STAGE : Arthur Miller: Reflections on a Life in the Theater

He taps the new wall-lamp into its slot with a satisfied little grunt. "Designed it myself." He also designed and built the big cherry table in the dining room and some of the plainer chairs around it. And the cabin where he does his writing, some yards from the main house.

Arthur Miller has lived on this hill for 40 years. He realized at a recent town meeting that he was one of the oldest guys in the hall. Still, in his new autobiography, "Timebends," Miller ironically refers to his home as a "temporary residence." At 72, a man is aware that it's all temporary.

If he's a writer, he's also aware that it's all stored up there in his head. "Timebends," from which Miller will be reading at the Los Angeles Theater Center on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m., doesn't hew to a strict time-line. It curves back and forth around Miller's life, linking this episode in his childhood with something that his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, might have said on the beach; or with Miller's appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the '50s; or with Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Miller has met and feels warily hopeful about.

The book works somewhat as Willy Loman's mind did, with this difference: Willy was capsized by his memories, while Miller keeps his hand firmly on the tiller. His first novel was called "Focus" (1945) and it's important to him to keep things in focus, to speak as clearly and simply as he can, without giving the impression that he thinks the world is at all a simple place.

Also unlike Willy, Miller has no reason to feel "temporary" about his place in life. He knows that his plays are beginning to be regarded as classics: Not just "Death of a Salesman" but "The Crucible" and "The Price" and "A View From the Bridge," which has just opened on the West End.

To ward off complacency, he can also consider the poor reception given the recent Broadway revival of "All My Sons" and the Lincoln Center premiere of two new Miller one-acts, collectively entitled "Danger/Memory." Miller is not without honor in his own country, but he is still taking his lumps from the critics. It is better than being written off as a Living Cultural Treasure, but it still stings.

A big man, he speaks in a gravel voice, a Brooklyn voice that he has never tried to get over. The rasp adds to the down-to-earth quality of his thoughts about the American theater, which he is not sure is any worse these days than it was when he was coming up in the 1940s.

"They look back at it as though it were a romantic, wonderful era. Actually, one had a terrible time putting on anything that wasn't sheer entertainment. It was a tough time for anything approaching a statement of any kind. You had to overwhelm the audience. The play that was very good, but not necessarily a knockout, was dismissed.

"Things were about the way they are now, except, maybe, the attitude. Those of us trying to do serious work had an illusion which I don't believe exists anymore. Namely, that you as a playwright were addressing the whole country from the New York stage.

"Now you knew that the whole country was by no means coming to the Broadway theater. But the audience was more variegated then, because ticket prices were more reasonable. You would find ordinary schoolteachers in the audience. Even the better-educated working man.

"So you could think of yourself as a serious artist--whether actor or director or playwright--and still stay in the popular theater. We were holding the fort for culture, we thought, against a movie industry which was then very trivial.

"But in the mid-'50s, the Beckett thing hit. The avant-garde began to split completely away from anything approaching a popular theater and Broadway just got to be a bunch of wisecracks. At the same time, movies were getting to be more serious. Now they are much more interesting than the theater."

How does a playwright deal with that?

Fatalism. I always felt that if it was any good, it was good. If it wasn't, time would tell. After all, when I was coming up, there were a half-dozen playwrights who were regarded as good if not great. Within a decade, no one had ever heard of them. So with that lesson in mind, a little humility is in order, before the decision of history. You never know what it is going to be, so why take it all with such deadly earnestness?

Is it that easy to do?

You're bound to get discouraged. I've been discouraged from time to time . . . if not all of the time. But then suddenly it changes. And I've got stuff running all over the world again. The human race uses what it feels like using at any particular moment. It's a little bit like when you go into your clothes closet and suddenly discover a suit you haven't worn in seven years and it looks great. Or a pair of shoes. And I'm afraid a lot of the time the basis of the choice is as trivial as that.

So theater is fashion?

Oh, in the American theater we're the couturiers of culture, no doubt about it. I mean, if skirts are short, everybody's gotta be wearing the same short skirt and a lot of good writers get hurt when styles change.

Clifford Odets is an example. He had a triumph in his early years that very few writers ever get to achieve. He wasn't only a playwright, he was a voice of the coming American Revolution. He was the most stylish writer in the business. He was a poet. He was everything. And then they didn't like him as much anymore. It sent him into a spin.

Well, I guess it follows. If you're seeking critical praise--which everybody does when he's starting out--it can get to be like a coke addiction. You've got to have more. If you don't get it, it's like you're dying.

How have you come to regard critics?

As a condition of the trade. It's terrific when you get praised because it means all sorts of goodies, and it's painful when you don't. But even when the praise comes, you get the feeling that it's not reading the interior of the work. If one doesn't absorb one's own standards, then you're at the mercy of whoever happens to have the job that week of writing reviews. And I don't see the point in that.

We expect too much from critics in this country, maybe because the run of a play has to be quite long to be regarded as successful. Ibsen's plays ran only a matter of a few weeks. Here, if you don't run a year, you're a failure. Well, who says that?

The Broadway theater is crazy. Take a play like "Fences." It wasn't doing that great a business. Then it gets some prizes and, wow, you can't get near the place. Same play. What does that mean? It means that they are going to an event that they don't want to say they have not seen. They are going for reasons of state. What has this got to do with any idea of theater?

Let's presume that there were no prizes and that "Fences" had closed in a couple of months. There was a time when that was a pretty good run. Now it would be regarded as a failure and a writer might regard himself as one. Man, that's bad news.

What happened with the "All My Sons" Broadway revival?

A marvelous story. The reviews weren't bad, with the exceptions that one comes to expect, but after a while it wasn't making back expenses. The producer asked the theater owner to reduce the rent for a couple of weeks till the Tonys came out. The owner refused, so the play went off. It won a Tony, but there was no show to be seen.

You can laugh about that?

It just proves the nonsense of the system. And the craziness, by the way, of building your life entirely on the theater. What you find out is that, like almost any business, it's full of relationships that are basically opportune. If you make the theater your family, your mother and father, you're going to get into trouble. Because, sure as night follows day, if you're doing anything that requires the least bit of risk, you're courting failure.

The very definition of risk is that you're coming to the edge. That means you're asking for it. And you'd better get out if you haven't got some support, whether it be another person in your life or an ideology. When the theater fails you, or you fail the theater, it can be a catastrophe if all your eggs are in that one basket.

Do the British have a better theater system?

It's a healthier system. They've got those national theaters, where you're not judged purely by how well you do commercially. And there are at least eight critics in London, so that no one of them controls the loyalty of the audience. English critics are also more apt to lay their cards on the table. You know right away that this man just doesn't like this kind of play.

Why are we in America taking so long to adapt the idea of a national theater?

We believe in the marketplace. We really do. We believe that people are evaluated by the demand for them. If it can't make it in the marketplace, why should the public be called upon to support it with their tax dollars? It's the triumph of the cash-nexus.

Years ago, I was speaking at Brandeis, touting a public theater, and a guy raised his hand and said: "I manufacture shoes. Why should I not ask a public subsidy for my shoes, which I think are beautiful and which don't always sell?"

I said: "I don't know the answer to that question. The only thing I can ask you is: Do you know the name of an ancient Greek shoe maker?" The fact is that theater was once--and maybe we could make it happen again--a spiritual experience. And that man doesn't live by bread, or by shoes, alone. That's why it's important that theater not exist just on a commercial basis.

You've traveled a lot in your later years--to Russia, to China, to Southeast Asia . You've written a lot about your travels. Is that a way for a writer to keep himself open to experience?

Sure. I get a lot out of immersing myself, if only for a couple of months, in an alien environment. Because the relative transiency of any way of thinking or living impresses you, and you begin to reach for what's fundamental. It reinforces one's desire to live on some fundamental level.

And it also wakes up the observer in you?

Yeah. I'm afraid that if you stay in one place too long, you start stewing in your own juice. After all, ideally, the writer is supposed to give us back the world.


Oh, in the American theater we're the couturiers of culture, no doubt about it. I mean, if skirts are short, everybody's gotta be wearing the same short skirt and a lot of good writers get hurt when styles change.



If you make the theater your family, your mother and father, you're going to get into trouble. Because if you're doing anything that requires the least bit of risk, you're courting failure.


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