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Conversations With Miller

Charles Wright reviews Mel Gussow's collection of interviews with one of America's most revered playwrights, Arthur Miller. logo

The year-end issue of the New York Times Magazine features a recent picture of Arthur Miller taken by his wife, photographer Ingeborg Morath, who died last year. Apparently unaware of the camera, Miller is lounging at the head of a dining-room table he built himself, chatting on a portable telephone. Though his mouth and chin are obscured by his left hand and the phone (leaving a view that's mostly eyeglasses, nose, bald noggin, and grandfatherly gut), it's clear that the playwright -- now past the mid-point of his 80s -- is going strong.

From All My Sons in 1947 to The Price in 1968, Miller gave mid-century Broadway its gravitas. His dramas attracted an array of honors, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. But Miller became a legend when he left his first wife for a screen goddess as famously troubled as she was blonde and curvy; his marriage to Marilyn Monroe lasted five years, the longest amorous union of the actress's calamity-filled life. During the same period, Miller was waging an heroic resistance to the House Un-American Activities Committee, risking citation for contempt of Congress by refusing to answer questions about anyone but himself.

Miller's level of acclaim has fluctuated over the years. For a time, primarily in the 1970s and '80s, his work was far better appreciated in Britain than in the United States; in this country, he almost seemed to belong to a bygone era. Fifteen years ago, when Miller was 72, he published a best-selling memoir, Timebends: A Life, which had the ring of a valedictory. Yet now, as the 20th century recedes into history, he's enjoying a new heyday. His dramas are being revived regularly here and abroad; he's exploring new avenues of creativity, such as writing the libretto for William Bolcom's operatic version of Miller's play A View from the Bridge; his voice is prominent throughout the world, defending free speech and supporting writers living under repressive regimes; and he's still writing plays to which "attention must be paid."

Mel Gussow's Conversations With Miller (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 224 pp., $22.95) offers a view of this great playwright comparable to Morath's New York Times Magazine photo. As with the photo, of course, it's anybody's guess as to the degree to which this view is candid or posed. Gussow, who has written biographies of Darryl F. Zanuck and Edward Albee, is one of The New York Times' most prolific culture writers. Last Sunday, for instance, he was on the front page of the Arts & Leisure Section profiling Simon Russell Beale and inside, as well, writing about the 50th anniversary of Waiting for Godot.

The hard-working Gussow has produced three volumes similar to the one on Miller -- Conversations With Pinter, Conversations With Stoppard, and Conversations With and About Beckett. In these ingenious publications, he repackages transcripts of interviews he conducted during his 40-plus years in journalism. Gussow's Conversations are a treasure trove for research but, most notably, they're a chance to eavesdrop as the subjects expatiate -- with a minimum of editorial interference -- on their careers and personal lives.

Conversations With Miller consists of 11 interviews, conducted between 1963 and 2001, plus excerpts from a couple of panels organized by Gussow over the years. In these transcripts, which are replete with the infelicities of off-the-cuff response, Miller discusses a myriad of topics including: the genesis and meaning of his most important plays; successes and failures of the American political left; the perils of repressive government; the mystery of creativity; the impact of critics on playwrights' output; the drawbacks of celebrity; the extraordinary talent of Tennessee Williams; and Miller's favorite avocation, carpentry.

As in Timebends, Miller is erudite and conscientiously political; his voice is self-confident yet likeable and convincingly modest. Conversations With Miller, in contrast to Timebends, catches the playwright when he's not in control of the discussion's drift. Where Timebends is a consummate work of art, carefully constructed and polished to a fare-thee-well, Conversations With Miller is a patchwork of exchanges between playwright and interviewer in which Miller seems, to a remarkable degree, unguarded.

The Miller of Conversations grasps the lesson of Shelley's "Ozymandias" and is clearly concerned about posterity. Describing the evanescence of theatrical success, he marvels: "You know the number of playwrights that have been kings of the moment, and nobody knows their names anymore[?]...I've lived long enough to see playwrights vanish from the face of the earth. The point is that theatre is such a creature of fashion, fashion in thinking, fashion in feeling....I doubt very much whether there are many productions of Maxwell Anderson's plays being done. Anywhere. Imagine doing Winterset? It's laughable. What is it about those plays? They turn to vinegar."

Miller is emphatic as to why so few of his own plays have soured: He's not, he stresses, a commentator on social problems. On the contrary, his stock-in-trade is the panoply of universal moral questions raised by human beings existing in communities. "If I were dealing with social problems," he insists, "you wouldn't be looking at The Crucible today. And [that play] is being looked at all over the world."

Conversations With Miller features the playwright's tendentious account of shifting currents in American theatrical history. "When I was coming up in the 1930s," he reminisces, "the theatre for some reason was seized upon by the left as an exciting art form." Clifford Odets, Miller recalls, "was a terrific dynamic image. And the Group Theatre was. ... You could see Ibsen as a social critic. At the time, society was the subject. It was in crisis."

In those days, he says, "a play couldn't be thought of as being important if it didn't refer in some way to the political logjam that existed then." During World War II and immediately after, "it was [still] respectable to deal with political themes....But soon if you said the word political in relation to a play it meant it was not artistic, it was propaganda." And then came the 1950s, when the American theater audience "was atomized. The most hip, the most sophisticated was drawn away [from the Broadway theater], the less sophisticated, the squarer audience remained."

Miller describes the post-war United States as a place where playwriting was a prominent pursuit, rather than the "marginal occupation" he perceives it to be nowadays. Back then, he insists, Broadway attracted a loyal, unified audience that patronized anything and everything producers cared to mount, from Oklahoma! to topical comedies by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse to dramas such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman; he sees this as a marked contrast to the present, when the theater's patrons are splintered into special interest groups. In his youth, says Miller, "one approached writing a play with no thought that there was going to be the support of a clique, that is, an aesthetic clique, a political clique, a group of like-minded people. So your play had to extend its embrace to every kind of person that would be interested in going to the theatre."

Miller concedes that "[m]oney always ruled [in our theater]." He's nostalgic for the "exceptions" -- Eva Le Gallienne, the Group Theatre, Harold Clurman, Kermit Bloomgarden, and Robert Whitehead, for instance. In the old days, he recalls, "[t]here were crazy people like Billy Rose who would back...Odets and never expect to get his money back because Odets's plays didn't run that long." The offhand tone of the exchanges in Conversations With Miller are probably a function of the long acquaintance of interviewer and subject. Gussow addresses Miller without obsequiousness; Miller appears comfortable entertaining hard questions from Gussow. (Yes, the tumultuous relationship with Monroe arises again and again in these pages.)

In an introduction to the American edition (a British version came out a year ago), Gussow describes Miller addressing a memorial convocation for Morath. "Contradicting the perception by some critics of him as a prosaic figure," writes Gussow, "Miller spoke with eloquence and deep emotion." That description could serve for every page of this slender volume. Conversations With Miller gives us a bard of the common man, unbowed by time and tragedy, sharing the wisdom of a long and, fortunately, unfinished life.

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