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Authors: Arthur Miller

Timebends

BOOK: Timebends
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ARTHUR MILLER
TIMEBENDS
A LIFE

For Inge

Contents

Foreword by Richard Eyre

Introduction

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Afterword by Christopher Bigsby

Plate Section

A Note on the Author

By the Same Author

Foreword by Richard Eyre

Good autobiographies have often been written about small lives but few great men have succeeded in balancing the equation between life and literature. Arthur Miller lived a great life and
Timebends
is a great account of the first seventy years of it. It was my luck to get to know him well during the succeeding nineteen.

Arthur wrote more than thirty plays and continued to write until his death, premiering a new play in Chicago and writing short stories for the
New-Yorker
in his eighty-ninth year. His last play, a wryly comic account of the making of
The Misfits,
was, with immaculate irony, called
Finishing the Picture.
When he died Harold Pinter said, “I'm pretty convinced he was writing until the day of his death. He was born with the pen in his hand.” He put social, political and moral issues at the heart of plays that triumphed in the “showshop” of Broadway, and at least two of his plays are indelible classics, still playing to huge acclaim in theatres throughout the world over fifty years after their conception. At the time of writing,
Death of a Salesman
has just opened in the West End to ecstatic audiences and rapturous reviews. I overheard a young girl coming out of the New York revival with her father. “It was like looking at the Grand Canyon,” she said.

“A play”, he wrote in the Preface to his
Collected Plays,
“ought to make sense to common-sense people … the only challenge worth the effort is the widest one and the tallest one, which is the people themselves.” With Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, Miller brought passion, seriousness and poetry to the American theatre.

His writing earned him a cascade of honours – the Pulitzer Prize,
several Tony Awards, Critics Circle Awards, an Obie, an Olivier, a Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award, National Book Award, and a sheaf of honorary doctorates and degrees from all over the world. In his later years he was forever shuffling between cities – it could be to Tokyo or Paris or Oxford – to pick up prizes. Surprisingly, although he was known and honoured internationally as much for his defence of free speech as for his writing, he was overlooked for the Nobel Prize.

He was the best-known playwright in the world, probably since Shaw, and like Shaw a figure of great moral and intellectual stature. But Miller's courage and liberal instincts were tested in a way that Shaw's never were. He never baulked from taking a stand on political issues and enduring obloquy for doing so, being denied a passport by the State Department in 1954 to travel to Belgium to attend a production of
The Crucible,
and being convicted of contempt of Congress by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 for refusing, as he said, “to say who was in the room during a meeting of left-wing writers in 1947”.

He made three marriages. The last, which endured happily for forty years, was to an outstanding photographer – one of the original Magnum group – Inge Morath, and if you'd been lucky enough to spend time with Arthur and Inge you'd have been capsized by the warmth, wit and humanity of the pair of them. When I directed
The Crucible
on Broadway in 2002 (the first production for fifty years) Inge was our rehearsal photographer. She was working with us until two weeks before her death: watchful, sympathetic and unobtrusive, her small Leica cupped in her hand and raised only very occasionally to her eye. “When I learnt to be a photographer we only had a few rolls of film: I had to be selective.” On her last day with us she deflected any enquiry about her illness with a shrug but was obviously in pain; her last photographs – of the final scene between John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth – were beautifully composed but out of focus, as if blurred with tears. They must have been ours, for she would never have stooped to self-pity. As the actress Zoë Caldwell, who was married to Miller's lifelong friend and producer Bobert Whitehead, said, “He was lucky enough to have extraordinary women in his life.”

His most extraordinary, or at least conspicuous, marriage was, of course, to his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, and it was she who dominated the British headlines when he died. “Will Arthur Miller be remembered as the man who married Marilyn Monroe?” they asked, ignoring the fact that, while Monroe's star burned brightly in
the constellation of the movies when they married in 1956, in the firmament of the world's theatre Arthur Miller was the North Star and the Southern Cross: he'd already written four of the best plays of the twentieth century. What's more, for all that the marriage careened into desperate dysfunction, it started as a match of two people who idealised each other. What the malign scorn of Miller at the time concealed – and it still lurks in the minds of tabloid journalists – was this question: why would the world's most attractive woman want to go out with a
playwright?

It was the same feelings – a mixture of prurience and envy – which underwrote the motives of the House Un-American Activities Committee when they summoned Miller to appear in front of them. I asked him about it some years ago. “I knew perfectly well why they had subpoenaed me,” he said,

it was because I was engaged to Marilyn Monroe. Had I not been, they'd never have thought of me. They'd been through the writers long before and they'd never touched me. Once I became famous as her possible husband, this was a great possibility for publicity. When I got to Washington, preparing to appear before that committee, my lawyer received a message from the chairman saying that if it could be arranged that he could have a picture, a photograph taken with Marilyn, he would cancel the whole hearing. I mean, the cynicism of this thing was so total, it was asphyxiating.

I had met Arthur first at the National Theatre and I presented four of his plays during my time as Director, but I only got to know him well during rehearsals of
The Crucible.
He loved our production and was closely involved with it. I never got over the joy and pride of sitting beside him as his great play unfolded in front of us while he beamed and muttered, “It's damned good stuff, this.”

At the time it was particularly good stuff because the play resonated in two directions: on the one hand the Taliban came to mind as a parallel to the theocratic government under which the Puritan inhabitants of Salem lived with their ethos of rigid sexual morality and cruel punishment; and on the other hand a society in which all dissent is construed as opposition wasn't remote from the US in the year after 9/11. The play had been inspired by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, but contemporary events had an uncomfortable symmetry. The Patriot Act, which relaxed many of the rules protecting people suspected of
crime from unfair investigation and prosecution, had recently been introduced, and the Attorney-General had said that civil rights activists who questioned or opposed the legislation were giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. “A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between,” says Deputy-Governor Danforth – the equivalent to the Attorney-General – in the play.

There were other uncomfortable resonances. “The axis of evil” had been invoked by George Bush, the forces of “good” were lined up against the armies of Satan, the Stars and Stripes were displayed in shop windows, front yards, on car bonnets and jacket lapels, and God was asked to bless America on every street comer with at least the same insistence as the mullahs in the mosques. You felt, as well as the strong streak of Christian fundamentalism in America, that the true religion was America itself. “This is a sharp time, a precise time,” says Danforth, “we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.” Everyone who saw the play said it was “timely”. They meant that it was
timeless.

(Miller always reclaimed the past in his plays as a means of understanding the future, and his recurrent subjects were the Holocaust and the Depression, betrayal in private and public life, guilt and loss of innocence: Cain wandering in a spiritual wilderness. The Depression provided his sentimental education: the family business was destroyed and the family was reduced to relative poverty. I talked to him once about it as we walked in the shadow of the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge looking out over the East River. “America”, he said, “was promises and the Crash was a broken promise in the deepest sense. I think the Americans in general live on the edge of a cliff, they're waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don't care who they are. It's part of the vitality of the country, maybe. That they're always working against this disaster that's about to happen.” Then he stopped, looking up at the bridge. “These are our cathedrals,” he said.

“I thought those were,” I said, pointing across the river to the Business District and the twin towers of the World Trade Center (this was in 1999).

“Oh sure. ‘The business of America is business', that's what Calvin Coolidge used to say. He was the first President I can remember.” Then he stared at the buildings. “None of them were here when I lived here. Not one. And in all those windows there'll be somebody
counting figures. Piling up money.” Then he smiled ruefully. “And snorting cocaine, I guess.”

Arthur was wonderful company – a great, a glorious, raconteur. I asked him once what happened on the first night
of Death of a Salesman
when it opened on the road in Philadelphia. He must have told the story a thousand times but he repeated it, pausing, seeming to search for half-buried details, as if it was the first time:

The play ended and there was a dead silence and I remember being in the back of the house with Kazan and nothing happened. The people didn't get up either. Then one or two got up and picked up their coats. Some of them sat down again. It was chaos. Then somebody clapped and then the house fell apart and they kept applauding for God knows how long and … I remember an old man being helped up the aisle, who turned out to be Bernard Gimbel, who ran one of the biggest department store chains in the United States who was literally unable really to navigate, they were helping him up the aisle. And it turned out that he had been swept away by the play and the next day he issued an order that no one in his stores – I don't know, eight or ten stores all over the United States – was to be fired for being over age!

And with this he laughed, a deep, husky, bass chortle, shaking his head as if the memory were as fresh as last week.

He was a deeply attractive man: tall, almost hulking, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with the most beautiful large, strong but tender hands – carpenter's hands. There was nothing evasive or small-minded about him, and for all his relish for describing the villainies of corporate America and the venalities of politicians, he was a cheery optimist. As he aged he became both more monumental and more approachable, his great body not so much bent as folded over. “I'm eighty-six and I'm opening a play,” he said with rueful wonder as we sat backstage at the end of the first night of
The Crucible.
With the death of Inge he had taken a battering, but when he appeared on the stage and the audience received him and his play with unmodified rapture, he seemed to be twenty years younger. “At least the play's still living,” he said.

It's been surprising for me – and sometimes shocking – to discover that my high opinion of Arthur Miller and his work was often not held by those who consider themselves the curators of American theatre. I read a discussion in the
New York Times
a few years ago
between three theatre critics about the differences between British and American theatre:

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