s Organizations named him an “outstanding spokesman for the selling profession,” which was rather as if the American Legion had given an award to Johnny Got His Gun.
It would hardly have been possible for Miller to score a bigger success than Death of a Salesman, and the plays that followed--The Crucible in 1953 and A View From the Bridge, on a bill with another one-act, A Memory of Two Mondays, in 1955--had shorter, though still respectable runs. But in 1956, Miller divorced his first wife, Mary Slattery, and married Marilyn Monroe, whom he had met in 1951, when he went to Hollywood with Elia Kazan to try to interest a studio in The Hook. For the next seven years, Miller wrote no new plays. The only substantial work he did during his marriage to Monroe was the screenplay for The Misfits, designed as a vehicle for his wife, and unsettlingly proficient in the Hollywood conventions that he had previously scorned.
The next play Miller brought to the stage was After the Fall, in 1964--three years after his divorce from Monroe, and just a year and a half after her death by drug overdose. This only heightened the scandal of the play, which was a nakedly autobiographical treatment of Miller’s divorce from Mary, his troubled romance with Monroe--named Maggie in the play, and transformed from a movie star to a singer--and his redemption through the love of Holga, as he called his third wife, Inge Morath. Robert Brustein, never a fan of Miller’s, described the play in these pages as “the kind of document that playwrights publish posthumously, if at all, since it implicates so many people living, and so many recently dead.”
Today, when the participants in Miller’s private drama are gone, and we are more used to this kind of literary confession, After the Fall does not seem so troubling. A passionately self-justifying play, at once moving and frustrating, it belongs with Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin and the Zuckerman novels of Philip Roth in the literature of male mid-life crisis. But in 1964 it seemed that the “blessing” Miller once enjoyed had been withdrawn, and indeed reversed: where once he had transacted the public’s business in the privacy of his art, now he was exposing his private life in public. He had been transformed from an artist into a celebrity, and he never quite recovered.
The sheer improbability of the marriage between Miller and Monroe was one reason why it attracted so much attention: the egghead and the airhead, New York and Hollywood in human form. Perhaps recognizing what a romance with Monroe would involve, Miller denied the attraction that he felt at their first meeting, until four more years in his unhappy marriage left him ready to succumb to Monroe’s near-idolatry. Immediately, he began to pay the price for his newfound, unwanted fame, which made his old prestige as a playwright seem like positive obscurity.
Even before Miller and Monroe were officially engaged, while Miller was still waiting out his Reno divorce, he found himself subpoenaed by HUAC. The timing was not coincidental: as Bigsby notes, by 1956 the Committee’s influence was on the wane, and Miller’s connection with America’s biggest sex symbol made him a witness guaranteed to draw attention. Bigsby repeats the well-known story that the HUAC chairman, Francis Walter, offered to cancel the subpoena if Monroe would pose for a photo with him. (Miller told this story with relish, but it would be nice to have it confirmed by someone else. As Bigsby points out, several episodes in Miller’s memoirs are contradicted by other witnesses or evidence.)
Miller refused, and appeared before a not entirely hostile committee. One congressman asked him why he didn’t direct “some of that magnificent ability you have to fighting against well-known Communist subversive conspiracies in our country and the world.” Nor was Miller openly confrontational, as Paul Robeson had been the week before. He was happy to declare, “I think it would be a disaster and a calamity if the Communist Party ever took over this country.” But his refusal to name names earned him a contempt citation, which was eventually overturned on appeal.
No sooner was Miller done testifying than he went back to Roxbury, Connecticut, where he lived for much of his adult life, to marry Monroe. On the day of the wedding, June 29, the couple planned to give a press conference, hoping to sate the huge appetite for stories about what one columnist called “America’s foremost foremosts.” On the way home from picking up the marriage license, Miller and Monroe witnessed a car crash: a reporter from Paris Match, following their car, had run into a tree, and the bride and groom watched her die on the roadside. They then continued home, where the assembled reporters went ahead with the press conference. It was an omen of the life to come. As Bigsby puts it, “Miller was being ushered into a new moral universe.”
Then it was off to England, where Monroe was to star with Laurence Olivier in a light comedy called The Prince and the Showgirl. Here the private misery began, as Miller began to fathom Monroe’s bottomless insecurity and paranoia. Certain that the great Olivier held her in contempt, Monroe responded by sabotaging the picture--taking sleeping pills, showing up late, refusing to learn her lines. One scene required thirty takes, “which Olivier called ‘an historic amount.’ ” When Miller tried to point out, reasonably, that Olivier was not really out to get her, Monroe reacted as though her husband had joined the conspiracy against her. The only person she trusted, Miller discovered, was Paula Strasberg, her acting guru, who fed her delusions endlessly. On one occasion, Miller remembered, Strasberg told Marilyn: “You are the greatest woman of your time, the greatest human being of your time; of any time, you name it; you can’t think of anybody, I mean--no, not even Jesus--except you’re more popular.” (John Lennon at least had a sense of humor about it.)
Within months, Miller told Bigsby, he grasped that the marriage had been a mistake. By 1960, when Miller was on the set of The Misfits, he and Monroe were openly at war. It was especially bitter because the movie had been Miller’s love offering, written for Monroe in the wake of a traumatic miscarriage. In the romance between the young, guileless, vulnerable Roslyn, Monroe’s character, and the older, tougher Gay Langland--Miller’s surrogate, played in the film by Clark Gable--the playwright imagined a happy ending that life could not provide. Bigsby quotes Montgomery Clift, who played a younger rival for Monroe’s affection in The Misfits, arguing that his character should logically have ended up with Roslyn. But “Arthur was doing some wish-fulfillment. He identified with the character played by Gable. Arthur wanted him to keep Marilyn because he wants her to himself. But this marriage is over, and he might as well face it.” By the time The Misfits premiered, early in 1961, they had split up.
For another kind of writer, life with Marilyn Monroe, however trying, might not have been so imaginatively damaging. But for Miller, the decision to divorce his wife of fifteen years, the mother of his two children, and marry one of the world’s most beautiful women was more than just a personal one. It meant publicly embracing fame and fortune, in the most literal sense; and it as much as implied that Monroe was Miller’s reward for his plays. Yet for his entire adult life--ever since he came to political and artistic consciousness, in the trough of the Depression--Miller had been powerfully suspicious of the very idea of success. It is no accident that his greatest creation was the great failure Willy Loman, who acquiesces in every article of the American Dream--he wants to be rich, successful, “well-liked”--and ends up a suicide.
Bigsby shows that Miller knew about such failure at first hand. His father, Isidore Miller, was in some ways an even more dramatic example than Willy Loman, since he had actually known success and then suddenly lost it. Isidore came to America from Poland in 1890, at the age of six; his parents and older siblings had gone on ahead, leaving him to cross Europe and the Atlantic alone. Bigsby cites Miller speculating, late in life, that his father had been considered mentally defective, which would explain why he was initially left behind, and why he was never taught to read or write. (Though Bigsby tactfully avoids mentioning it, this speculation may reflect Miller’s own guilt over his son Daniel, born with Down syndrome in 1967, whom he consigned to an institution and never talked about.)
But Isidore turned out to be the best businessman in the Miller family. He quickly graduated from sewing clothes in a Broome Street sweatshop to selling coats for the family firm, travelling across the country at the age of fifteen. After World War I he struck out on his own, and his Miltex Coat and Suit Company flourished in the 1920s. Family legend had it that in 1915, William Fox, a garment-business associate of Isidore’s, asked him for a $50,000 loan to help him start a movie studio in Hollywood. Isidore turned him down, and so missed out on becoming an owner of Twentieth Century Fox (which, coincidentally, became Marilyn Monroe’s studio).
Until Arthur Miller was thirteen, he lived with his parents, his older brother, and his younger sister in a grand apartment in Jewish Harlem, with a view over Central Park down to the Battery. Every morning, chauffeur-driven cars would pick up Isidore and the other businessmen in the building. Miller’s mother, Augusta, had intellectual and artistic leanings, and was frustrated at having been married off to an illiterate man. But it was not until the money disappeared, in the crash of 1929, that the elder Millers’ marriage was exposed as a loveless business arrangement, a merger that now failed. In After the Fall, Miller recreates the traumatic scenes that took place when Augusta learned that her husband had lost all their money in the stock market: “You mean you saw everything going down and you throw good money after bad? Are you some kind of a moron? I should have run the day I met you!” Despite repeated efforts, Isidore would never be prosperous again.
At the age of fourteen, then, Arthur Miller was expelled from the upper middle class to the lower middle class, and from Harlem to the Midwood area of Brooklyn, where the family moved into a small house on East 3rd Street. When he graduated high school, where he was a poor student, he took a job filling orders at an auto-parts warehouse; it took him two years to save the $500 needed to enroll at the University of Michigan. It is no wonder that the Depression, which ruined his family in the most intimate ways, turned Miller, like so many Jews of his generation, into a radical and a Communist sympathizer--though never, he insisted, a party member. One reason it took HUAC so long to subpoena Miller was that even the committee’s investigators could not find
a party card with Miller’s name on it.
In fact, unlike the young New York intellectuals who spent the 1930s poring over Marx and Engels at City College, Miller was never very interested in Marxism as a theory. The radicals at Michigan were not that sophisticated, as Miller recalled in a late interview: “I’ll never forget, there was a professor of economics who at one point asked, ‘Who has read volume two of Das Kapital?’ Somebody stuck his hand up and said, ‘There isn’t one.’ I’m sure nobody read it. It was just taken as an article of faith that we understood what this was all about.” What made him a fellow traveler was, rather, the shock of the Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, and a completely uninformed admiration of the Soviet Union, which seemed the only home of social hope. It was because Miller’s communism was so emotional, so uncompromised by either theory or practice, that he could remain a vocal fellow traveler into the 1950s, even after he acknowledged the truth about Stalinism and the Soviet Union. As Bigsby remarks, “he would never accept that the feelings that inspired his radical commitments were ever invalidated. What was his faith if not a conviction that we are responsible for our own actions and the state of our society?”
Miller’s politics were irresponsible, but they fertilized his artistic imagination. From the moment he started writing plays, as a student at Michigan, his goal as an artist was to redeem the world. “In a word,” as he wrote in one essay, “there lies within the dramatic form the ultimate possibility of raising the truth-consciousness of mankind to such a level of intensity as to transform those who observe it.” But this required solidarity with the world’s oppressed--with the poor, with persecuted leftists, with his bankrupt father--as well as a puritanical scorn of those who “made it.” It was his fascination with failure, and with the virtue of failure, that allowed Miller to create Willy Loman, and to make the audience love Willy more the more futile and pathetic he becomes.
Starting with All My Sons, however, Miller suffered from the paradox that his plays about failure were making him rich and famous. “I had been scratching on the glass from the outside for thirty-one years,” he writes in Timebends, “until now I was scratching on it from the inside, trying to keep contact with the ordinary life from which my work had grown. For the slow dread was descending on me that I might have nothing more to say as a writer.” To atone for his success and avert the punishment of silence, Miller imposed penances on himself. When All My Sons starting bringing him $2,000 per week, he took a job assembling beer-box dividers at a factory in Long Island City for forty cents an hour. He only lasted a few days--Miller was no Simone Weil, and could not blink the absurdity of the gesture--but the sense of guilt remained.
Death of a Salesman opened in February 1949, and the next month Miller momentously agreed to chair a panel at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace--the infamous “Waldorf Conference,” sponsored by the Soviet Union, which became a flashpoint in the cultural cold war. The low points of that event--to which Bigsby devotes an insightful chapter--included the humiliation of Dmitri Shostakovich, who was compelled to read a statement denouncing “bourgeois formalism” and apologizing for his music’s failure “to meet with approval among the broad masses of listeners.” At another session Dwight Macdonald, one of a number of anti-Stalinists who infiltrated the conference, read off a list of names of vanished Soviet writers, asking Aleksandr Fadeyev, the head of the Union of Soviet Writers, to account for their whereabouts. Fadeyev responded with details about where each writer was living and what they were currently working on. It later emerged that “all those of whom Fadeyev had spoken were either already dead from torture or firing squad, or were in prison, to die later.”
As Bigsby notes, a photograph from the conference shows Miller posing alongside Shostakovich and Fadeyev. His participation was a disgrace. It was also a danger, bringing him once again to the attention of HUAC and the FBI, and landing him in a Life photo spread headlined “Dupes and Fellow Travelers,” along with Charlie Chaplin and Langston Hughes. But for Miller it was a necessary act of contrition. “I might not have agreed to chair one of the panels,” he wrote in Timebends, “had Salesman not continued to be such a universally acclaimed success. I simply felt better with one foot outside the standard show business world, and once invited, I could not refuse.”
Miller drives the point home with one of the most telling anecdotes in his memoir. Among the speakers at the Waldorf-Astoria was Clifford Odets, who in the 1930s had shot to fame as a “stormbird of the revolution,” the author of stirring radical plays such as Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing. But Odets, notoriously, had gone Hollywood, trading the stage and the revolution for the screen and a fat studio contract. By 1949, his best days were long behind him. It was a terrible irony, then, when Odets got up at the Waldorf and demanded, “Why is there this threat of war?”
The question hung in silence, and the audience pressed forward, straining to hear his voice. Now, slowly, his hand rose above his head and his fist closed, and at the raging top of his voice he yelled, “MONEEY!”
Astonishment. A few grins breaking out. But on the whole his inner urgency was having an effect.
There was another pause, and again a series of questions demanding the source of our danger, and once more the scream: “MONEEEY!”
Four or five repetitions had the audience tittering, and even worse was Odets’s apparent unawareness that he was stepping over the edge into the ridiculous. I sat there thinking unjust thoughts: what had he been doing in Hollywood but wasting his time making money? ...Why were there so few Americans so far beyond corruption that their voices were undeniable by any honest person?
The spectacle of Odets’s self-betrayal, coming at the very moment when Miller himself was rocketing to heights that even Odets had never known, was a fearful warning. For it was Odets’s plays, which Miller saw in their legendary Group Theatre productions in the 1930s, that ignited Miller’s calling as a writer. Strangely for a professional playwright, he claimed to “have never loved the brick and mortar of the theater.... The sole sense of connection with theater came when I saw the productions of the Group Theatre.” Hearing the cry of “Strike! Strike!” taken up by the audience at the end of Waiting for Lefty, Miller thought he could recognize “the Greek situation when religion and belief were the heart of drama.” From Odets, Miller took the conviction that “writing had to try to save America, and that meant grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck.”
This, of course, has always been the standard criticism of Miller’s
plays: that they amount to left-liberal sermons, with the playwright always shoving the audience toward the desired social and political conclusions. For Eric Bentley, Miller was “the playwright of American liberal folklore.” Robert Brustein, reviewing A View From the Bridge, found “melodramatic preachment,” “truth--life in its concreteness ...obscured by a fog of false rhetoric.” It is, in fact, all too easy to reduce Miller’s major plays to their messages--to say that All My Sons is about war profiteering, Death of a Salesman about the false values of capitalism, The Crucible about McCarthyism, A View From the Bridge about the evil of informing. That is why these plays are so amenable to the high school classroom--Bentley ruefully noted that textbooks already used the rubric “From Aeschylus to Arthur Miller”--and why they are so easy for more experienced theatergoers to disdain.
One of the most useful services that Bigsby performs for Miller is to show the difference between Miller’s major plays and simple agitprop. He does not do so directly, but rather by digging up the unproduced plays and radio scripts that Miller was writing between 1938, when he graduated from the University of Michigan and returned to New York, and the end of the war. These really were left-wing propaganda pieces, sentimental and condescending, and Miller passes over them in silence in Timebends. It is easy to see why, reading lines like these from Jobs for Tomorrow, a radio series sponsored by the CIO, for which Miller wrote about shipbuilders: “One thing that’s come out of the war is this--a lot of bosses are learning that the man on the job has got eyes and ears to see and hear what’s wrong. And if he’s got an organization--a union--to come to he can improve things.”
Ironically, in Timebends, Miller writes in a very different spirit about his own experience working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he signed on in 1942 after his draft board classified him 4-F, on account of a childhood sports injury. In reality, Miller recalled, the workers at the yard were mostly dishonest and incompetent: “Whenever a drydock was finally flooded and a ship instead of sinking floated safely into the harbor and sailed out into the bay, I was not the only one who stared at it thinking it miraculous that out of our chaos and incompetence, our bumbling and goofing off and our thefts and our dedicated moments in the wind, we had managed to repair it.” Once, Miller recalls, a notice was put up reminding the workers not to waste cadmium, a scarce rustproof metal. Immediately the men began stealing as much cadmium as they could get their hands on, turning it into rings and bracelets for their wives.
The workers Miller saw at the Navy Yard, or at his post-high-school job at an auto-parts warehouse (later memorialized in A Memory of Two Mondays), were not the brave, simple, loyal men whom Odets depicted. Most troublingly for Miller, they were often openly anti-Semitic. In Waiting for Lefty, Odets devotes one sketch to the plight of a young doctor who is denied promotion because he is Jewish. In his production notes on the play, Odets suggests that “a voice might announce at the appropriate moments in [this] scene that the USSR is the only country in the world where anti-Semitism is a crime against the State.” Many Jews were communists or fellow-travelers for exactly this reason.
But how could a workers’ state be safe for Jews when the workers at the warehouse were so hostile to Miller, the first Jew ever to be employed there? Or when Mikush, the gruff superintendent of his family’s apartment building, appeared to the Jews who lived there as a “mythic enemy”? “Had we lived in Germany, Mikush would likely have been the Nazi representative in the building,” Miller observes in his memoir, and Bigsby shows that Miller’s sensitivity to anti-Semitism was acute until the end of his life. In 2001, after reading Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll’s fine book about the history of Catholic anti-Semitism, Miller mordantly told his biographer that “I’ve decided to give up being Jewish so I can sleep better at night.”
This is remarkable, coming from a man who had been so beloved, and so iconically American, for so long. It is also notable as a response to the critics who reproached Miller for not writing more explicitly as a Jew, especially in Death of a Salesman, where the Lomans are almost but not quite Jewish. Mary McCarthy complained that Willy Loman “could not be Jewish because he had to be ‘America.’ ” Leslie Fiedler wrote that Miller, like Paddy Chayefsky, created “crypto-Jewish characters; characters who are in habit, speech, and condition of life typically Jewish, but are presented as something else.” In an interview in 1969, Miller insisted that he was happy to make a character explicitly Jewish when it was thematically necessary--for instance, in Incident at Vichy--but in Willy’s case his “religious or cultural background” was “irrelevant.”
This approach to identity is not very fashionable today, when we are inclined to see universalism as a species of false consciousness. And in fact, Bigsby demonstrates, Miller’s real feelings about Jewishness as a literary subject were more complicated. He quotes a speech that Miller delivered to a Jewish organization in 1947, in which he insisted that he had “graduated out of ...Jewish life,” that “the Jewish writer [had] no other identity than his American identity.” Yet he went on to say that “to face away from Jewish life when one has a story to tell is not to be more universal and less parochial; it is to refuse to do best what no one else can do at all”--which is just what Fiedler, in particular, accused Miller of not believing.
To make sense of this confusion or contradiction in Miller’s approach to Jewish subjects, it is necessary to remember how intensely vulnerable Miller felt the Jews to be in Depression and wartime America. As he said in the same speech, “I have been insulted, I have been scorned, I have been threatened, I have heard of violence against Jews, and I have seen it ...when I confront the prospect of writing about Jewish life my mood is defensive, and combative.” Yet Miller was not merely defensive. He believed that his writing somehow had to heal the breach between Jew and Gentile, as also between rich and poor. In Timebends, he went so far as to put this impulse at the center of his writing: “By whatever means, I had somehow arrived at the psychological role of mediator between the Jews and America, and among Americans themselves as well.” He even suggested that, if hoped for big audiences, it was not because he wanted money or fame, but because he wanted to save the Jews: “should I ever win an audience it would have to be made up of all the people, not merely the educated or sophisticated, since it was this mass that contained the oceanic power to smash everything, including myself, or to create much good.”
This fear and this hope were the motives for Miller’s first notable work, which appeared before he had made any mark on Broadway--his novel Focus, which waspublished in 1945. It was part of the first wave of post-Holocaust books to address anti-Semitism in America, along with Gentlemen’s Agreement and The Victim. The premise of Focus makes its “mediating” purpose clear: it is the story of an anti-Semite, Lawrence Newman, who finds that putting on his new glasses makes him look Jewish. Forced to experience life as a Jew, Newman can no longer justify his own hatred of Jews, especially once he becomes a target of the Christian Front, a vigilante group that Miller suggests is planning an American Holocaust: “You know as well as me that everybody, pretty near, has no use for the Jews. That’s true, isn’t it? All right. A depression comes along, and you know as well as me that it’s coming ...and it’s the end of the Hebrews.”
The author of Focus could hardly be accused of downplaying his Jewish identity. Yet there was a good deal of merit in Fiedler’s complaint that, as Bigsby writes, “the tactic of making Newman a gentile derived from Miller’s conviction that while Jew-baiting was real, Jews were imaginary, just as he would suggest of The Crucible that witch-hunting was real but witches not.” Bigsby notes the parallel with Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, which appeared in 1946. Like Sartre, Miller suggested in Focus that Jewish identity is nothing more than the product of persecution--that the Jew is constituted by the anti-Semite, so that a non-Jew becomes Jewish as soon as he is treated like a Jew. Take away anti-Semitism and the Jew will disappear. It is a false analysis, of course; but Miller’s view of the Jew was of a piece with the image of the Jew as a hero of alienation that was so prevalent in the postwar years. Bigsby’s book does not extend to the period of Incident at Vichy, which premiered at the end of 1964, but there, too, Miller writes that “Jew is only the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction. Each man has his Jew; it is the other.”
This thin description of Jewishness is part of what makes the play historically unconvincing: all the Jews awaiting deportation bear standard French names (Leduc, Lebeau), whereas the actual first victims of Vichy anti-Semitism were German and Polish immigrants, who were quite distinguishable from Frenchmen in their names, their appearances, and their personal histories.
On the subject of Jews, as on the subject of communism, Miller’s ideas suffered from precisely the lack of critical rigor, the credulous readiness to take intention for reality, that the anti-Stalinists in New York decried. Bigsby dwells rather darkly on the criticism that Miller received from such corners: “In the early 1970s, the critic Malcolm Cowley warned him that the Trotskyites had been plotting against him from the beginning and, looking back from 2001, Miller regarded the attacks launched on him by this group ... as being of crucial importance ... it seemed to him that they had been instrumental in shaping the reception of his plays in the United States.” To which one can only reply that, if Partisan Review was out to stop Miller’s rise, it did not do a very good job. In 1949, more people saw Death of a Salesman in a month than read Partisan Review in a year.
Still, it cannot be a coincidence that it was in the late 1940s and early 1950s, exactly when Miller’s Popular Front views were under the strongest pressure, that he produced his best work. Earlier, when Miller could luxuriate in the group- and Group-think of the left, his writing was too blunt and simplistic. Afterward, when he had been through the Monroe whirlwind, and when the radicalism of the 1930s was superseded by the radicalism of the 1960s, he was bewildered, and could only look inward and backward for subject matter. But from 1946 to 1955, he was energized by the difficulty of using the theater to save a country that evidently did not want saving, at least not his way.
Thus, as wartime collectivism gave way to postwar selfishness, Miller produced All My Sons, about an airplane manufacturer who sells defective parts to the military, defending himself on the grounds that “a man can’t be a Jesus in this world!” Just in time for what Robert Lowell called “the tranquillized Fifties,” Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, in which cars and refrigerators and mortgages become nooses for a man’s soul. As HUAC turned former radicals such as Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets into compliant witnesses, Miller used The Crucible to defend the virtues of loyalty, honor, and sanity in the face of moral panic. In each case, Miller allowed the full weight of history to test what he called “the weld between my personal ambition as a playwright and my hopes for the salvation of the Republic.” That imagined connection, at once noble and delusive, was what allowed Miller to write such moving plays--until his life and times severed it, by forcing him to recognize that even that the best-intentioned art cannot bring redemption.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.