By PJ Grisar
The occasion of Miller’s centennial finds an artist concerned with individual and national legacy
Slumped with concern, but still with imposing height, Mark Strong paces a squared-off stage like a boxer bouncing the corners of a ring. He’s coasted through the rising action and is about to meet a messy denouement. He’s not Mark Strong the actor now, he is playwright Arthur Miller’s brine-of-the harbor longshoreman, Eddie Carbone, and when his wife Beatrice tells him to let a public slight go, he refuses. When she asks him what has been taken from him and what he wants, he answers loudly.“I want my name!” he insists. The lines are spoken into an echo chamber. Who could forget John Proctor of The Crucible rending his shirt to “because it is my name?”
As we celebrate what would be Miller’s 100th birthday (it was in October), we find a man deeply concerned with the heft of reputation, and just as often, the self-destructive preoccupation with legacy. Repute and machismo, as presented by Miller, are virtues often by way of vices. The characters that so carefully manicure their good names are almost always doing it in the debris of their own sin. John Proctor is an adulterer, redeemed (and executed) when he refuses to sign his name away to superstition and calumny. All My Sons’ Joe Keller, an exonerated war profiteer, is on the defensive for his family’s standing, and is finally disgraced by the reveal of his own guilt in selling faulty plane parts. Eddie Carbone does the unthinkable, selling out his family and lusting after his niece, and yet, when he bemoans the loss of his name, his reluctant legal counsel, Alfieri, must confess to how purely the man was himself.
Integrity is slippery, then. It can belong to those who don’t seem to have it, those who are reprehensible. In Miller’s world there is awe around a man with bolted convictions, however misguided. This is different, of course from reverence and a far cry from endorsement, though oftentimes it resembles pity. For Eddie Carbone, (Strong in Ivo van Hove’s threadbare, and marrow-liquifying production of A View from the Bridge, now at the Lyceum Theatre), our moral takeaway is positively Greek and may require a dust off of a word like pathos. It’s a fitting move, as I contend that in Bridge, Miller is more a Classicist than a Modernist, sidelining abstraction and inviting the wistful invocations of “the cliffs of Calabria” from Alfieri’s chorus.
With Death of a Salesman and Willy Loman, Miller employed fractured time (a more aerodynamic treatment of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude) to show a modern tragedy: one of parental neglect, ambition and the destructive potential of free market enterprise. Willy, who puts so much weight on being well-liked, proves to be feckless beyond admiration. When he dies after an addled few days, his family stand around the plot and his widow proclaims “We’re free.”
A bit of a nebbish, horn-rimmed and thin-haired, Miller would often present characters slightly removed from his own experience. In later life his subjects were more directly of his extraction. He tackled the phantoms of the shoah and drew heavily from his time with Marilyn Monroe. But when Miller pulled from something like the Brooklyn no-collar class, or the WASP-y well-to-do or the long gone kangaroo court of Salem, he was at his most political. By extending himself beyond his own identity, he grappled most directly with the cachet of a name and our deeds on earth.
In the thick of McCarthyism, he wrote a period parable. Miller was a conspicuous target for HUAC; he was a New York-born Jewish playwright. He lived through the testimony of his peers and he saw some—none more devastatingly than his one-time friend and collaborator Elia Kazan—name names. Miller’s turn came after he typed curtain on The Crucible. In fact, it was on the occasion of the play’s premier in Brussels that necessitated an updated passport and landed him before the Committee. He didn’t crack and even got a few good lines in. When asked why the Communist Party produced one of his plays, he quipped in rhymed couplet: “ I take no more responsibility for who plays my plays than General Motors can take for who rides in their Chevrolets.”He essentially paraphrased his own creation, John Proctor, when he said: “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.”
At his peril, Miller left a handprint on the American character. His own, substantial personal failings number a few affairs and the often elided and execrable rejection of his son, Michael, born with Down Syndrome—he later, at the behest of his son-in-law, Daniel Day-Lewis, reconnected with him. Like his characters, Miller was far from perfect, and he held back from directing too much sanctimoniousness at them for that reason. There’s room for, if not ambiguity in his subject’s conduct, at least something less than complete revulsion.
Miller’s own bequests include philanthropy and his life beyond the typewriter was spent in activism. The most enduring inheritance left by the playwright and the purest gauge of his aspirational moral character is his body of work—it preserves his name by asking its audience just how much a name’s worth.