The great American dramatist Arthur Miller, who died yesterday of cardiac failure at age 89, was way out of fashion when I was getting to know the modern theater canon in the '70s and '80s. For Brechtian super-critics like Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley, and Richard Gilman, Miller was part of a moribund Jewish-lefty-realist tradition that combined the worst of the Group Theater with an irritating misreading of Henrik Ibsen as a prosaic, drawing-room naturalist. (Miller furthered his reputation as the dullard's Ibsen by badly adapting the Norwegian's most shrill mature play, An Enemy of the People.)
The earnest, talky social problem dramas that exploded onto the postwar theater scene and cemented Miller's reputation as America's leading playwright would prove to be a narcotic two decades later, when the Living Theater was rattling the boards with Artaudian Happenings and ostentatious rocker-poets like Sam Shepard were finding new ways of accessing a kind of primal theatrical energy. Miller's progressive politics counted for little when his style—with its familiar interfamilial conflicts, clumsy stabs at proletarian poetry, and predictable buried-secret climaxes—belonged to the theater of the fuddy-duddys.
It's funny, though: Death of a Salesman has never stopped enthralling audiences. Every time there's a powerful new production, critics (even critics like me) will scribble something along the lines of: "[Insert Great Actor and Director] have blown the cobwebs off Arthur Miller's musty old warhorse and discovered the ferocious yadayada at the heart of the yada yada yada." That's how it was with George C. Scott—so much more edgy than old Lee J. Cobb!; and Dustin Hoffman—so much more scarily twisted than old George C. Scott!; and Brian Dennehy—so much more refreshingly Lee J. Cobb-like than old Dustin Hoffman! Pretty soon, you realize that for all its bombast ("Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person!"), it's a helluva play.
So, too, is The Crucible, which is easier to love when its McCarthy-era parallels fall by the wayside and it can be savored as a great melodrama of repression with a touch of Kafka. Miller is no Shavian—he never allows the witch-hunters to make a compelling case for their actions. But the frenzied, climactic trial scene is superb, brain-rattling theater. (The play is said to be especially popular in authoritarian countries in which show trials are the norm.)
It helps that Miller's themes seem more urgent today than in the rabidly noncomformist '60s and '70s. Now that we live in an era in which our leaders labor (overtly and by stealth) to dismantle what's left of the New Deal and the Great Society, the fear beneath many of Miller's Depression-forged motifs hits home once more. What is the new film In Good Company but a sitcom dilution (however agreeable) of Death of a Salesman (and one in which we wait for a line of dialogue as vulgarly potent as "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!")? Operating in a world rife with bankruptcies and without social safety nets or protection from corporate Godzillas, today's small-business owner will find it easy to relate to the deadly and tragic compromises made by Joe Keller in All My Sons. ("A little man makes a mistake and they hang him by the thumbs; the big ones become ambassadors.") In an era in which it's hip to be libertarian, Miller's sermons on behalf of social responsibility, of the effect of our actions on others, are unexpectedly bracing.
Miller demonstrated that he could grow as an artist in his last decades. His sprawling Depression collage The American Clock is a mess that never quite holds the stage, but its best monologues are wrenching, and its dreamlike form leaves room for modern directors and designers to make their mark. I haven't seen Broken Glass, but The Last Yankee, written in the early '90s, is a haunting little chamber play about dashed illusions, both personal and political. A quarter-century after Miller's hectoring and exploitive jeremiad After the Fall—about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his heroism in defying HUAC—he reworked the personal material for the flop movie Everybody Wins, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. It's easy to see why audiences loathed it: The good whodunit plot fizzles out by (postmodern) design. But Winger's Monroe-like femme fatale is one of the most astounding portraits of a borderline personality ever caught on film. And the movie gels in retrospect as a schizo-noir—an injustice fueled by a character who's neither good nor evil but a cauldron of fatally conflicting needs.
Miller never gave up that stubborn social conscience that made his dramaturgy seem so unhip. But, like Ibsen, he learned to dissolve the walls, and move beyond realism, into the world of dreams. It was in that dreamscape, oddly enough, that we could better appreciate the rock-hard integrity of the Last Yankee Playwright. ... 2:30 p.m. PT
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2004
The Oscar grouch: Phoebe Cates' Uncle Gil continues to prove that he's one of Hollywood's most formidable blowhards—no mean feat. As a frequent producer of the Academy Awards telecast, he has long decried the length of the ceremony and vowed to make it shorter: Great! To do this, however, he has targeted not the gruesome scripted patter or the third-rate Vegas production numbers. He has gone after what many people consider the best parts of the show—the acceptance speeches.
In years past, Cates has terrorized winners by giving them the quick hook if they didn't blurt the names of their colleagues and family members out fast enough. True, this did result in what will probably be the finest moment in Cuba Gooding Jr.'s career—not merely outshouting the orchestra but joyously sprech-singing the end of his speech. And it was fun to see Randy Newman silence the musicians by reminding them that the rest of the year they worked for him. But as a rule, it's painful to watch these people—who should be permitted at least a long moment to bask—falling all over themselves to finish before they're unceremoniously drowned out and firmly ushered from the stage.