Arthur Miller: 1962-2005, by Christopher Bigsby, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£30, 624 pages
A young playwright comes up to an older playwright at a party and asks him to read his play. He agrees and the thrilled young writer hands over his script. Ten minutes later the young writer comes back. “My girlfriend says I’m stupid. If you like my story, you’ll just take it as yours.” “Kid,” the older writer says, “a playwright is a guy who’s already got a story.”
For a fuller explication of this anecdote, readers can now delight in the second volume of Arthur Miller scholar Christopher Bigsby’s biography of the playwright. This latest instalment covers the years from his divorce from Marilyn Monroe and subsequent marriage to Inge Morath until his death in 2005. Bigsby’s first volume was as invaluable as it was readable; this second will not disappoint.
Miller described his own dramatic story, the one to which he would return for more than 50 years, as “the human animal’s unwillingness or inability to discover in himself the seeds of his own destruction”. By 1962 Miller had worked this theme thoroughly in the now canonical All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge. Like many great playwrights, he struggled to meet his own standard after his first great burst of work but he nevertheless continued to write, returning to do so in some version of the Connecticut cabin where he had knocked out the first act of Salesman one night in 1948.
This volume covers Miller’s later life and work in as yet unmatched detail. Bigsby writes with care, affection and admirable detachment about an author who was also a friend and colleague. He doesn’t skimp on the frequently hostile reaction to the playwright’s work, nor does he give Miller the final word in these disputes. The playwright’s autobiography, Timebends, and the director Elia Kazan’s A Life (in which Miller figures prominently) are reports from the trenches. Bigsby gives us an overview of the battlefield.
He is particularly deft in establishing the political context of US life in the 1960s and 1970s: the enduring effect of the House Un-American Activities Committee; the ongoing debate in America’s intellectual community about the Holocaust, communism, the Soviet Union, China; the Prague Spring, Tiananmen Square and much more. These national and global political currents were the waters in which Miller and other artists of his generation swam. Faced with the turmoil, some tuned in, turned on and dropped out. But Miller, a child of the Great Depression, reflexively faced the wider world. The main supporting cast in Bigsby’s drama features not members of the Broadway and West End theatrical establishments but political figures and those socially engaged artists with whom Miller interacted.
As the president of the international writer’s organisation PEN, he stood up for writers in repressive regimes across the globe. Making the world a saner, safer and freer place was in fact, for nearly four decades, Miller’s day job, according to Bigsby. It wasn’t that he gave up writing – he turned out more than a dozen plays for stage and screen, countless essays and his memoir during this time – but that freeing the future Nobel-winner Wole Soyinka from prison became as, or more, important than tightening up one of his second acts.
Bigsby is at considerable pains to remind us that Miller’s plays were generally better received in the UK than in the US. This isn’t quite as cut and dried as the biographer would have it: Miller’s work is in constant production in the US. Yet it is true that, by the 1960s, Broadway was collapsing as a home for every serious writer. Replacing it was a new, subsidised American theatre, which, for the most part, lay outside of the New York Miller knew so well. The next generation of playwrights, directors and actors was setting up camp in the likes of Providence, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, not in the 30 square blocks of Broadway. The path to this new American theatre was one Miller couldn’t or wouldn’t take. The result was that he had no bridge to the next generation of theatre artists. When he encountered David Mamet at a 1984 Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross, he was overheard commenting: “He’s got a lot to learn,” as he tossed his playbill into a bin.
While Miller clearly felt abandoned by the American theatre, he, in some measure, had abandoned it himself. In the mid-1970s, when I was director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, I bumped into Miller and his agent and offered to produce any new play he wrote. His response wasn’t so much dismissive as confused. Nothing came of it. In 1985 he accepted my offer to be a resident artist at the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York. There, surrounded by artists young enough to be his children, or even grandchildren, he found a new joy in the American theatre. How differently Miller’s creative life might have turned out – how much happier he might have been – had he found such a home 20 years earlier.
Writing from the UK, Bigsby misses this context. But by tracking Miller’s life so carefully, he shows for the first time how Miller managed to miss that moment in the American theatre. No longer needing to prove himself or pay the rent, Miller was understandably more drawn to dealing with the possibilities born of the collapse of communism, the lure of travel to trouble spots abroad and, perhaps above all, to the joy of life with his family on their farm in the Connecticut hills. These occupations were no doubt rewarding. But that time in Connecticut, Czechoslovakia and China was time not spent in the green rooms and bars of America’s theatres, seeing younger writers’ work in out-of-the-way venues, or otherwise forging creative relationships that might have left him feeling less like an outsider in his own country’s theatre. Still, his time was hardly wasted.
Bigsby covers Miller’s relationships with his first and second wives in great and thoughtful detail in the first volume of the biography. The second begins, appropriately, when he met photographer Inge Morath, whom he married in 1962. For almost 40 years, through the art they created separately and together, and in family and civic life, they were, to anyone who saw them together, clearly one.
This book is in some ways as much a tribute to Morath as to her husband. Bigsby’s palpable pleasure in knowing and writing about both of them warms his narrative. Miller lived for 89 years; he wrote for most of them. He changed the theatre, which is more than most playwrights have done. He probably saved more than a few lives. Best of all, he lived a great love story.
Gregory Mosher is a director and producer. His production of Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’ appeared on Broadway last season