Interviews

Arthur Miller, The Art of Theater No. 2, Part 2

Interviewed by Christopher Bigby

Arthur Miller’s first interview with The Paris Review appeared in issue 38 in the spring of 1966. Since then, Miller has continued to write for the stage—including such plays as The Price, After the Fall, The Last Yankee, and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. He also has written several screenplays, stories, and nonfiction books. In 1998 A View from the Bridge received the Tony Award for best revival of a play, and in 1999, the play’s fiftieth anniversary, Death of a Salesman was awarded the same honor. This autumn, an opera based on A View from the Bridge premiered in Chicago.

The following interview was conducted last spring at the 92nd Street YMHA before a packed house.

 

INTERVIEWER

The 1960s saw a certain radicalization aesthetically. That was the period of The Living Theater, The Open Theater, The Performance Group, and The Wooster Group. I have the feeling that you never found that particularly compelling as a version of theater.

ARTHUR MILLER

I found myself a lot of the time being reminded of a similar outbreak of that kind of theater in the thirties when Clifford Odets and Bertolt Brecht were starting. I just felt that this was going to pass away the way the other one did, because its emphasis was so heavily on the side of the issues rather than on the side of the characterization of people or of the human conflicts involved. They were political conflicts basically, and I felt that this was very temporary and it was not going to endure.

INTERVIEWER

The Wooster Group tried to incorporate The Crucible in one of their plays.

MILLER

The Wooster Group is a highly experimental group of actors downtown in SoHo. For The Crucible they were dressed like children in a nursery. I’m not quite sure what that meant! They were swinging on swings and speaking at a rate of speed that I could not follow! But I have to say, and this shows how far out I am, that I talked to young people who had seen it and were tremendously moved by it, so I decided simply to resign my job as critic because I couldn’t dig it. It seemed to be absolutely volou—French for "willed." They were just trying to do something different even though it was absolutely meaningless.

INTERVIEWER

The Price, which was your most successful play since Death of a Salesman, premiered in 1968. It doesn’t feel like a 1968 play. It’s about two brothers who come together to dispose of their father’s estate, symbolized by a room full of furniture, so they spend a lot of their time looking back to the past, and this in a decade, the sixties, when the past tended to be dismissed as an irrelevance. Did you feel that that?

MILLER

That’s why I wrote about it. I wanted to tell them that the past counted, that they were creatures of the past just as we all were. They had affected to negate the past, cut themselves off from it, and throw it in a wastebasket. As it turned out, they were as much affected by their fathers and grandfathers. There was no way to escape it, anymore than you could escape the beat of your own heart. I was on vacation in the Caribbean just before we produced The Price and ran into Mel Brooks. I’d never known him before. He said, Well, what are you doing now? I said, Well, I just wrote this play that we’re about to put on. It’s called The Price, He said, What’s it about? I said, Well, there are these two brothers . . . He said, Stop, I’m crying!            

INTERVIEWER

Very good assessment. You began the seventies with a play that is disposed as a straight play, The Creation of the World and Other Business, and a musical, Up From Paradise, about Adam and Eve. Why? What led you to that?

MILLER

To show how man invented God. He invented God because there had to be something to stop a guy from killing his brother, and there was nothing visible in the Garden that could stop that. They needed a higher authority. Even though they invented him, pretty soon they began believing in him as a being totally independent of themselves, hoping some kind of justice would descend from him. So it’s the invention of the idea of justice, because if a brother could kill a brother then who was safe? There had to be some moral, superhuman law that would at least scare people into stopping themselves from murdering, and that’s what put God in business.

INTERVIEWER

That reminds me of an earlier sixties play, After the Fall, which is almost about the necessity, after the Holocaust and the concentration camps, of reinventing God.

MILLER

I’m glad you mentioned that because no critic ever did! Yes, that’s what it was about. There are two of my plays, at least, in which the play is looking into a void where there is nothing and trying to invent something to stop the world from killing itself.

INTERVIEWER

Is that also a reason why you have resisted the theater of the absurd?

MILLER

Well, I enjoyed Zero Mostel playing in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros—one of the greatest things I ever saw in my life. He really turned himself into a rhinoceros. However, at the back of my mind always was: OK, but you’ve got to be very safe and very rich to really enjoy this form. You have to have grown out of the need for public order. You have to be living in a society where nobody’s killing anybody. And that nagged at me, I must say. It’s a spoilsport attitude because everybody was having a lot of fun being absurd. I enjoy it as much as anybody, but I’m slightly off to one side of it, saluting as it goes by.

INTERVIEWER

As the seventies went on you wrote what seems to me a very European play—European in its setting—The Archbishop’s Ceiling.

MILLER

Maybe I’d better take a moment to describe that play. These people are in the living room of a writer in Prague in the old regime. Unlike a lot of people, he does very well under the system. He’s full of contradictions because he has helped people who have gotten in trouble with the regime and, therefore, seems to be aligned with the dissidents. On the other hand, no dissident except him seems to have this much money and the freedom to leave the country occasionally for a lecture in France or England. How does that happen, since the rest of them have no passports? So he’s under suspicion in a way, but at the same time they love him because he has helped them. Meantime, they think that maybe in the ceiling of his room there are microphones. He keeps having large parties in his house, and maybe he’s doing this so that people will reveal themselves to the microphones in the ceiling connected to the secret police. Something like this happened in the United States in the fifties when people would talk to one another, but they weren’t quite sure whether that was as far as that speech was going to go.

INTERVIEWER

This was only a few years after Watergate and the bugging of the White House by the president of the United States.

MILLER

That’s a very good example—imagine Nixon getting people to tell him what they really felt about life and issues, knowing that at all times he was betraying them!

INTERVIEWER

Betrayal is a theme in many of your plays, isn’t it? Willy Loman betrays his wife, John Proctor does likewise in The Crucible, a rather major betrayal of faith and trust.

MILLER

The guy in After the Fall says, “Why is betrayal the only truth that sticks?” I can’t answer that altogether, but after all, the Bible begins with a betrayal, doesn’t it? Cain has betrayed his brother by killing him. I think the old rabbis who put that Bible together understood this, that betrayal hangs over so much that men do, and from its threat comes the need for justice. It’s the challenge to us all, to humanity, to keep faith, and I think it goes right down through our literature and certainly the religious ideas of the world. It’s involved in a lot of my work.

INTERVIEWER

People often come out of Death of a Salesman crying. If you said to them that you’d watched them laughing while in their seats, they would deny it. And yet humor is part of it, isn’t it?

MILLER

The whole thing is very sad, but the fact is I did a lot of laughing when I was writing the play because some of Willy Loman’s ideas are so absurd and self-contradictory that you have to laugh about them; the audience in fact does, but they don’t remember it, thank God! If they remembered it, they wouldn’t be as moved as they are. Basically, it’s the laughter of recognition, I believe.

INTERVIEWER

You moved on in the direction of what was first a television film and then a song, Playing for Time, your adaptation of Fania Fenelon’s book, an account of her experience in a concentration camp playing in an orchestra. The concentration camp and the Holocaust are daunting subjects to approach.

MILLER

I was full of doubts, because in one sense nobody can write about that subject, certainly nobody who hasn’t been there, but I couldn’t accept the alternative. You can’t confront something like that with silence. We already know there’s a considerable group of people who deny the thing ever happened, incredibly enough, so how do you remain silent in the face of that? In fact, I don’t think there is a possibility of any art ever encompassing that monstrosity. At the time that I decided to do this there was very little attention being given to the Holocaust. It seemed to have completely slipped away at that particular moment.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s a sense in which the Holocaust had already entered your work, I don’t mean in After the Fall and Incident at Vichy, but in The Crucible, this sense of the irrational . . .

MILLER

When I learned about the Holocaust, it stopped me cold. I had been brought up in the twenties and thirties to imagine that the Germans were the most cultivated people in Europe and maybe the world. My grandfather, who was born in Poland but had spent some time in Vienna as a tailor, used to say when Hitler came into power, Well, he won’t last six months. The Germans are too intelligent for this idiot. It was the Russians who were stupid. Poles were stupid. The French were hopeless because they had no interest in anybody but French people! He looked to the Germans to help. The Germans were the most non-anti-Semitic people in Europe. So when they went down that route, then you felt anybody could. It was a devastating piece of news for me. It entered my work through my bones. The idea of confronting this kind of unreason and having no response possible to it is probably the most dramatic event imaginable because it leaves the human being utterly alone with his pain. To survive this psychologically is the work of a great spirit, and this kind of stubborn resistance went into The Crucible because there were people in Massachusetts at the time who did survive it spiritually.

INTERVIEWER

In 1984 you were one of a group of writers from around the world who went to the then–Soviet Union and had a meeting with Gorbachev, which was one of the first signs that something was happening. What can you remember of that meeting?

MILLER

I had gotten a phone call from a writer whom I had met in Europe, and he said, I’m in Kirghizia. I said, Congratulations! What do you want from me? He said, I want you to come here. I said, Kirghizia? He said, Yes, we’re going to have a meeting here. I said, Don’t. I’m finished with meetings. I don’t want any more meetings. He said, No, this has nothing to do with the government. I said, That’s impossible. You’re in Russia! He said, Yes, but something’s happening in Russia. Gorbachev had been in power a couple of months. Anyway, a lot of French, Germans, and Italians, and so on met in this place. Jimmy Baldwin came and a couple of other Americans. We sat around talking. Then a message came: would you like to come to meet Mr. Gorbachev in Moscow? So we did that, about fourteen of us. What was interesting to me was that he was saying that the past is not a guide anymore in the sense that we used to think of it; Marx never knew anything about the atom bomb, so we have to start from reality instead of from theories. And I had a little private moment with him: I asked, Are you a Communist? He said, I’m a Leninist. I’m not a Stalinist, and I think we have to start a whole new approach to Marxism. Well, I thought this was pretty hot news, and when I got back to America, I told a friend of mine, Harrison Salisbury, a retired editor of The New York Times, who lived down the road. He said, Jesus, you’ve got to write this. This is big news. Well, I wrote a piece. I had taken notes of that occasion, which I never do, but I knew that this was an unusual historical moment and I wrote up exactly what had been said, and he sent it down to his buddies at The New York Times, and nobody would print it. They couldn’t believe it, so he sent it to The Washington Post. They wouldn’t print it either. That’s when I learned that we have a party line. The party line was that the Russian government was Stalinist, incapable of any change, that the whole thing was some kind of a gag. And that’s how we ended up looking at a Soviet Union that was literally falling to pieces and refusing to believe it. Because the line was that they had the atom bomb, they had all these airplanes, they had the biggest army in the world, they had to be powerful! Here I’d just left a man who was saying, in effect, We are lost. We don’t know where the hell we’re going. That’s what the substance of his speech to us was, and I couldn’t get a major paper to publish it.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a bit of your conversation that sticks with me because he asked you what the function of the artist was, and you said the artist’s function is to speak truth to power, but does power ever listen to the artist’s truth?

MILLER

I can’t think of many occasions. No. Power is power. The reason it’s power is because it doesn’t listen. If it listened, it wouldn’t be power. It’d be just one of us, and we don’t have any power. I mean, I just told them exactly what the man had said. What I added it up to mean was that he was philosophically, spiritually at sea. He didn’t know where the hell he was going. He was calling himself a Leninist. Well, it’s meaningless. The New York Times always knows what’s happening. So six months or so later, when the fact became undeniable, it came out that Gorbachev didn’t know where he was going, ideology was set aside, and we were allowed to read the obvious. Anyway, end of chapter.

INTERVIEWER

You began the decade of the nineties, which has proved to be amazingly prolific as far as you’re concerned, with a play called The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, about a bigamist who believes that he can get away with almost everything without consequences. It seems very much a play coming out of the Reagan period. Is that how you felt it to be, or not?

MILLER

I don’t see it that way. The play is testing whether there needs to be any restraint on human instinct and why. Why can’t we all do exactly what we want to do? In certain people, the sexual impulse is overwhelming. Need I mention names! So what’s wrong with the bigamist since that’s his honest truth. His truth is the expression of the sexual instincts. Apart from the damage that it might do to the individual, is there any wider application of this question? His problem is that he marries two of them at the same time. They don’t know it. And it goes great for about ten years until he has an accident on a highway, and the cops call his first wife because it’s with her that the car is registered, but he’s on his way to the second wife, and the two women meet in the hospital lobby. The question is, well, what’s wrong with this? And that’s what the play is about. It’s Reaganism only in the sense that the character is letting it all hang out: he’s wanting to be everything to everybody, the man totally freed of obligation. But I have an old quarrel with morality.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a play that you recently revised. How often does that happen?

MILLER

Very rarely. I had a very difficult time with that play. I couldn’t get it right. Last week I was cleaning up my studio to try to bring some order to this chaos, and I found about fifteen different versions with sub-versions, two large boxes with manuscripts in them, collected over the past fifteen years! It took all this time to get it right. It’s a very difficult question: where do you come down? Do you simply condemn the guy out of hand, knowing that these impulses exist in most people? That means you condemn the human race. Do you condone the thing? Well, you can’t do that either because of the pain that it causes other people and the social chaos it could justify. That’s a hard thing to write, but I got as close to it as I think it can get.

INTERVIEWER

Are the changes major or is it simply tinkering?

MILLER

There is much variation from play to play. Some just spill out, some are more reluctant, some never emerge at all. I revise in order—generally—to further unearth themes as new connections are discovered. You want to find the center of the web where all the threads meet.

INTERVIEWER

Your recent play Broken Glass won the Olivier award in Britain as best play of the year. It’s set in the time of Kristallnacht though it takes place in this country. Can you think of what the trigger was that led you back to 1938 in 1994?

MILLER

I’m not sure that I can. It’s a play about a woman who around the time of the Nazi explosion in Germany wakes one morning and is paralyzed. She can’t walk—a perfectly healthy woman. They can’t figure out what it is. They give it the general name of hysteria, but she’s not a hysterical kind of person. It’s an investigation of a whole personal as well as political situation that brought this upon her. She’s not a political person, but she’s living in that time when the menace of fascism was alive in the world, and through various means, she is affected by it.

INTERVIEWER

In your play Golden Years, written in the late thirties, which is about Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, you wrote about two hundred Spaniards simply mesmerizing and paralyzing . . .

MILLER

That’s right, isn’t it?

INTERVIEWER

So paralysis in the face of power is obviously in your sensibility. I remember rehearsals of Broken Glass were going on while Sarajevo was being shelled.

MILLER

I hadn’t thought of that. Well, that’s what we generally feel when we read about places like Sarajevo or Bosnia or whatever. We feel paralyzed. In her case she was really paralyzed; she couldn’t walk.

INTERVIEWER

The most recent play we’ve seen in New York is Mr. Peters’ Connection, which starred Peter Falk. Pete is an ex-pilot looking back over his life and the life of his society, his city, his culture, trying to find out what the connections were. Now is this Arthur Miller, eighty-three, looking back over a life and trying to see how it all fitted together?

MILLER

It really came out of conversations with an actual pilot. It isn’t me at all. I mean, it’s me in the sense I wrote it. It’s a guy who’s done everything: bombing places, delivering fighter planes to Murmansk during World War II, being the chief operating officer of Eastern Airlines for years and sitting there at the age of seventy-eight, up in Connecticut, and trying to figure out what it all comes to. I used a lot of his lines. He said, You know, I pick up a paper and there are advertisements for breast enlargements: forty-five hundred. He said, You know, our house where I and four brothers and two sisters were raised cost fifty-five hundred, and now we have breast enlargements for forty-five hundred! How do you put that together? He said, Then we have penile enlargement. It’s the same price! That wonderful bewilderment on the part of a very experienced man is what set that play off. He’s trying to reach out and bring together the strands of experience as he’s moving down the streets of New York City. He can look at a building and remember the building that was taken down in order to build this one. But he can also remember the building that was taken down for the building that preceded this building! And he says, So what does that mean? He’s walking around with the layers of New York City in his gut and trying to come to some image that will help him digest the whole mess.

INTERVIEWER

Looking for the connections between people, between the past and the present . . . trying to find some kind of coherence, which is, I suppose, one of the functions of theater, or indeed, art—to find some order beneath the level of the incoherent and chance and the arbitrary.

MILLER

It’s a one-act stab in the darkness.

INTERVIEWER

What about the exact genesis of any given work? It would seem it’s always a concept. Is it ever more specific—an image, a snatch of conversation?

MILLER

By this time any language capable of being performed can be called a play. But if one demands a crisis followed by a climax, issues raised and to some degree resolved, then a concept would probably be required. Some writers start with concept, some with objective meaning to an action; others begin with a character, a line even, or perhaps a physical setting. For myself, a play arrives at an almost palpable architectural form, but its discovery is gradual and can begin anywhere.

INTERVIEWER

Does a character tend to change, establish an identity that seems a departure from what you originally had in mind?

MILLER

Characters, like real people, tend to deceive and deflect attempts to penetrate their motives, so as you go along you pick up hints. It’s all a lot like getting to know somebody.

INTERVIEWER

How easy is it to divide a work into the requisite number of acts? Does one have to add padding to gain a few minutes? Do you think of closing lines to an act and then work toward them?

MILLER

Act breaks are mysterious; the action seems to want to fall at some point. One should realize, too, that fashion has something to do with this. Until sometime around 1947, in New York (Europe may have been different) almost all plays were in three acts, the first presenting the issues or conflict, the second ending at a crisis, and the third at the climax and resolution. As society’s claims on the individual fell into doubt, so did the very notion of a plot or even a continuous story and all became sheer experience, moments of interest, one or another description of a moral chaos. Salesman and Streetcar come to mind among the earliest two-acters.

INTERVIEWER

Why are you drawn to theater at the end of this millennium? After all, the theater is now dwarfed by giant screens. It’s deafened by Dolby stereo. The electronic media appear to blot it out. It’s expensive. It’s very often awkward and uncomfortable to get to. Sometimes it’s not very good! Why stay with theater?

MILLER

Well, in the first place, I’ve been doing it all my life. But I do think it’s the simplest way for one citizen to address other citizens. It is the least complicated, the most naked means for a society to address itself. It’s far simpler than any filmic system. It needs nothing but a board and a man to stand on it, so that’s very attractive to me. That the rest is getting bigger and bigger, Disney and the rest of it, makes me feel even more attracted to the fact that it’s taking place in a hall only this big, and only in this place on the planet and not in seventeen hundred different theaters, some of which have two or three thousand seats! I like the fact that it’s intimate and that it is direct, and above all, I suppose, I like the fact that the writer controls it. I don’t think there are very many people who decide to go to a movie because so-and-so wrote it. Which is another egotistical reason to be writing plays! But it’s also that the word in the theater is the great thing. The word in the movies barely enters the scene, very little to do with anything. It’s the image. So, for those reasons I choose to stay with this old-fashioned, probably dying art. But I don’t think it’s dying. In fact, as I go around the country, there are more and more young people who want to be in it, be part of it, for the reasons I’ve just said.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a routine for writing?

MILLER

I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.

INTERVIEWER

Do you go to opening nights? Is that an easy experience?

MILLER

By that time one knows the answer. I go to buck up the actors.