Arthur Miller: as a American Dramatist

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      Arthur Miller (1915-2005), a New York-born drantatist- novelist, essayist, biographer, was the son of a Jewish manufacturer whose business failed during the Great Depression. At the University of Michigan, he studied journalism. He reached his personal pinnacle in 1949 with Death of a Salesman, a study of man’s search for merit and worth in his life and the realization that failure invariably looms. Set within the Loman family, it hinges on the uneven relationships of father and sons, husband and wife. It is a mirror of the literary attitudes of the 1940s - with its rich combination of realism tinged with naturalism; carefully drawn, rounded characters; and insistence on the value of the individual, despite failure and error. Death of a Salesman is a moving paean to the common man - to whom, as Willy Loman’s widow eulogizes, “attention must be paid.” Poignant and somber, it is also a story of dreams. As one character notes ironically, “a salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Death of a Salesman, a landmark work, still is only one of a number of dramas Miller wrote over several decades, including All My Sons (1947) and The Crucible (1953). Both are political - one contemporary, and the other set in colonial times. The first deals with a manufacturer who knowingly allows defective parts during World War I, resulting in the death of his son and others.

      The Crucible (1953) depicts the Salem (Massachusetts) witchcraft trials of the 17th century in which Puritan settlers were wrongfully executed as supposed witches. Its message, though - that “witch hunts” directed at innocent people are anathema in a democracy was relevant to the era in which the play was staged, the early 1950s when an anti-Communist crusade led by U.S. Senator Joseph Me-Cathy and others ruined innocent people’s lives. Abigail, the niece of reverend Parris and a mischief-maker, has led some of the girls of Salem in a naked frolic. To protect herself she claims to be the victim of witchcraft and frightens other girls into making the claim. When the witch finders are brought Salem Abigail and the girls denounce any member of the community who resists them. One by one the weak and the virtuous are brought to trial, condemned, and hanged. The strongest resistance comes from John Proctor, a good hearted man whom Abigail has seduced when she was working for his wife. His confession of adultery promises to end Abigail’s reign of terror but his wife lovingly denies it, and Proctor goes to his death knowing that society has lost its ability and its right to distinguish between good and evil.

      Miller’s stage remained silent for the next eight years. He returned to the theater again in 1964 with the play After the Fall - a semi-autobiographical play with obvious references his marriage with Marilyn Munroe, the most sister Stella and finds her married to a crude “animal” intensely physical Stanley Kowalski. Another faded Southern belle, Blanche has come “to the last stop at the end of the line”. As the director of the first Broadway production, Eliza Kazan puts it. This is her last chance. She smuggles for control of Stella with Stanley. She also struggles for a new life, a new romance, with Stanley’s friend Mitch. After a violent and sexual confrontation with Stanley, she is defeated and broken. And the play ends with Blanche being taken off to the asylum. Stella and Stanley are still together. Williams explained once that the idea for the play came from a time when he himself was living in New Orleans. There he saw two street cars one named DESIRE and the other CEMETERY. The play has the elemental force of struggle for survival and it is constantly available to the discovery of fresh nuances. It signals the fundamental need that humans share with animals to secure territory. Building on this foundation, Williams weaves a complex tapestry of oppositions as he describes the conflicting personalities of Blanche and Stanley. It is also a play that leaves torn between pity and fear as we contemplate the fate of Blanche Debouis. The none of the works that followed over the next two decades and more, reached the level of success and richness of those two pieces.

      He also had a gift for comedy, often an undercurrent of his more serious drama, is evident in The Rose Tattoo (1951). After the experimental Camino Real (1953), poorly received by the critics, he returned to the more familiar themes of the intricacies of the southern families and the southern culture with Car on a Hot Tin Roff (155), Sweet Bird of Youth (1956), The Night of the Iguana (1959). Other plays are - Suddenly Last Summer (1958), The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1962), In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969), Small Craft Warnings (1974), Vieux Caire (1977) and Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980). He also published two volumes of poetry - In the Winter of the Cities (1956) and Androgyne, Man Armour (1977), several collections of prose and a novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950). His Memoir was published in 1975. It presents an account of his dramatic life with guilt, anger and a sense of failure, themes which are frequently associated with the major characters in his dramas a Volume of Collected Stories was issued in 1985.

Miller’s Works

      As the criticism goes, Arthur Miller is the most prized of American dramatists. Born in 1915, Miller is one of the topmost of American playwrights. He is bracketed with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, and is one of the five major American dramatists of international repute, namely Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. During the last two decades a whole host of playwrights have had to face the oblivion of anonymity while Miller’s plays continue to attract, arouse amuse and provoke the readers and the audience alike. Marching ahead with greater determination, steadier steps and increasing boldness Miller has continued to maintain his place in the glorious high road of American drama. As time rushes on its winged chariot, the plays of Arthur Miller seem to ooze out more and more relevance. Francis Nelson says: “As time goes by, his plays continue to endure, many of them in fact gaining in strength and impact”. Miller is the fountainhead of heat and energy, enthusiasm and bubbles, creativity and controversy in the field of dramatic literature. Despite this, Miller has been able to maintain his faith in values like courage, trust, responsibility, and faith.

      Miller’s major works of any renown and worth are: (1) All My Son (2) Death of a Salesman (3) The Crucible (4) A View from the Bridge (5) The Misfits (6) After the Fall (7) Incident at Vichy and (8) The Price. Miller’s works, if taken together as a bulk, show Miller’s own sense of involvement with modern man’s struggle to be himself...“which has made him one of the modern theatres most compelling and important spokesman”.

What Miller Thinks of Drama

      To quote an author, is perhaps the best, surest and the shortest way to know and explain an author and his works' Miller says: “My approach to playwriting and the drama itself is organic; and to make this glaringly evident at once it is necessary to separate drama from what we think of today as literature. A drama ought not to be looked at first and foremost from literary perspectives merely because it uses words, verbal rhythm, and poetic images. These can be its most memorable parts, it is true, but they are not its inevitable accompaniments.

      “I am not calling for more ideology ...I am simply asking for a theatre in which an adult who wants to live can find plays that will heighten his awareness of what living in our time involves. I am tired of seeing man as merely a bundle of nerves”.

      Miller has, very emphatically and lucidly conveyed his conviction that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as kings were. The tragic feeling does not anchor on the social status of the protagonist. It is aroused in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life to secure his personal dignity. Miller feels that tragedy is the consequence of man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself. Man constantly fights back the hostile cosmos, tries to get the better of the strangling, choking environment, and from this springs the terror and fear associated with classical tragedy. Tragedy is “the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly, his destruction in the attempt, posits a wrong or an evil in his environment”. And this is precisely the morality of tragedy and its lesson.

      An otherwise ordinary and common protagonist may rise to the stature of a tragic hero because of his extraordinarily intense zeal and fervor and the sincerity of commitment to his goal—his eagerness to give up anything required in this battle of achieving his proper place in this world. Apparently a paradox tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human-animal. The pathetic is achieved, when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensibility, or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.

Recognizable Features of Miller’s Plays

      The plays of Arthur Miller are never devoid of social context. So Miller feels that the protagonist of the drama must be a part of meaningful social relationships. A lonely, isolated individual living in his own ivory tower or an individual marooned on an island or sailing in the vast seas—any individual, so to say bound by any type of physical or mental confines—is not suitable for a play. Normal man lives in society and the play should depict the interaction between the individual and society. Miller’s characters have served this purpose. His characters possess “the worth, the innate dignity, of a whole people asking a basic question and demanding its answer”. The playwright and the protagonist join hands and try to find an answer to the question: how may man make for himself, a home in that vastness of strangers and how may he transform that vastness into a home?”

      Miller owes a lot to Chekhov, Ibsen and the German expressionists like Ernst Toller. In an attempt to explore the realms of realism, he has widened their horizons. Realism was like an elastic which he pulled hard and expanded on both the ends. From the beginning of his literary career, Miller attempted to endow the realistic style with an “evaluation of life”, a conscious articulation of critical, ethical judgment. The other, and perhaps more important, is the use of expressionism: Miller uses expressionistic techniques to present the mental and emotional state of the protagonist, not the physical. In Death of a Salesman, Miller performs an inimitable feat—he blends the rhetoric, the realistic, the expressionistic into a beautiful, unified, coherent whole. In these experiments, Miller has been led by one motive— to declare the objective truths about man in society. He tries, (and succeeds in his attempt) to strike a balance between the subjective and objective truth.

      Miller, then, does not believe in art for art’s sake. Most of his plays can be blown down to a piece of advice. Most of his plays emerge from real images. His characters find their origin in the real, contemporary world of today. They face problems, predicaments and situations, which a common man might have to confront. His plays are realistic, naturalistic and expressionistic.

      Shaw is concerned about the intellectual, the social, the moral; Eliot with the moral, the religious; Williams with the psychological. But Miller embraces all these within his sweep—the intellectual, the social, the moral, the religious and the psychological.

      The central issue of Miller’s plays is: “The struggle of the individual attempting to gain his rightful position in his society and his family.” Miller, however, does not make out society to be the sole villain. The society finds it easier for its hostility to working because of the tragic flaw or the weaknesses of the characters. An individual can maintain his own and society’s stability by resisting hatred and exclusiveness, or an individual may upset social equilibrium by enforcing the exaggerated demands of an inflated ego. Though Joe Keller and Willy Loman adopt popular norms, they get estranged from themselves and their families because of their stubbornly uncompromising self-will. Miller’s characters are life-like. Drawn from the contemporary American society, they verge on the border of universality. They represent their counterparts, at least in their own country by having to face similar dilemmas, similar predicaments and similar options. The protagonists do not and cannot function without entering into social relationships. Miller’s plays are concerned with rebellious sons, betrayed fathers, down-trodden workers, persecuted citizens and the like. Miller tries to achieve a harmonious blend of 'I'
and 'We'

      Miller is one who may be compared to his nearest associate Eugene O’Neill. O’ Neill fails to connect his characters with the social environment, while Miller comes out triumphant.

      The metaphors and images in Miller’s plays serve to explicate his essential theme: to show the “gap between the private life and the social life”. In Death of a Salesman, the images are all symbolic: “green leaves” blotted out by the hard outlines of apartment buildings, a flute-song displaced by childish nonsense on a wire recorder, a wife’s praise erased by a whore’s laughter.

      Most of the important characters in Miller’s plays are from the business community. Another profession towards which Miller’s interest seems to be guided magnetically is Law, Miller’s characters are typically American, they are materialists or are trying to be.

      Miller’s plots are definitely not traditional. They are thin but compactly woven. Miller avoids any kind of superfluity. He is a deliberate and conscious artist and his plays are remarkable for their tautness of construction. There are no loose descriptions or unnecessary details creeping in the plots. His plays lack spontaneity but this is more than compensated for by the outstanding piece of art that he ultimately creates. Miller tries to adhere to the unity of time and place at the cost of unity of action. So much so, that sometimes the action on the stage appears to be absurd and incomprehensible to the readers as well as the audience. Miller’s plays are poor narratives. Indeed he has never been rated very high as a storyteller. Miller’s plays suffer from a terrible setback: they have little or no comic relief; they are as grim, intense and compact as Sophoclean tragedies. Sometimes Miller has to postpone his climaxes in order to sustain the interest of the readers or the audience.

      Miller experimented with the dramatic form, to a very large extent—to an extent that he became almost a master of it. But he deploys similar narrative schemes in most of his plays. Almost all his heroes have some sins or mistakes to confess. They are tormented and oscillated on the horns of dilemma: whether or not to confess, when to confess...The initial stage is that of hesitation when they try to keep things normal; to keep the appearance and the reality as far from each other as is feasible. Revelation of the truth, or confession on behalf of the hero is bound to bring about in suspense. Hostility developed at the beginning of the play yields way to an opposition which is more urgent in nature. So Miller delays climaxes.

      Miller’s dexterity at plot construction is very aptly summed up in these words of Leonard Moss. “Miller’s construction, if rarely flawless, is never formless; his metaphors, if sometimes obvious, are sometimes subtle. It is the dialogue that swings between extremes of brilliance and insipidity. Colloquial speech may be heard in an amazing variety of accents”.

      Miller combines in him the common speech, a poetic expression, ancient power to understand the anguish of soul, ideas, self-justification by the hero, brilliant and pointed dialogue, rich imagery and minimum of symbolism, realism, naturalism, rhetoricism and expressionism, real characters springing for unreal things...

“I can’t live apart from the world” said Miller and he has justified this in his plays.

      Miller’s greatest asset as a playwright in his knowledge that the theatre must dedicate itself to public causes. His plays literally overflow with theatricality. He believes that the theatre should popularise ideas that are in the atmosphere, and not enunciate new ideas; he has synthesized psychology and society. His drama presents a viable contrast between the past and the present. Miller’s is a theatre of ‘heightened consciousness’ and ‘Passion to know’. But it is only Death of a Salesman that has achieved both critical and popular appeal. Generally, Miller does not explore and expose a character fully.

      Miller has a moral and message to offer, but it lacks depth and seal of soul. He offers irony and pathos more than pure tragedy. His heroes generally do not achieve tragic dimensions. His plays have limitations which can easily be transcended with a little effort.

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