Arthur Miller: a principled playwright

August 9, 2009

Arthur MillerChristopher BigsbyWeidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008739 pages, $79.99 (hb

The FBI reviewers had no qualms about judging Arthur Miller's plays solely on their political merits in the 1940s. They damned them for their "collectivist philosophy", their "indictment of money-making" and for being a "shrewd blow against American values".

To the FBI's disdain, and to our good fortune, the federal agents were indeed on to something, as Christopher Bigsby's biography Arthur Miller shows.

Miller was born in New York in 1915, the son of a successful clothing manufacturer and Wall Street investor, until the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression undid it all.

Miller, who in 1932 had discovered Marxism, escaped from a life of dawn to dusk manual labour only through the low admission fees to the University of Michigan.

At university, as a politically-committed journalist for the student newspaper, Miller covered labour strikes, racial discrimination, and fascism in Germany and its pre-war frontline in the Spanish Civil War.

Miller also discovered the theatre, and both his playwriting art and politics were driven by engagement with a world in crisis.

After some radio plays and a drawer full of unpublished theatre scripts and unfinished novels, Miller finally found Broadway success in 1947 with All My Sons, in which war-profiteering capitalists supplied cheap but defective aeroplane engine parts to the US air force thus sending young pilots to their death.

Miller's 1949 tragedy, Death of a Salesman, also took artistic aim against capitalism, a system which discarded a 63-year-old salesman to the economic scrapheap and suicide.

Miller, however, was swimming against the new anti-communist Cold War orthodoxy that turned the war-time alliance with the Soviet Union on its head and attacked the 1930s Keynesian "New Deal" social and economic reforms.

He was still loyal to Marxism (though "very, very unhappy" about the Soviet distortion of it, and at odds with the Stalinist conception of art). He also felt a loyalty to "the forty million people who got killed there [in the Soviet Union]" during the war. He chose to stand against the red-hunting tide.

And so, Miller's 1953 play, The Crucible, with retrospective prescience, saw in the hanging of 19 men and women and two dogs convicted of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692, a hysteria (fear of the Devil) that was a foretaste of the hysteria (fear of the red devil of atheistic communism) underpinning the new conformism of Cold War capitalism and its official show trials.

Centre-stage were the inquisitions of the government's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) whose hearings, notes Bigsby, were a theatre of ritualistic, public confessions of political sin.

HUAC also carried a vicious sting — it could ruin careers (up to 12,000 people lost their jobs) and destroy lives.

The parade of accused leftists was designed, as Miller understood, to intimidate all critics of US capitalism, tarring them with a Soviet gulag brush.

In a defiant press release issued before his own appearance at HUAC in 1956, Miller enumerated the battles of the new Cold War, with HUAC standing for, and Miller resolutely opposing, a new war against the USSR, greater social and economic inequality, the destruction of militant trade unionism, and privatising public housing, public schools and free medicine.

When HUAC subpoenaed Miller, Marilyn Monroe, who had recently married him, hoped that he would "take on the bastards … He's got to tell them to go fuck themselves, only he can do it in better language".

Although Miller chose to play HUAC's game to the extent of declaring the obligatory patriotism ("in rather too effusive terms", notes Bigsby) and tended to portray himself in apologetic terms as an "innocent abroad" when he was in the US Communist Party orbit, he held firm on refusing to name the names of those with whom he had attended party meetings.

By failing to give proof of true repentance through the identification of fellow sinners, Congress charged Miller with contempt, the Justice Department prosecuted, and he was sentenced to 30 days in prison and a $500 fine.

Although this verdict was reversed on appeal, Miller was still subjected to harassment — his passport was not renewed for five years and he spent some years on a Hollywood blacklist, which forbade the (lucrative) purchase of any of his works by motion picture or TV companies.

Miller died in 2005, with cries of "communist stooge" still ringing in the obituaries of the political right who never forgave him for standing up to HUAC and keeping his progressive left-wing views, including opposition to the Vietnam War.

Miller, alas, hasn't found in Bigsby his best chronicler. Bigsby notes that we are "living in an age deeply suspicious of grand ideological narratives" but he does not regret this — "the Marxist utopia", in particular, declares Bigsby, has been "revealed as a chimera", destined, as all such childish dreams are, to disillusionment and failure.

Miller's fault, says Bigsby, was to hang on to Marxism longer than most of the '30s red intelligentsia, long after "logic and the historical process" had confirmed that Marxist beliefs were "misguided".

Although Miller later agreed that he had been misled about the socialist pretensions of the Stalinist Soviet state, Miller had, in Bigsby's eyes, been insufficiently anti-communist for too long, "blind to the systematic cruelties of communism".

In this indictment of Miller, Professor Bigsby simplistically and ahistorically equates socialism with the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union, a tattered page straight out of the Cold War anti-communist textbook.

This reading gives ideological cover for the Marxist-God-that-failed socialists of the red '30s (whom Bigsby generously quotes), those renegades, informers and betrayers who turned on their beliefs, hoisted the capitalist standard and joined the witch-hunt against the left.

Miller did none of these things and his plays continue to speak, with intellectual clarity and emotional power, for a world for people and not for profit-makers holding their privileged system together with fear, suspicion and persecution.

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