Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen....

I now give you former New York Magazine critic John Simon doing his best Alan Greenspan imitation:

All My Sons was Miller's breakthrough effort in 1947, though even then some critics objected to a central improbability. Since this is such a well-known work, I am not giving away much of anything by wondering whether, during World War II, a basically likable man would sell defective airplane parts causing multiple deaths, then let his mousy partner take the rap in a hefty jail sentence.

Memo to Simon: That is not a problem with All My Sons it's the POINT.


Thomas Garvey said...

It seems a truism that many critics, when confronted with an affront to their own assumptions, conclude said affront constitutes a "flaw."

David Schrag said...

But if a critic -- and perhaps more importantly, if the *majority* of critics -- find a character's behavior improbable, is it necessarily the critic's fault? It is not enough for a playwright to challenge assumptions simply by portraying the unexpected. If the playwright cannot make the audience understand why the characters do what they do, or at the very least provoke the audience to come up with several competing but reasonable explanations, then the playwright is being unfair to the audience, IMHO.

Art said...

Hi David,

Thanks for commenting. My answer is yes and no.

I am, in no way saying that All My Sons is work that is free of flaws. And certainly it has flaws that deal with what you are outlining here.

My point, and I think what Thom is suggesting also, is that Arthur Miller's drama, indeed his worldview and philosophy, was dealing with the large and complex problems brought on by industrial capitalism and the myths and roles that it was coopting in order to keep its gears turning.

Audiences don't seem to have a problem understanding this. All My Sons was a hit when it premiered, has had resurgences now and then, was a hit during a time of war in Israel, and is now recouping on Broadway, (granted with a celeb cast, but still.)

I do want critics to discuss their philosophical or political disagreements in reviews, but I don't want them to disguise them with comments that don't make sense. If John Simon believes that businesses can only commit heinously immoral acts if they are run by mustache twirling villians he should come out and say that.

Kidding aside, Simon is really hedging here. He probably, like many of Miller's critics, feels the play is propaganda-an argument, by the way, that can be made. The first problem these critics have is that Miller has the unique advantage of being RIGHT. The second problem these critics have is that Miller has thought through all the other side's arguments very well. He handles the dramatization of this clumsily in certain parts, but is is onto something.

I believe that Miller sensed that trying to find a psychological reasons was a copout, (although he later made what some consider to be a dramturgical misstep in Death of a Salesman, by including that flashback scene of Biff discovering Willy with a mistress.)

But, also, Miller was being much more experimental in All My Sons than he is EVER given credit for. He divides his protagonist, which is, admittedly, not handled well, but without this masterstroke, think of how the play would collapse! Instead, through the juxtaposition of generations, worldviews, veteran and civilians, we have a pulse running through the center of the play that touches the helplessness, fear, regret, and shame that colors our existence in this captalist world.

Thomas Garvey said...

Like Art, I find Simon's contention - that somehow it's unbelievable that a "basically likable" person could do something evil - naïve in the extreme. In my experience, likable people do horrible things all the time. And on stage, only in Shakespeare do villains turn to the audience and offer cogent self-analysis! The real reason Simon doesn't like All My Sons can be found in his comment that it is "melodrama posturing as tragedy." Well, maybe so, but it's still pretty good melodrama. And the way pompous hacks like Simon go on and on about Miller's pretensions to tragedy kind of makes you wonder - why, exactly, does this get under their skins? Snobbery comes in many different masks, it seems to me.

David Schrag said...

Before I comment further, I should probably read the play. 8^)