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Gottfried on Miller

In celebration of Arthur Miller's 88th birthday, we offer a review of Martin Gottfried's new book on America's greatest living playwright. logo
Postmortem punditry about the life and career of Elia Kazan, who died on September 28, is in full swing. As the tributes and obits acknowledge, this great director's story is inextricably linked to that of Arthur Miller. So what a lucky coincidence that publication of Martin Gottfried's Arthur Miller: His Life and Work (De Capo Press, 496 pages, $30) coincides with the reassessment of this playwright and his best known collaborator which is inevitable in the wake of Kazan's death.

The age-old debate as to the pecking order of Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill in American theater (and American literature) is likely to continue for decades, but, at the moment, no one denies Miller a spot preeminent among the country's living playwrights. His career is a big topic to write about -- and, since he's still productive, it's a moving target. In the endurance test of American letters, Miller is the long-distance champ. Before finding success in his artistic partnership with Kazan, he produced a stack of ambitious scripts that didn't sell. Then The Man Who Had All the Luck, the first Miller play produced on Broadway, met such poor critical reception that the writer, at age 29, fled the theater to write a novel. Yet he hit his stride as a playwright a short time later, eventually producing six or seven first-rate dramas -- along with some lesser works -- that gave mid-century Broadway its gravitas and attracted an array of honors, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

During the half century he has spent as a public figure, Miller's reputation has been subject to remarkable ups and downs. In the 1970s and '80s, for instance, he was far better appreciated in Britain than in the United States. At the moment, he is enjoying renewed esteem at home and abroad. His plays, even the lesser ones, are being revived; he's exploring new avenues of expression, such as the libretto for William Bolcom's operatic treatment of A View from the Bridge; he's revered for defending writers who suffer under repressive regimes; and he's still writing plays, such as last year's Resurrection Blues, to which "attention must be paid." Somehow, no matter the state of his reputation at any given time, Miller has managed always to inspire a flourishing industry of scholarship (or, in some cases, what merely passes for scholarship) about his work. There's also a related industry that feeds on his private life.

Martin Gottfried is highly qualified to serve as Miller's Boswell. As drama critic for Women's Wear Daily back when that publication's arts journalism wielded considerable influence, Gottfried covered the American theater's struggle to embrace the philosophical and dramaturgical influences of postwar Europe. His career as a biographer began in 1984 with a spicy, well-told book about Jed Harris, the eccentric showman who directed the original Broadway production of Miller's The Crucible. Since the mid-1980s, Gottfried has written several show biz biographies on figures that may be described as "glitzier" and less highbrow than Harris.

In the introduction to Arthur Miller: His Life and Work, Gottfried claims that his new book "has advantages and disadvantages of both authorized and unauthorized biography." Miller, it seems, gave the nod for Gottfried to have access to restricted materials and to reach wary interview subjects. According to Gottfried, Miller "was willing to discuss his plays" but "would not talk about his life." Gottfried writes that the playwright, "known to seethe with rage when questioned about [Marilyn Monroe], turned grim and tight-lipped with me merely when asked why an actress had been made up to resemble Monroe in the original production of After the Fall. Upon learning that I intended to include his first wife and family in the story of his life, he refused to answer any more questions." It shouldn't come as a surprise that this public intellectual, long noted for valuing privacy, might be impatient with intrusive questions. Having more than occasionally been pursued as the one-time husband of an iconic film star rather than for his own achievements, Miller may well dismiss biographers with book contracts as being paparazzi with fancy academic credentials.

Arthur Miller: His Life and Work is an oddly schizoid volume. For the most part, it's as solemn and unimaginative as its title. While Gottfried has a good deal to offer in the way of literary insight, his plot summaries of Miller's dramas are needlessly protracted and the discussion of each play's biographical background is plodding, overlong, and largely speculative. Yet, throughout the book, the racy voice of a down-and-dirty "star" biographer competes with the high-toned quality of the author's literary discourse. Interested as he is in Miller the man, Gottfried can't resist conjecturing about his subject's first sexual encounter, for instance, or enumerating the items on Marilyn Monroe's bedside table. The book's incomplete bibliography and haphazard end notes leave the reader unenlightened as to many of the author's most provocative sources, suggesting that Arthur Miller: His Life and Work is targeted toward beach and airport lounge readers rather than serious students of cultural history. This slapdash quality makes Gottfried's book far closer kin to Kitty Kelly's His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra than, say, to Leon Edel's classic Henry James or Helen Sheehy's fine Eleonora Duse: A Biography, just out from Knopf.

Martin Gottfried
Considering the proximity of the book's publication to the death of Kazan, it's providential that the best annotated, most compellingly narrated parts of Arthur Miller: His Life and Work are Gottfried's treatment of the playwright's early success (to which, of course, Kazan was integral) and the period in which both Miller and Kazan lived under scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee. To the author's credit, this biography is a useful contribution to the still-emerging picture of the American home front during the Cold War. In Gottfried's succinct description of the decade or so following the end of World War II, Miller and Kazan illustrate the degree to which Congressional investigation of ostensible conspiracy by the left polarized American intellectuals and changed the lives of those called to testify.

For a number of years, from 1946 into the 1950s, Miller and Kazan were the Damon and Pythias of American drama. Kazan directed and co-produced Miller's first successful play, All My Sons, and together they triumphed with Miller's masterpiece, Death of a Salesman. They shared an artistic vision and political views -- and they both slept, at least for a time, with Marilyn Monroe. But Kazan appeared as a friendly witness before the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities, while Miller declined to "name names." Though never enemies, their positions were adversarial, and many critics and playgoers interpreted Miller's The Crucible as an indictment of Kazan the informer. Then, in a particularly odd, even creepy, chapter of New York theater history, Miller and Kazan reunited in 1963 -- as author and director of After the Fall (which premiered in 1964) -- to inaugurate the first iteration of Lincoln Center's theater arm with a thinly veiled portrait of that zaftig, blonde actress with whom both had slept (and whom Miller married). Gottfried captures the anxiety of the postwar United States and the desperation of intellectuals under fire from their government. More notably, he manages complex portraits of both Miller and Kazan: unsparing, largely unflattering, but respectful of each man's extraordinary talent. This isn't the masterful biography that Miller the artist deserves, but it's useful as a foundation on which scholars will build in the future.

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