February 15, 2005
AFTER THE BURBLER:
The Great Pretender: Arthur Miller wasn't well-liked--and for good reason. (TERRY TEACHOUT, February 15, 2005, Wall Street Journal)
Miller's problem, to paraphrase Willy Loman, the hero of "Death of a Salesman," was not that he wasn't liked, but that he wasn't well liked. After "The Price," which opened on Broadway in 1968 and ran for a year, none of his new plays would be more than modestly successful at the box office, and most critics had mixed feelings about his work, including a number of prominent obituarists who spent the weekend carefully tiptoeing around their reservations. Charles Isherwood's New York Times "appreciation" was especially gingerly: "Even in his finest work, he sometimes succumbed to overstatement. . . . Themes, motifs, moral conclusions often glare from his plays like neon signs in a diner window."
My own feelings were . . . well, considerably less mixed. I recently described "After the Fall," the 1964 play in which Miller first made fictional use of his unsuccessful marriage to Marilyn Monroe, as "a lead-plated example of the horrors that result when a humorless playwright unfurls his midlife crisis for all the world to see," written by a man "who hasn't a poetic bone in his body (though he thinks he does)." For me, that was his biggest flaw. He was, literally, pretentious: He pretended to have big ideas and the ability to express them with a touch of poetry, when in fact he had neither. His final play, "Finishing the Picture," was yet another rehash of the Monroe-Miller ménage in which he resorted one last time to what I referred to in this space last fall as "pseudo-poetic burble" ("What we had that was alive and crazy has been pounded into some hateful, ordinary dust").
I wonder how much attention would now be paid to Miller if he hadn't married Monroe, and if the House Un-American Activities Committee hadn't made the mistake of subpoenaing him in 1956 to testify about his Communist ties (which were extensive, though he always denied having been an actual party member), thereby bringing about his citation for contempt of Congress when he refused to "name names." The one made him a pop-culture footnote, the other a liberal icon.
The irony is that the smartest critics of Miller's own generation, virtually all of whom shared his left-wing views, held his plays in a different kind of contempt. Back then he took his roughest beatings from the likes of Eric Bentley, Mary McCarthy, Kenneth Tynan and Robert Warshow, who found him heavy-handed and insufferably preachy. Tynan, for instance, wrote that "The Crucible" "suggests a sensibility blunted by the insistence of an outraged conscience: it has the over-simplifications of poster art." Bull's-eye.
Times have changed, and today's more stringently politicized critics and playwrights seem willing to overlook Miller's limitations because he thought as they do.
Yet high scoolers continue to have to suffer the insufferable. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2005 4:58 PM