America's moral beacon, then along came Marilyn

Arthur Miller
December 24, 2004

In the Fifties, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams ushered in a new era in American theatre, one in which realism and topicality returned the "serious play" to Broadway as a heavyweight contender. If Williams was the poet of the soul, a chronicler of human frailty and heartbreak, then Miller was the warrior of the conscience, demanding that the American people take a long look at themselves and question their postwar values of capitalism and conformism. And for a while they did. Audiences flocked to Miller's breakthrough hits - All My Sons, Death of A Salesman and The Crucible - until they decided, in the wake of Miller's lightly veiled portrayal of his ex (and deceased) wife, Marilyn Monroe, in After the Fall , that they had had enough of being preached at. Miller's exploitation of a woman who had attained the status of a tragic heroine, and who had no course of redress, did not stand up to the same moral scrutiny he was so quick to apply to others. America turned on him and, to this day, his reputation has not entirely recovered.

Martin Gottfried hopes his biography will help to rehabilitate Miller. He feels, rightly, that such a major playwright should not be dismissed in his own country, and he makes an eloquent case for Miller's place at the top theatrical table. He contends that later plays such as The Ride Down St Morgan and Broken Glass should be esteemed as highly as his early work, and that Miller was, from the start, an experimental playwright. Both observations are patently true. Indeed, it now seems perverse that Miller was dismissed in the Sixties as unfashionably naturalistic once Beckett and the Absurdists had arrived on the scene, when his work, like Williams', had always attempted to stretch dramatic form. It is possible the critics took Miller's realistic subject matter - the interrelationship between the individual and society - as old-fashioned in a time of existential angst, or maybe the fallout from Marilyn and After the Fall simply made it the done thing to criticise Miller.

While Gottfried loves Miller's art, he is ambivalent about the man himself.

Indeed, Gottfried's Miller is a surprisingly unsympathetic character. If Williams was like his plays - emotional and passionately warm-hearted - then Miller mirrors his own too - coolly intellectual and puffed up with a sense of moral certitude. Gottfried attempts to excuse this by suggesting that a man as talented as Miller is bound to be a bit full of himself. This may be true, but the feeling remains that Gottfried, while wholly admiring his subject, does not particularly like him. And this makes for fascinating reading.

There is much to admire about Miller the man. A genuine idealist, he has lent considerable support to many left-liberal causes. Undeniably, his greatest moment came when he defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to name names. This courageous stance turned Miller into a public figure of righteousness and integrity, a position he apparently felt he had long occupied. But Gottfried insinuates that Miller was not quite as principled as he liked to think. He stands accused of being mean, cheap, ungrateful, emotionally frigid, conceited and adulterous.

Quite unfairly, it is for his relationship with Monroe that Miller is most remembered, and her troubled spirit inevitably hovers over this biography.

The union of "sex and the intellect" still seems an unlikely one. Miller famously refuses to talk publicly about the relationship, often becoming enraged when asked - he withdrew his cooperation from this biography once he realised his private life was to be included.

Gottfried has a stab at the reasons for the attraction - an unleashing of repressed sexual energy and vanity on his part, a desire to learn and be taken seriously on hers. He suggests the marriage fell apart because of Marilyn's increasing instability and Miller's corresponding emotional coolness. She was addicted to barbiturates, a predilection not helped by discovering the words "The only one I will ever love is my daughter" in Miller's notebook weeks after their wedding. But Gottfried knows this is speculation, and wisely apportions equal blame for the troubled relationship. But one thing is for sure: Monroe propelled Miller's fame far beyond that of a successful playwright, then tipped his career into dramatic decline and rejection in America. It remains to be seen whether Gottfried's attractively ambivalent biography will return Miller to deserved prominence.

Robin Dashwood is a television drama and documentary director at the BBC.

Arthur Miller: A Life

Author - Martin Gottfried
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 484
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 571 21946 2

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