MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 5

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

COLLECTED PLAYS

Arthur Miller

Franklin Library, 1981.  Fully bound in embossed leather, with ridged spine; gold finish to pages and moiré endpapers with satin ribbon.  Introduction by the author.  Illustrated by Alan Mardon.  Limited edition.

Death of a Salesman is not an easy night out at the theatre.  Au contraire.  This play is wrenching, as wrenching for some as the tragedy of King Lear.  It is pervaded with a sense of doom – not just in the sense of that term in Lord of the Rings, as an end foretold, but in the darker sense of inevitable destruction or annihilation.  The battered, deluded Willy Loman is, like the crazy old king, bound upon a wheel of fire, and the fate of his whole family unfolds before eyes that you may wish to avert.  It is therefore as challenging as a Greek tragedy or one of Shakespeare, because it is a searing inquiry into the American Dream.  That is not something that many Americans have been all that happy to undertake.  (Indeed, the character of the White House as we speak shows a frightening capacity for delusion.)  But by the end of the play, you may be left with the impression that a champion of American business is less secure than a medieval serf.

This is Willy according to his wife:

I don’t say he’s a great man.  Willy Loman never made a lot of money.  His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived.  But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.  So attention must be paid.  He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.  Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

When Willy’s boss wants to get rid of him, he responds: ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.’  He is, as his wife remarked, a human being.  But his delusion passes to his sons.  When reality catches up with his son Biff, he says: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.’  In the Introduction, the author says:

The play was always heroic to me, and in later years the academy’s charge that Willy lacked the ‘stature’ for the tragic hero seemed incredible to me.  I had not understood that these matters are measured by Greco-Elizabethan paragraphs which hold no mention of insurance payments, front porches, refrigerator fan belts, steering knuckles, Chevrolets, and visions seen not through the portals of Delphi, but in the blue flame of the hot-water theatre…..I set out not to ‘write a tragedy’ in this play, but to show the truth as I saw it.

The academy was dead wrong.  E pur si muove.

All My Sons is hardly any easier.  The American Dream here is punctured not by failure, but by betrayal, and a crime of the worst kind.  A businessman in a time of war betrays his nation by selling defective parts to the army.  This crime leads to the deaths of American servicemen including, it would appear, one of his own sons.  And the man says that he did it for his family.  But, as in Greek tragedy, his crime comes back on the whole family and ultimately it will only be answered by his death.  In The Wild Duck, Ibsen wrote a drama where one businessman was forced to accept moral and legal responsibility for the crime of his partner.  This affront to the American Dream would be one of the factors leading to Miller being confronted by the Houses Un-American Committee.

This is how the playwright introduces Joe Keller, the hero.

Keller is nearing sixty.  A heavy man of stolid mind and build, a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him.  When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgment must be dredged out of experience and a peasantlike common sense.  A man among men.

There is no doubting that this is like a Greek tragedy.  The mother tells the son that the brother who was a pilot and has been missing for years is still alive.

Your brother’s alive darling, because if he’s dead your father killed him.  Do you understand me now?  As long as you live, that boy is alive.  God does not let a son be killed by his father.

This drama, like that of Ibsen, is both hair-raising and fundamental, and the end of this play is quite as shocking as the end of Hedda Gabler.

The Crucible grabs and distresses us for different reasons.  It is a fraught descant on the lynch mob, and it had and continues to have so much impact because it covers ground from the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century to the McCarthy pogroms of the twentieth century.  In the course of both, we get to see ourselves at our most fragile and lethal worst.  And this is ‘us’ – this is not an American problem any more than fascism was a German problem.

The children at Salem in 1692 suffered from hysteria in the medical sense.  The reaction of the community was hysterical in the popular sense.  If you believe in witchcraft, it works.  (Witness the effect of pointing the bone in our indigenous community.)  A ‘victim’ showing hysterical symptoms is a victim of a fear of witchcraft rather than of witchcraft itself, although the distinction may not matter.  John Hale showed a remarkable insight when he observed at Salem that the suspects showed fear not because they are guilty, but because they were suspected.  In 1841 a Boston legal commentator said that no one was safe and that the only way to avoid being accused was to become an accuser.  That script was re-written word for word during the Terror in France.

From 1950 to 1954 the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used The Senate Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations as his version of The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to pursue people who had had any association with the Communist Party.  HUAC had previously been a dodgy little affair specialising in anti-Semitism, but when the Red scare came to prominence under the boozy mania of McCarthy, real people got badly hurt without anything resembling a trial, much less due process. The Americans had in truth unleashed a latterday pogrom, and it only ceased when McCarthy over-reached and went after the Army.

One of the writers forced to appear before the HUAC was Arthur Miller.  He correctly believed that he only got his subpoena because of the identity of his fiancée.  (In an amazing commentary on the difference between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power, the Chairman offered to cancel the session if he could be photographed with Marilyn Monroe.)

Miller adopted the position that had been taken before the committee by Lillian Hellman.  She said that she was willing to talk about her own political past but that she refused to testify against others.  She said:

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

Hellman did not have the advantage of a beautiful lover.  Not only was he not gorgeous, but he was avowedly left wing and he was gaoled for refusing to rat.  Partly for this reason, Hellman is not as fondly remembered in some quarters as Miller.

Hellman described her experiences in the book Scoundrel Time, published in 1976.  Miller described similar experiences in a play published in 1953.  That play was The Crucible.  It was based on the events in Salem in 1692, and is a searing testimony to the ghastly power of a mob that has lost its senses.  When Miller was called before the HUAC in 1956, it reminded him of The Crucible, as life followed art.

And if you have invented Satan, you have to give him some work to do.  The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

In the Introduction, Mr Miller wrote:

It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.  The wonder of it all struck me that so picayune a cause, carried forward by such manifestly ridiculous men, should be capable of paralyzing thought itself, and worse, causing to billow up such persuasive clouds of ‘mysterious’ feelings within people.  It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one could have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.

The relevance of all this to the mess that we see across the West today is obvious.  Indeed, if you read those words again you may be frightened by the references to ‘paralyzing truth’ and ‘elemental decencies.’  The lynch mob or pogrom is simply the ‘people’ at their worst.  We are now confronted everyday by affronts committed in the name of ‘populism’ as if being popular affords some evidence or warranty of worth.  (Was there ever a politician who was more popular than Adolf Hitler was in 1936?)  What we now see is our dark under-belly being flaunted before our eyes by people stunted by envy.

Arthur Miller went on to comment on what may be described as our ‘darker purpose’ in terms that Hanna Arendt would have recognised.  He referred to ‘the tranquility of the bad man’ just as Arendt referred to the ‘banality of evil’, and to ‘the failure of the present age to find a universal moral sanction.’

I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example, we should not know good…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal.  I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to our dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact – to conceive, in effect, of Iago.

Those propositions are hugely important.

A View from the Bridge might for some bear more of a resemblance to an Italian opera – say, Cavalleria Rusticana – than  a Greek tragedy, with a heavy sauce supplied by Doctor Freud, but for the sake of Sicilian honour, the hero continues the bad run of  this author’s heroes.  The same sense of inevitability – doom – is there again.  By contrast, the author says that A Memory of Two Mondays is a ‘pathetic comedy….a kind of letter to that subculture where the sinews of the economy are rooted, that darkest Africa of our society from whose interior only the sketchiest messages ever reach our literature or the stage.’  Each of these plays is pitched well below the middle class – and territory not covered by either Ibsen or Chekhov.

In commenting on King Lear, an English scholar said that we go to great writers for the truth.  The last word may make us wobble a little at the moment, but we look to great writers – and Arthur Miller was certainly a great writer – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves for what we are.  Arthur Miller says in the Introduction:

By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up new relationships between a man and men, and between men and Man.  Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.

We might then flinch at what is presented to us in the theatre, but Arthur Miller did not.  His memoire Timebends is a testament to his enduring moral and intellectual fibre – as of course are the five plays in this fine book.  This Franklin edition is lusciously presented and reminds us that if we want to try to understand the human condition, the place to go to is the theatre.  And whatever else may be said of Arthur Miller, he knew what it was to be dramatic.

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