The Magazine

The Moral of Arthur Miller

The real lessons of America's most famous playwright.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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IF ARTHUR MILLER TEACHES US anything, it is this: Personal failure is not always a product of social injustice, and resentment is never a noble form of protest. Of course, his writings--from the 1949 Death of a Salesman to last year's Finishing the Picture--always insisted on the opposite. Miller's plays were filled with resentment, invariably finding society itself to blame for any flaw in the human condition. But the way he actually lived, that's the real drama. Arthur Miller's life is the great American morality play of the twentieth century.

Certainly all of America's newspapers thought so, even if they tended to get the moral wrong. When Miller died on February 10 at age eighty-nine, the media raced to tell the playwright's life as a story in which American hypocrisy and evil were overcome by the force of one man's talent and unyielding honesty. The Washington Post, while relating Miller's confrontations with the House Un-American Activities Committee, insisted he had been "blacklisted," a complete invention that not even Miller could have claimed for himself with a straight face.

Across the nation, Miller was eulogized as a brave victim who had withstood the Babbitts and the McCarthys and the Mrs. Grundys to show America as it is. The New York Times hailed his "work that exposed the flaws in the fabric of the American dream," while the Washington Post divided the metaphor in two: the "Playwright of Broken Dreams" who "Showed Flawed Characters."

The American intellectual left has always differed from its European counterparts by holding out disillusion, rather than hope, as the basis of its message. Even the harshest plays of, say, Henrik Ibsen and Sean O'Casey were based on ideals of self-sacrifice and heroism, while Willy Loman, the hero of Miller's Death of a Salesman, represents a world in which heroism is absent.

But Arthur Miller was nothing if not a product of the leftist disaffection with American existence, and it is doubtless on this score that the New York Times could declare him the "most American" of our great playwrights. That's a curious conclusion, for Death of a Salesman hasn't aged particularly well. In the post-Reagan era of triumphant entrepreneurship, a drama proclaiming the uselessness of hard work and devotion to a job lacks the force it once seemed to have.

Still, in its use of language and skillful timing, Death of a Salesman has its points. It was with his 1953 play The Crucible that Miller fell entirely into the self-dramatizing of his own politics. The play has been read by millions of high-school students as a metaphor equating American anticommunism with the Salem witch trials.

Here the essential mendacity of Miller's politics came to the fore. The Crucible effectively dramatizes the terror of false accusation and persecution. And yet, as Peter Mullen wrote in the London Times, "There were no witches in Salem, Mr. Miller. But there were plenty of communist enemies of the state in America." Indeed, the Moscow purge trials of the 1930s, in which people lost their lives, are a more significant parallel to the Salem tragedy than are the American congressional hearings of the 1950s, which caused a few to lose their jobs.

AND YET, the effectiveness of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible--Miller's best work, by a large measure--suggest the man was something more than a propagandist turned into a literary icon, an author of minimal talent whose reputation was grossly inflated by the recusant left. Rather, he falls into the category of writers of some real talent whose careers were blighted by their allegiance to leftist ideology. Bertolt Brecht was such a figure. So was the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, who began as a brilliant member of that country's literary generation of 1927 and ended as a Stalinist hack. So were the French surrealists Louis Aragon and Paul luard, who dedicated themselves to strident praise of the Russian secret police and its purge operations. The American left provided another, and worse, example in Henry Roth, author of the classic novel Call It Sleep (1934), who was convinced by the Communist cadres to turn his back on literature for years to work as a factory hand.

Miller never abandoned literature for proletarian employment, although he made a point of reminding people that he had worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, during World War II, as a shipfitter's helper.

His once popular A View from the Bridge (1955) mythologized the lives of longshoremen and other working-class characters. And yet, even in this later attempt to find some ordinary Americans whom he could treat as objects of empathy, he could not escape the overwhelming tone of dissatisfaction with America--or the self-dramatization of presenting "informers" as the nation's great evil.