The author remembers Arthur Miller’s contribution to civil liberties on the occasion of his birth anniversary on October 17.
Arthur Miller, who wrote plays such as ‘All My Sons’ (1947), ‘Death of a Salesman’ (1949), ‘The Crucible’ (1952), and ‘The Price’ (1968) was also a prolific essayist, and wrote regularly for numerous newspapers. Through a series of articles, Miller tackled issues in American politics ranging from F.D. Roosevelt to McCarthy; from Nixon to Carter to Reagan; and from Clinton to Bush. Set in the mould of social realism in the tradition of Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Miller’s political essays are not concerned with who gets elected to office; rather, they deal with the social life and the impact of politics on community.
Miller’s Jewish ancestors had fled Europe during the early 20th century, and while growing up in New York in the 1930s, Miller had firsthand experience with racial discrimination, which became the subject of his first novel Focus (1945). He did his education from the University of Michigan and Soon after WW II, visited Europe and noted the words inscribed at the Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial) in Jerusalem: “Forgetfulness is the way to exile. Remembrance is the way to redemption.”
Miller assesses the twin themes of guilt and responsibility in his Holocaust play ‘Incident at Vichy’ (1964), on returning from a visit to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria in 1962, and after attending the trial of 22 former SS soldiers in Frankfurt in 1963. ‘Guilt and Incident at Vichy’ (1965) is Miller’s explanation of the idea behind the play, which is, “[we] cannot conceive of guilt as having an existence without the existence of injustice.” What he is doing, however, is to draw our attention to is the arbitrariness of death, as was soon seen in the war with Vietnam.
Miller’s early days were spent in close association with the Group Theatre, a theatre collective in New York. The Group was founded by Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman and was intrinsic to shaping the artistic capabilities of the members, including Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and Irwin Shaw. In the 1950s, many of the Group’s former members were asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The Communist witch-hunting that peaked during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s era bears testimony to this. This Senator’s Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunting of communists from 1950-54 phase is one of the darkest points of the Eisenhower era (detailed in Tony Kushner’s play ‘Angels in America’, 1993). The list of artists investigated by the HUAC included names like Charlie Chaplin, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Carl Foreman, Lee J. Cobb, Orson Welles, Fred Zimmerman, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller. In the end, the HUAC lost all credibility; still Miller’s concern was the cavalier attitudes and self-righteousness that lead to jumping to conclusions on assumed circumstance and unexamined evidence. Years later, he went on to relive the McCarthy period in the essay ‘The Night Ed Murrow Struck Back’ (Esquire, 1983), a homage to Edward R. Murrow, a broadcaster at CBS. (readers may recall Ed Murrow in George Clooney’s film Good Night, and Good luck, 2005). On March 9, 1954, Murrow, his producer Fred Friendly, and their team, produced a 30-minute special on McCarthy for their television show See It Now. Miller marvels at how Murrow used McCarthy’s own speeches and declarations to reveal the contradictions in his thoughts.
Miller famously based ‘The Crucible’ (1953) on the Salem witch-trials, with uncanny parallels between the events of the 1950s America and 17th century Massachusetts. Though today the play is read as a study in guilt — individual and communal — the political and social contexts of the McCarthy period still find resonance time and again. Thus, in the essay ‘Salem Revisited’ (NYT, Oct 15, 1998) Miller attempts to rationalise the enormous ‘public outcry’ over the then President Clinton’s indiscretions in the Oval Office with his intern, Monica Lewinski. Miller is not out to prove Clinton’s innocence, but instead raises a braver question: Who has the right to decide that their sense of justice is superior to anyone else’s? The tragedy, as highlighted in ‘The Crucible’, is that most of us feel entitled to firmly held beliefs on morals and cherry-picked evidence.
In 1965, Miller was elected as the president of P.E.N (poets, essayists, novelists) and during his tenure had a firsthand account of suppression of dissident writers and intellectuals in various communist regimes — a theme that found its way in Miller’s ‘The Archbishop’s Ceiling’ (1970), and also in Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth’ (1979) and Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984 ). The essay ‘Dinner with the Ambassador’ (Nation, 1985) is an account of Miller’s visit to Turkey, along with British playwright Harold Pinter, where the two writers expressed their solidarity with the country’s artists and political prisoners. Miller comments on the elegance of the ambassador’s residence, “as though to protect power by enforcing good manners and empty conversations.”
Miller’s last play was ‘Finishing the Picture’ (2004), a thinly veiled autobiographical work about a film unit trying to wrap up a shoot with a troubled actress (echoes of filming The Misfits based on the writer’s screenplay for his then wife, Marilyn Monroe). Miller died at his farmhouse in Connecticut on February 10, 2005. Writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America; also screenwriter for Lincoln) summed up the essence of Miller’s works, “Arthur Miller’s was a great voice, one of the principal voices, raised in opposition, calling for resistance, offering critical scrutiny and lamentation — in other words, he was politically progressive, as politically progressive is best defined in these dark times.”