Finding a wiser use for electric currents

Echoes down the Corridor
August 31, 2001

Compiled to celebrate Arthur Miller's 85th birthday last October, Echoes down the Corridor (the title is taken from the epilogue to his most famous play, The Crucible ) offers 43 essays - or what their author disarmingly calls his "spouting off" - on some of the events and issues "that interested me enough to write about over the past half century". In these selected pieces, Miller discourses on such topics as his boyhood in Brooklyn, the the Great Depression and his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan. Other subjects include Nazi war-crimes trials and the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and McCarthyism, the cold war and Vietnam, capital punishment and juvenile delinquency, the reception and performances of Death of a Salesman , The Crucible and Incident at Vichy , Nixon and Watergate, and the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio. There are also reflections on gardening and the mixed emotions aroused by the burning down of his house, as well as perceptive estimates of Ibsen, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Edward R. Murrow and Nelson Mandela. Impressive in their scope and texture, Miller's "spoutings" are also marked by his political commitment to the left, a belief in the reality of evil - and a determination to expose the hypocrisies and lunacies of its practitioners.

Much of Miller's journalistic prose is muted in tone, but he surprises and delights with shafts of mordant humour. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Nixon exhibited a "gracelessness which gives his mendacity its shine of putrescence, a want of that magnanimity and joy in being alive that animated his predecessors. Reading the presidential transcripts, one is confronted with a decay of language, of a legal system; in these pages what was possibly the world's best hope is reduced to a vaudeville." Aware of the high divorce rates of Americans - "most of those surely involving a mate in the wrong bed" - Miller is less than censorious about Clinton's sexual peccadilloes, and sensed (in 1998) that "despite the lashings of almost all the press and the mullahs of the religious right, the people seem largely to have withheld their righteous anger".

A savage polemic, "Get it right: privatise executions", proposes that public executions, staged in stadiums before fee-paying audiences - with a percentage of the take reserved for the victim - might rapidly produce boredom and lead to "a wiser use of alternating current". In case anyone might miss the point, Miller asserts that "in executing prisoners we merely add to the number of untimely dead without diminishing the number of murders committed." Again, it is doubtful if any historian could improve on the characterisation of the "First Hundred Days" of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal as "a flood of legislation that saved capitalism by laying down what essentially were limits to how crooked you were allowed to be, or how rapacious, without going to jail".

A more sombre voice informs explorations of the Holocaust and the German "capacity for moral and psychological collapse in the face of a higher command". Miller concludes that "perhaps the deepest respect we can pay the millions of innocent dead is to examine what we believe about murder, and our responsibility as survivors for the future". He then applies this observation to those white Mississippians who, in 1966, initially refused to accept that three "missing" young civil rights workers in their state had obviously been abducted and murdered.

In several pieces, Miller is responding to the atrocities and deceptions inflicted on mankind by the competing ideological credos of the 20th century - fascism and communism, Marxism and capitalism - and their human consequences. Miller is himself a victim of cold-war orthodoxy; he was denied an American passport and summoned (in 1956) to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Then engaged to Marilyn Monroe, he relates that Huac's chairman indicated "that he would be inclined to cancel my hearing altogether if Miss Monroe would consent to have a picture taken with him". The offer was rejected. Miller appeared before the committee, but refused to implicate his friends in allegedly subversive activities, and was admonished to "write less tragically about our country". He recalls that "this lecture cost me some $44,000 in lawyer's fees, a year's suspended sentence for contempt of Congress and a $500 fine. Not to mention about a year of inanition in my creative life."

One looks in vain here for any signs of "inanition" in Miller's artistic or intellectual odyssey. An arresting essay entitled "Dinner with the ambassador" (1985) recounts the adventures of Miller and Harold Pinter - a truly dynamic duo - when they visited Turkey as representatives of Pen International. In his address at a dinner in their honour, Miller stated that, based on personal observations, Turkey "has no tangency with any democratic system in Europe or the United States", and proceeded to inform the (horrified) US ambassador that "I wrote in The Crucible about people who were jailed and executed not for their actions but for what they were alleged to be thinking. So it is here; you have hundreds in jail for their alleged thoughts." Pinter also "offended" their host - who had lamely remarked that there could be a variety of opinions on any subject - with the riposte: "Not if you've got an electric wire hooked to your genitals." Equally riveting is Miller's account of attending (as a delegate) the ill-fated 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

These essays (which would have benefited from more careful editing and indexing) demonstrate that in his work and public life Miller has always embraced the ideals of morality and truth. Reviewing Mark Twain's autobiography, he observed that "despite a steady underlying seriousness few writers have matched", Twain managed "to step around the pit of self-importance and to keep his membership in the ordinary human race in the front of his mind and writing". The same could be said of Arthur Miller. To adapt a phrase from Death of a Salesman , "attention should be paid" to these salutary reports by a great writer.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

Echoes down the Corridor: Collected Essays 1944-2000

Author - Arthur Miller
Editor - Steven R. Centola
ISBN - 0 413 75690 4 and 7717 2
Publisher - Methuen
Price - £20.00 and £14.99
Pages - 332

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