Arthur Miller, ca. 1966

 

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 PriceAfter 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.