Thursday, February 17, 2005

The First Contrarian Strike at Arthur Miller!

Where does the Rubber Meet the Road?

Well, just as Marlon Brando couldn't survive the week of his death without the highbrows leaping in to stomp on his face, so goes the fate of Arthur Miller.

At least Miller got the pleasant experience of a warm weekend of praise for being what he was: One of our countries most known dramatists, and a very influential playwright. It is really not surprising that the first salvo was fired from the pages of the Wall Street Journal's opinion column. High profile contrarians of the highbrow persuasion seem to increasingly align themselves conservatively.

Terry Teachout gives us the gist right up front, and pulls no punches with the title "The Great Pretender." and his subtitle, "Arthur Miller Was Not Well-Liked, and for Good Reason."

It doesn't surprise me either that an article bashing Miller would use a line from Miller's most well known play, Death of A Salesman. Teachout uses Willy Loman's assertion that he was "well-liked in Boston" as a boot with which to kick the playwright into the grave.

It would be one thing if Teachout were making a purely artistic assessment on the entirety of Miller's work, but it becomes clear that when he must surmount the Death of Salesman problem, Teachout, like many others, falls to political and personal attack. I will give some credit because, unlike Robert Brustein, Teachout grudgingly acknowledges that Salesman will probably be timeless. However, he makes a few stabs at it with the typical critical charges of "sentimentalism."

Failing an ability to successfully lay out his argument against Salesman, or The Crucible, he falls to the latest fad of conservative criticism ...bringing up the personal politics:

"I wonder how much attention would now be paid to Miller if he hadn't married Monroe, and if the House Un-American Activities Committee hadn't made the mistake of subpoenaing him in 1956 to testify about his Communist ties (which
were extensive, though he always denied having been an actual party member), thereby bringing about his citation for contempt of Congress when he refused to 'name names.' The one made him a pop-culture footnote, the other a liberal icon."

Not only that, he goes further and tries to cut into a few other playwrights and critics through extension:

"Times have changed, and today's more stringently politicized critics and playwrights seem willing to overlook Miller's limitations because he thought as they do. 'As a political figure, he was a progressive man, but never doctrinaire,' Tony Kushner said last week. 'There was a simplicity, and humbleness, and decency in his work.'"
The most bizarre part of the column is that Teachout takes the Kushner quote out of context after displaying it to us in context. You see, Terry goes on to state how "Arthur Miller" was not humble, when Kushner has stated that their was a humbleness and decency in "his work."

A few paragraphs later, Teachout ends the article with an admittance of the power of Salesman:

"More important, 'Death of a Salesman' has a coarsely compulsive power that somehow manages to mask its aesthetic deficiencies, or at least render them momentarily palatable. That's the mystery of theater: It's all about what works,
and like it or not, "Death of a Salesman" works. But it's no 'Lear,' just as Arthur Miller was no Shakespeare, and anyone who thinks otherwise is as lead-eared as he was."

So we have to read through a snarky title, a bashing of a Man who worked till the day he died, and a lightly veiled attack on Tony Kushner's merits only to find out that Teachout's only real criticism is that while Death of Salesman is a powerful piece of theatre, Miller is no

It would appear that Mr. Teachout would be employing the same types of political preachiness and over-top activism of which he accuses Mr. Miller of having practiced.

I am a novice at theatre criticism and scholarship, but I have always thought that the highbrow charge of realism is a little misplaced when applied to Miller's work. When applied to Death of Salesman which uses ghosts, memories, and an expressionistic setting to gain its "coarsley compulsive power," I think the charges are way off-the mark.

The Death of Salesman problem is one that critics can't seem to convincingly evade. (They usually brush aside The Crucible, wrongly, as a dated reaction to McCarthyism.) Their arguments usually start strong, but eventually wind up in the same compromising conclusion: Death of Salesman may be a "good" play, but Arthur Miller is not a Great Playwright.

Genius is something that people have endeavored to explain, and its fleeting nature must prove maddening for artists. Do men and women of all nationalities and religions still continue to line up to see Salesman becuase they are "forced to read it in high school?" Or for that one play was Miller able to achieve genius.

John Heilpern in The New York Observer, writes just the kind of Arthur Miller farewell that may have Teachout pulling at his hair. Heilpern, (author of great collection of theatre essays and criticism titled How Good is David Mamet Anyway,) has always been able to precisely analyze the good and bad of both the British and American dramatic scene. He is always cautious of Anglophilia, and is very quick to point out advantages of American Drama.

He writes:

"There was nothing elitist about Arthur Miller or his plays. He was influenced by Ibsen and the Greeks, but he wrote from the gut, unafraid of the pull of honest emotion expressed by so-called ordinary folk. It’s why we could connect with his great dramas, for all family wars and disappointments and yearnings are universal."

I know that Heilpern is the first to admit, and to say that Shakespeare has not equal in the American canon, but he finds the decency to praise a craftsman who worked his entire life at plying his trade and was able to create something that, while maybe not aesthetically beautiful, was amazingly effective.

Perhaps traditional critical methods have not found a way to analyze Death of a Salesman, or the Crucible, maybe the secret of their power pushes too far into the realm of performance study which can end up being a maddening pursuit in itself.

In his new book, Letters to a Young Actor, Robert Brustein warns actors against trusting any type of theatrical criticism which ventures into "performance theory," and he doesn't get much argument from me. But without pushing the boundaries of critical standards, are we consigning, too easily, a work like Death of Salesman to mere sentimentality, and a craftsman like Miller to hackdom?

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