In April of 2004 Arthur Miller, a loyal alumnus, made the last of many visits to the University of Michigan. Students had prepared a performance of scenes from his plays for the occasion, and Miller visited a rehearsal and spoke with them about their work. He conferred with administrators about plans to build the Arthur Miller Theatre on campus, a project that has reached completion and is scheduled to open next season with a production of Playing for Time. During his visit Mark Lamos, who had directed Miller’s work in the past, hosted a symposium for the author at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. The following transcript of their conversation was prepared by Ayelet Ammitay of the MQR staff.
The last time you were on this stage did you get that kind of a response?
Nobody knew I was there [laughter]. I was on this stage . . . well, it’s a hundred years ago. I played a bishop in Henry the Eighth and, thank God, had no lines. But I had a big hat. On cue I walked on stage, with about eight other bishops who were consecrating Henry’s marriage, or one of them, and on cue we all had had to go like that [bows] and I did.
I suppose I should say welcome home, because the university had a kind of immense influence on you as a young man. And I wonder how much of your artistic vision was based on your experiences here. You said, “I loved the idea of being separated from the nation by leaving Brooklyn and coming to Ann Arbor, because the spirit of the nation like its soil was being blown by crazy winds.”
You said, “My affection for the University of Michigan was due simply to their accepting me. They had already turned me down twice because of my academic record. I had flunked algebra three times in my Brooklyn high school. It was so low as to be practically invisible. But the dean reversed himself after two letters, in which I wrote that since working for two years in a warehouse at fifteen dollars a week, I had turned into a much more serious fellow. He said he would give me a try, but I had better make some grades. I could not conceive of a dean at Columbia or Harvard doing that. When I arrived in 1934, at the bottom of the Depression, I fell in love with the place, groggy as I was from the bus ride, because I was out of the warehouse at last and at least formally part of a beautiful town, the college town of Ann Arbor.”
You’ve said that the function of the writer is to remember, to be a rememberer. What are your memories of the place offhand?
Well, the first experience I had of Ann Arbor was, in those days, you had a cheap bus from New York to wherever you were going. It cost twelve dollars to go from New York to Ann Arbor. But, on the way, [the driver] had passengers to drop off in some place in Pennsylvania, another place in New Jersey, somewhere in Ohio. He just wandered around and at one point got caught in a field; he got lost. By the time I got here I must have been on that bus for, I don’t know, two days. I was simply cross-eyed. I got out of the bus, and I had never been in a taxi of course, but I saw a line of taxis. I got in one taxi and I said, “I’m supposed to go to the Michigan Union” and he said OK. We drove around for a few minutes and he brought me, I thought, back to where we had started [laughter]. But I was so tired that I couldn’t be sure. (Two or three years passed, and one day I was walking past the Michigan Union and I saw a line of cabs and I thought, that guy took me around the block!) But I was grateful anyway. I got a room from a Mrs. Nelson. It was the first room that I looked at but I saw that bed and I said, this is it, I’ll take this. The next thing I knew, somebody was shaking me. I opened my eyes and there was this elderly lady. She said, I was just about to call the ambulance. I said, why? And she said, well, you’ve been here for two days.
It was a remarkable house. I don’t remember anymore where it was. Because on the third floor there was an attic, and in the attic (I don’t know what I was doing up there) there was a big barrel filled with teeth. It was filled with teeth! I guess some dental student was living there.
I have another vivid memory. I lived at 411 North State Street for two years, on the attic floor. There was a very narrow staircase going up there. I was going home finally, so I thought . . . well, they had a coiled rope for a fire escape which was bound to the floor and I thought, instead of my lugging this suitcase down that narrow staircase I will attach the rope to it and lower it out the window. And I did. And it dangled about forty feet off the ground. I realized that I would have been dead had I tried to escape on it. Mr. Dahl owned the house, and as I was lugging my bag out, I said, you know, that rope ends about a story and a half off the ground, and he just said, well, somebody must have cut it. Didn’t bother him much.
Did you want to come here because of your desire to write and the Hopwood Awards . . .
I knew a guy who had been here for two semesters and then quit to join his father’s grocery business. I knew him in Brooklyn. And he told me about the Avery Hopwood Awards. In those days, with the possible exception of Iowa, and I’m not even sure that existed yet, creative writing in colleges was not really accepted as an academic course. It was too close to life. Harvard had a course in playwriting which [Eugene] O’Neill had attended but they got rid of it because they were embarrassed by it being not an academic—a proper academic— discipline. And Yale took it. This place seemed to me because of the Hopwood Awards to be taking writing seriously. By that time I had been working for some years in New York at various menial jobs. I had wanted to be a writer in a general, vague way, and I thought, well maybe that’s the place to go. The other thing was that it was so cheap. Columbia, for example, was five or six hundred dollars a year, which was out of the question. And even NYU and other New York schools were very expensive. And this was, I can’t remember now, sixty-five dollars or something, a pittance, and that was another reason to come here. But it was basically the idea that they would be receptive to an idiot trying to become a writer. And I was glad I did it.
You were saying yesterday that you really didn’t know that much about the theater . . .
I knew nothing. I wasn’t particularly expecting to become a playwright at that point. I was trying to write stories, unsuccessfully. When I got here, I hadn’t seen any plays to speak of, maybe two or three plays in my life. However, [Michigan] had an active department of play production. And I would sit out there and watch some of the shows, and I got to know a couple of the people that were interested in that kind of thing.
And there was another reason, I think, that I tried to do playwriting, and that was that in the thirties, the theater in New York was exploding. For the first time, probably, in its history, it was beginning to reflect real life, which was the Depression. These small radical groups of actors were putting on plays in storefronts and garages and places like that. When you entered, you made a contribution of ten cents or a quarter. And they were reflecting the new radical outcry against the situation of the country, and that was exciting. That’s when Orson Welles was starting to perk up, and a number of very very good actors, mainly actors, and a few writers, like Clifford Odets, were leading the general feeling that something had to change. The country was slowly starving, people were being thrown out of their homes, losing their farms and the rest of it. The standard theater at the time was a very conventional entertainment theater, which is what it usually is and is now, for the most part, and it hardly reflected anything but show business. It was of no interest to me, or anybody I knew. So writing plays seemed to be the best way to confront the audience, to speak what one was feeling, more so than prose, which seemed to be remote and distant in comparison.
You said somewhere that you chose theater because it was the cockpit of literary activity, where you talk directly to an audience and radicalize the people. During the thirties when you were in Michigan, it was a radical campus, right?
Well, part of it was. For example, the Michigan Daily had traditionally been in the hands of the fraternities, which were generally speaking very conservative. There were perches like that where the more well-to-do students hung out. But Michigan, like other schools in the country, was being flooded by sons and daughters of people who were going bankrupt. They were looking for another voice than that kind of voice. I was eager to write and the Michigan Daily was open to anybody. I joined the staff in my sophomore year, I think it was. And we began to really report what was happening. The Daily was becoming a fairly widespread newspaper rather than a campus paper, and in fact the Associated Press and the international news services would send reporters down once or twice a week to pick up what we were doing. Because there were interesting professors then who would sound off about monetary policy or one or another of the New Deal measures, and there were authoritative voices here that we could interview. So it got very exciting for a while, for some years. And gradually as we managed to wean the paper away from the fraternities it became a very lively, vital newspaper.
It’s interesting, on so many levels, that your early writing was journalism, that you were interested in current events, the polis as it were. And somehow you never shook that, as a writer of the fictive; you continued to attempt to speak to society and society’s ills. As did the Greek dramatists and Ibsen, who were your big influences as a student, certainly, right?
Yeah. I’ve always felt that the works that last, whether they be plays or fiction, are of course the works that address the condition of mankind at any one time. They’re not simply private emotional works that deal simply with the relationship between private people. They somehow echo the condition of the whole nation or of the world. That goes for anybody from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky to Thackeray. If they last it’s because they’re reflecting the larger reality of the time. I think it’s true of Shakespeare. So really the new note, or the aberration, is the theater and fiction that has nothing to do with anything. That’s a new invention. The original purpose or calling of creative art was always the community.
There’s a feeling that, like millions of Americans, the Depression shaped your view of the world and was continuing to shape your view of what you wanted to address in the theater even in the sixties and the seventies. The Depression and the Holocaust seemed to be the two defining issues, if not for all Americans and a good deal of the world, also for you as an artist.
What the Depression was was a crash of accepted values. For probably a half a century before that, one could say there was a stable set of values in the United States, as well as in Europe. And when that was overturned and nothing that had been true was any longer true, you got the feeling that you were living in a very conditional world which could be swept aside in ten minutes. So that you were forced to look for deeper values than were on the surface, because the surface values were going to go at any time. And I think that’s what the Depression meant to me as well as to a lot of other people.
Yesterday you mentioned too that there was a sort of archetypal father figure that was inextricably tied in to your feelings about the Depression.
I guess so. Of course, the fathers are the carriers of the past. The fathers are the authority, or were. Consequently, the struggle with the father becomes a struggle with the society. And it’s reflected in my work a good deal, or in my earlier work anyway. Now that I’m a father I don’t do that any more [laughter].
It’s interesting that in Resurrection Blues, Arthur’s latest play which we just opened in California, one of the actresses playing a daughter of a man who is a philosopher, and as such to a certain extent perhaps the playwright’s mouthpiece, though all the characters are, said to me once—I didn’t tell you this, Arthur, but she was going over a line and she wondered if she was saying it correctly and if she had the right attitude toward the character of her father in the scene. And I said yes, I think you do. She is a very intelligent actress and she said, I need to be careful because Arthur’s early plays were written by a son, and his later plays are being written by a father.
I thought that was very perspicacious. One last thing about your experiences here, this is as you were leaving the campus for the last time with a guy who sold saddles who could give you a ride. “As he started the engine, I waved to a girl who was standing in front of the Women’s League, a girl that I dared not dream I would ever have money enough or security of soul enough to marry. As we drove East through Toledo, Ashtabula, the red brick roads through the Ohio farmlands, I tried to tell him what Michigan really was. It was the professor who, with selected members of his class, held séances during which spirits of Erasmus, Luther, and other historical figures were summoned and listened to. It was the fraternity boys sitting on porches of their mansions, singing nostalgic Michigan songs as in a movie, and it was three radicals being expelled. It was in short the testing ground for all my prejudices, my beliefs, and my ignorance, and it helped lay out the boundaries of my life. For me it had, above everything else, variety and freedom. It is probably the same today; if it is not, tragedy is in the making.”
You returned to the campus in the fifties, and you were looking at the differences from your time two decades earlier. You noted, in this same essay, that there was a certain fear on the part of the students to say what was on their minds, and that there were actually FBI people on campus monitoring certain classes, groups, the Michigan Daily. What were your feelings about that?
I should explain that Ted Patrick, who was the editor of Holiday magazine, had [commissioned] a series of pieces written by graduates of various universities and colleges who were sent back to their schools to describe any changes that had occurred in the past twenty years. This was about 1952. He asked me to go back to Michigan, which I did. I had a professor, Erich Walter, who was the first one to recognize that I might have some talent. He was now the dean of the university, so I went to ask his guidance as to what was going on in the school. When I knew him as a professor, he’d come to class with his tie sticking out the side of his collar—he was very forgetful—he had his shirt buttoned wrong, and so on. And now he looked like a chief executive of General Motors. He sat me down and said, I’ll never forget this, “well, there’s a lot less standing around the lampposts than there used to be, chatting.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, the grades are very important now, and people want to be hired by large corporations, and so they’re watching their behavior, because the companies are very interested in how they live. You’ll find there is a little less free interchange of ideas and those ideas are not very standard. But see for yourself.” I said, “so, where do I look?” He said, “well, why don’t you go talk to the professor who’s in charge of freshman orientation?” So I went to see that guy. We just chatted, and he said, “we now have a situation where the FBI is paying professors—or asking professors, excuse me—to report to them any student who shows any radical ideas in class. And they are also asking students to report on professors who are saying any radical things in class. So the class was reporting on the professor and the professor was reporting on the class!
I asked some students, “do you feel any repression in discussing ideas of any kind?” And they were all kind of quiet and this girl said, “well, I live in a co-op house, but I don’t let anybody know.” I asked, “why don’t you let anybody know?” and she said, “well, they think it’s communism because I live in a house that’s a . . . cooperative house.”
I wrote up this piece and reported what I had found. They printed it. And the Pontiac Motor Company threatened Ted Patrick with withdrawing all their advertising if they ever used another piece by me. I didn’t know that. All I knew was that Ted Patrick kept calling me up and saying, “why don’t you write us something? Anything!” I said, “I’m not a magazine writer.” He said, “Well, do something! Anything!” It’s only later that I discovered why he was pressing me that way. They never did withdraw their advertising. But that was a little bit of the atmosphere at that time.
Yes, that puts me in mind of Ari Fleischer saying, “Be careful what you say.” Certainly there’s a feeling now abroad in this country that you had better watch it, that people are listening, that you’re being checked. For a whole series of other reasons, though, the danger that people felt from the communist threat, such as it was, or wasn’t, was certainly felt as powerfully as what everyone is feeling now about terror.
It’s a big problem, but how you handle it is what’s important.
A lot of your great roles have had to do with people who deny their society, their destiny, their fate. And some critics feel that denial actually lies at the very center of your work, that you explore the lives of those who fail to acknowledge their freedom to act, like Aeschylus, like Ibsen. And when you think over the people that have come out of your brain and your response to the world, from the fathers of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, to the terrorized Puritans in The Crucible, to the driven Eddie Carbone in View from the Bridge, on to the extraordinarily perceptively drawn characters of your later work, comic as well as tragic—how immensely enriched our psychology is, not to mention the lives of audiences who’ve seen these people, how much we’ve learned from witnessing them denying. And I wonder if you could talk about some of the people that brought those characters to life. You’ve worked with some of the greatest actors in America and England. Just to name a few salesmen: Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, George C. Scott, Brian Dennehy; recently, in a revival of The Crucible, Liam Neeson; in a revival of View From the Bridge, Allison Janney as the wife, Vanessa Redgrave in Playing for Time, John Malkovich, Mildred Dunnock, Jason Robards in After the Fall, these extraordinary people . . . what did they give you?
Of course, all the people you’ve mentioned have immense energy, the life force. That’s probably what we look for in a major actor. They enjoy breathing, they enjoy even their pain. It’s a kind of participation in the joy of life, even when they are playing a downbeat kind of a person. It’s the ones who don’t quite achieve that who aren’t the stars, that aren’t the significant actors. We go the theater to stay alive, finally, to celebrate life. I think that every one of those people you mentioned had that high intensity. I remember Lee Cobb, who was the original Willy. I’ve told this story before. When I met him he was this big fat lugubrious fellow, and I had imagined the character to be a little guy full of ginger, one of those little salesmen who are more or less like a squirrel, and here was Lee looking like a big beef. And he came to my house once before we cast him because he was desperate to do the part. He was an old friend of Kazan. My son Bobby was a little boy playing on the floor. At one point Lee looked down and Bobby had done something funny. And he laughed, Lee did. And it was a real hearty laugh and you wanted to just burst out crying because it was so filled with sadness. He could be very funny, but while he was being funny he was dying in front of you.
I knew that was Willy. Of course, some of these others like George Scott, who was a raging maniac, and had the energy of a locomotive. And Millie Dunnock, who played the first Linda, when I laid eyes on her the first time I said, it’s impossible! She’s as skinny as a rail, she’s far too young, she was probably thirty, thirty-five, and she was supposed to be the mother of grown guys. And we were reading actress after actress after actress, and then this actress came in and read and I thought, I’ve seen her somewhere. Well, it was Millie Dunnock, but she had made herself up with a big dress, and padded herself out, and she got the part.
You worked with Kazan on Salesman and All My Sons and then he also directed a couple of Tennessee Williams’s greatest successes, and then you were on different sides of the fence, politically, during the fifties, and then you came together again.
Yes, we did After the Fall.
I’ve often wondered what it must have been like in the room—
Well, I hadn’t seen him in a long time. See, Lincoln Center had started under Robert Whitehead, a friend of mine who had produced some of my plays. Kazan was the artistic director of the new Lincoln Center; what they were trying to do was to recreate a good theater. It was maybe the most influential attempt to create an American theater which was an art theater, rather than a commercial theater. And Kazan had been part of that, as had Harold Clurman, who was one of the directors of that theater, and they now were directing the new Lincoln Center which hadn’t even been built yet. So they asked me to contribute a play, and that’s how it happened.
Did you choose Kazan or did he . . .
Oh, no, he was the director. They needed a first play and they called on me to provide it. Which I was happy to do, because I thought this theater would maybe bring back this vision the Group Theatre sometimes had of a theater based on art rather than box office. It didn’t pan out that way but that was the idea in the first place. There’s an interesting footnote which I should mention, I suppose, and that was that before the theater had produced one play, or even announced a play, there was an astonishing hostility toward it in the press. I couldn’t believe it at the time and I still don’t quite understand it, except that there were questions like, if Kazan can make so much money doing movies and commercial plays, why does he do this? And when you tried to explain that, well, he wasn’t happy doing movies and the rest of it, you were met with total incomprehension. And [the hostile press] was led by, I must say, by academics, by people at various universities who were indignant that these successful people should be running an American theater. It should be run by failures [laughter], by people who couldn’t get their stuff done anywhere else. It was amazing! And that continued until finally it was effectively destroyed.
Every play of yours is autobiographical to a certain extent. After the Fall seems to have garnered that appellation more than others. And I wonder what it was like when you were reunited with Kazan and yet there was a character in the play who was pretty clearly an informer, like Kazan. Did you guys ever talk about that?
Well, he had a great capacity for keeping a straight face, Kazan did. And I wrote the play before I knew that it was going to be at Lincoln Center and I wasn’t about to change it. But he could acclimate himself to anything, as he did with that [laughter].
You said when we were talking before that you hadn’t really thought about writing specifically for actors, per se, and yet you wrote The Misfits for one particular actress. What was it about her that you felt you wanted to investigate that she couldn’t do in other films?
I felt that Marilyn had the possibilities of an important actress. She had a terrific insight into human behavior. And I thought that under the right circumstances she could be something else than a comedic performer. And so I wrote that. That was the only time I ever wrote something for a performer. And I thought she was pretty good in it.
I’d like to talk about your reception in Europe and England, as compared to here. There seems to be a feeling that a lot of critics, not interestingly enough audiences, but critics here yearned for what you were doing, though they didn’t realize that each play was a pretty daring experiment. And yet your output in the last twenty years has been extraordinarily varied and powerful, constantly seeking new forms. One English writer said, because you’re so beloved in England particularly and you’re so scrutinized there, that “Miller’s tragic vision is more compatible with the perspective of Europeans who accept human imperfection and recognize the need to offset it with responsible action.” And Peter Ackroyd offered the opinion that “Miller is quite out of place in the United States, not because of his erstwhile Marxism or diagnoses of American ills in his drama, but because he is a man of traditional values in a nation with no real faith in tradition, a moralist in a society that avoids serious moral debate, a classical tragedian in a culture that relies upon the more obvious charms of show business. This is an autobiography—” (he was writing about Timebends) “of a playwright in the wrong country.” His great fear for America, and this is one of Miller’s explanations for his greater success in England than in the United States in recent years, is that “we don’t have a past anymore. To have no real awareness of a continuity with the past is to have no culture, to be invisible in one’s own land.”
What has been the impact on you of the way you’re embraced in Europe and in England particularly?
Initially it was very difficult to understand because I’ve never spent a great amount of time in Europe. I’d visited, but I’d never lived there, really. And I’ve never thought of myself as European in any way. But I think partly, it’s that . . . let’s put it this way, right now we know that large parts of the world are hostile to the United States, and everybody’s wondering why, apart from this Iraq thing. And I felt for many years as a result of the impact of my plays that it’s a mixture of envy and of a fear that we really have no insight into peoples that are different than we are. Americans don’t speak foreign languages, by and large. Their interest in anything beyond the borders of the country is limited. A European of any cultivation has to speak a couple of languages; he inevitably without being very thoughtful about it gets to understand what other people think about him. We never really cared much about that, excepting that we like to be praised. But I have felt for many years now that a hostility was building, apart from the current situation. Because of the tremendous power we’ve got to influence other people. The culture of the United States has flooded the world, and it has gotten to the point where the French, for example, who are symptomatic (they’re not very unusual) have been tempted from time to time to limit the number of American films that are shown so that their film industry is not totally engulfed by us, by American actors and American stories. It’s the inevitable result of a powerful culture, art is. We’ve got an instinctive touch when it comes to the popular mind because we’ve had no aristocracy. It is a democratic country. And we know without knowing it, without bothering to understand it, how to reach ordinary people, sometimes with the most vulgar, worthless junk on the face of the earth, but we know how to do it [laughter]. And this has garnered a lot of resentment over the years, at the same time that it is also imitated. So it’s a very complicated affair.
I think my own position has been that they sense that I’ve had battles of my own with the culture. For one thing, I don’t think that the theater is necessarily only about entertainment. I think it’s entertainment that reaches the soul, the spirit. And this has very little place in our professional theater. Our professional theater is about money, and it’s about popularity at any cost, no matter what. And that is a big argument to be having over a long period of time. And it reflects a little bit their argument with us, I think.
Popularity at any cost is such an American idea, politically, mediawise, isn’t it?
No matter what, you’ve gotta make it big.
I asked one of my students who is working on the Miller celebration that begins tonight, if she had a couple questions that she might want me to ask you. And she wrote, “After 9/11, many witnesses and television observers of the attack described it as being ‘like a movie,’ a fictional construction of special effects. Around-the-clock news channels and global internet have further blurred the line between how we experience real effects and how we experience fictional ones. What role can live, fictional theater play in this world, and what must American theater do to stay vital today?”
She’s getting her Ph.D., OK? She’s supposed to think like that [laughter].
She’s really broached an important subject. We’re in the hands of actors, largely. I wrote a short book called Politics and the Art of Acting, which advances the idea that our politics now is more about acting than it is about values, issues, or anything else. It’s burst loose, it’s been that way for quite a time, but with television it’s overwhelming. It burst loose with Reagan, who knew how to maneuver in front of a camera better than anyone around him. The real, whatever’s real, gets drowned in effects—special effects, the effects of the personality. I often think, what would Lincoln have looked like on television. You know, he was very ugly. His wrists stuck out from under his sleeves and he had a mole, he looked terrible. And if you had put a camera in front of him, he wouldn’t have been elected dog-catcher. The first shock I ever got about this was when I saw some film of Eisenhower being made up. And I thought, this guy led the biggest military invasion in the history of the world to save Europe, or help save Europe, and here he is in a chair getting powdered before he addresses his fellow citizens. There seemed something terribly wrong in that. Of course, Nixon had a dark beard, a five o’clock shadow. He never could shave properly, he was always dark and looked gruesome. And that probably helped sink him. And what are we going to do now, are we going to vote on the basis of how pleasant somebody appears to be or how winning his personality is? What happens to what he intends to do with the country?
It turns into spin.
It’s all spin! And I think it’s maybe the issue. Because, how do you get around that? In my little book, I point out that in the last election Gore made one error that might have proved fatal for him, although in my opinion he probably won the election, but it was pretty close [clapping]. At one point, when Bush said something utterly idiotic, Gore went like this and the camera caught it [rolls eyes]. And that sunk him. Every commentator said, “What a bad performance.” It was the one moment that he was real. That was the instant when the man really expressed his feelings, and that’s when they nailed him. He wasn’t acting, and if you can’t act, you can’t be President. Something wrong with that.
I was struck by the fact that you recently accepted the Jerusalem Prize in Israel. I looked it up on the web and I wanted to read back to you (kind of annoying, I know) an early paragraph in this very powerful speech.
“The fundamentals of my views are simply that Israel has a right to exist, and the Palestinians likewise, in a state of their own. With the expansion of settlements, I have witnessed, initially with surprise and then with incredulity, what seemed a self-defeating policy. I’m not going to pursue conflicting arguments with second-hand knowledge but merely to say the obvious, that the settlement policy appears to have changed the very nature of the Israeli state, and that a new birth of a humanistic vision is necessary if the Jewish presence is to be seen as worth preserving. To put it perhaps too succinctly, without justice at its center, no state can endure as a representation of the Jewish nature.”
But the mayor of Jerusalem exploded. I felt for a long time that it was a self-defeating policy. Again, it was a question of denial. They are denying the existence of the Palestinians. Golda Meir said, “we are the Palestinians,” way back. And of course Israel was settled by socialists, they were the ones who built the country. And they knew very well that there was a Palestinian identity, and that they existed, and that the issue had to be dealt with. It later became something that had to be denied. The fanatics on both sides have now led both peoples into the pit, where they’re tearing each other to pieces. I don’t know what the answer is. I read in the paper today that some kind of a peace movement seems to be in the bud on both sides, and I only pray that it gets somewhere, but I don’t know enough to say that it will.
You said a couple weeks ago, when we were in San Diego, that all you had to do was look around the world to see that every single conflict and every death was caused by religious belief.
Well, it’s a fanatical religious belief, yes. From Northern Ireland to Iraq to the Middle East, the Palestinians and Israelis, it’s religious fanaticism which is leading every one of these disastrous conflicts. Because the idea is, “I have the truth, and if I have the truth, you can’t have it, since you don’t believe as I do.” It’s as simple as that. And once that Manichean idea is let loose, I mean when Bush speaks of the axis of evil and that we are in a crusade of some sort, it means that we know what’s right and they don’t. Well, it’s a nice fairy tale, but what about them, when they say they know what’s right and we don’t? It’s war. We’re going tear each other to pieces. There’s no other way. So this kind of fanaticism, ultimately, in the hands of the wrong people, will blow us all up. For righteousness’s sake. And it’s probably why, initially, we were told that there was a wall of separation between church and state in this country, which a lot of people are trying to tear down, unfortunately.
Another question that the student who’s working as a director on this project wanted me to ask you is this: “You’ve referred to yourself as a whistleblower of sorts. Do you hope for these reflections and alarms to catalyze your audiences into active change, or is raising their consciousness enough?”
There are very few instances where a work of literature or art or drama or anything has actually changed the behavior of people directly. Maybe Uncle Tom’s Cabin could’ve come close to that; Steinbeck’s story of the Joad family did in fact cause the passage of certain legislation in Congress, but it’s a very rare, unusual thing. All you can hope for, I think, and what you try to do, is illuminate something, so that people can make up their own minds based on the reality of the situation rather than the mythology. And if one can do that, it’s enough.
I was on a panel in New York a few years ago with, among other people, a scholar of Greek tragedies, who said that the most performances in the history of the world of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, ostensibly the greatest antiwar play ever written, were between 1939 and 1945. But nothing changed. It was only a response to the horror that was going on.
One more question about the socially relevant writer—do you see any today who are writing—?
I’m not really equipped to answer that question because I don’t read all the books. I don’t have the time, or eyesight. But I have a sense that our literature is more and more filled with socially relevant work than it was years back. I think we’re on a good track, in that respect. The escapist notion is always there—people want to get out of their troubles and read some story that takes them away from life. And that’s OK. But there’s been a lot of literature in the last years that I think is relevant.
Are there any plays or playwrights that you’ve read or seen in the last ten years or so that you feel are going to have an impact on the way we think?
The theater has been very involved in life, but it’s a glancing blow. We’re not taking up issues so much as just dealing with personal feeling. At least that’s my impression. But I see maybe four plays a year, so I can’t make any generalizations about it.
Some questions from you folks [audience]?
Q: Good morning, thank you for coming. Was there ever a time that you were stuck on a play or a character, and if so, what kept you writing, how did you get over it?
Sometimes I never got over it [laughter]. And it happens about once a week. What you read on the page looks like it’s been there forever, but believe me it hasn’t. It’s always a struggle to find what you are looking for. And certainly the theater, the play, is as much rewritten as it is written. It’s a long, arduous, mostly thankless task.
Q: Is most of your rewriting done before you bring it into the theater?
Yeah. I tend to write maybe the opening twenty-five pages of something, and then forget it for a couple years. I’ve always assumed that I was going to be around long enough to finish it and then come back and go on with it.
Q: I was wondering if you might talk a bit about Resurrection Blues and any parallels it has to current issues in the media today.
Lamos: [turning to Miller]: Maybe you’d better talk about that.
It does, yes, it’s very related to what’s happening now. Basically, the play is a satire on the brainlessness of so much of our communication, with one another, and between business and the public, and government and the public, and so on. It’s a play about miscommunication as much as anything else, and miscommunication by design. What would you say about it?
Lamos: I think you’re absolutely right. It’s a play that works on a lot of levels thematically, that’s one of the things that makes it so vital. Craig Nolan, the eighty-eight-year-old artistic director emeritus of the Old Globe Theatre, said that when he read the play, it’s like the play of a twenty-five-year-old writer, passionate and exploratory and experimental. It does have initially as its targets the media and mediaspeak, but then it also, subtly and powerfully, goes into the constant difference between the description of a thing and the actuality of a thing. There’s a scene that ends the compilation of Arthur’s work that we’re doing at the Trueblood, in which one character talks about the fact that on the Egyptian wall paintings, there are depictions of the various peoples that the Egyptians overcame but, in fact, anthropologically, no mention of the Jews. And so the whole story in the Old Testament might in fact be apocryphal. And so you have part of the play dealing with that disconnect, and you have part of the play dealing with the disconnect between the reality that these people are televising and the way they want it to look commercially. In that sense it’s a really brilliant dissection of how we believe things, and how we have a collective idea about a deity, because the play is about a crucifixion, and how we have collective ideas about our past. So it’s absolutely a cumulative play in Arthur’s thematic oeuvre.
Q: As a fellow alumnus of the Michigan Daily, I can’t help asking about your experiences there, if you could elaborate a bit. Were there big stories that you covered, were there friendships you made that helped your development as a writer and as a playwright?
Well, one story I covered was that of a professor who had finally established that the reason people got fat was that they ate too much [laughter]. This stuff he found important, and it is. Because what he did was he constructed a room, I don’t remember where on campus, maybe in the medical school somewhere, he constructed a room inside another room, and in there they recruited students now and then to go about their daily life inside that room. All the air going in was measured, and all the carbon dioxide going out was measured, and the food was measured to the gram, and so on. And he worked for three days with a student, and discovered that if the intake was lowered by so much, the weight was lowered. And it was very precise. And it was a disaster for that poor man when I wrote that piece. Because all of the fat people in the United States thought that he had found the way to make them thin, and there was a line around the block of people trying to get him to treat them. And of course he had no interest in that at all, he was just doing the experiment.
That was one story. Another story was when I interviewed an economist who explained to me why the Tennessee Valley Authority—that was the great New Deal attempt to electrify the farms in the United States—why that whole idea was unconstitutional. And while he was telling me this the Supreme Court was deciding that minute that it was constitutional. So as I was writing my piece, and it was being printed, we were getting on the wire the opposite story! Stuff like that.
Q: Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Miller. You spoke today, and yesterday a little bit, about the relationship between theater and our social world and political world. I was wondering if you could expand today on what you feel is the place of theater politically and socially, in general and specifically about the integration of religious and racial ethnicities and bodies in theater.
Well, of course, we would be here until next week if I really answered that question. But I think in the long view, which I’m burdened with, things have gotten better. That doesn’t mean they’re great, but it’s gotten better. You have to remember that when World War II started, the United States Army was not integrated. There were no black people mixed with white people in the United States Army. The black guys were all driving trucks or they were loading trucks, and it reflected the way life was in this country. I won’t go into all the details, you know them better than I. I think it’s improved vastly, to think that there would be a black secretary of state would have been laughable forty years ago. But there’s a long way to go, because we have come a long way with the wrong feelings. And to live down those feelings and to integrate them into our hearts and change them is not the work of a day or of a generation, but of many generations. But the only good thing I can say about it is that, as crazy as this country is, and it certainly is, it’s got a chance, because of the craziness, because we’re not definitely locked in by law to one course of action, we’re capable of learning under this system and that’s a great hope.
Q: Mr. Miller, Could you talk about the creative process and how that works for you and about finding art and the feelings and emotions you go through and the idea of a muse, how that works for you?
I wish I could answer that question. I don’t know what the process is. I generally work because I am struck by something that someone has said. Playwriting is an oral art; it’s not an art of a writer expecting to be read but a writer expecting to be heard. And so I think that if I hear a character speaking, either one I’ve invented or one I’ve confronted, it starts a process of creating which I can’t control or even describe properly. If I could describe it I probably wouldn’t do it.
Q: In today’s economic and social world is it possible to have a nonprofit, authentic art theater, the way the Group Theatre was, for instance?
That question is the question. Whether we can hope to ever have a theater based upon the art that is at the same time reasonably popular, so that it has a sizable audience. I don’t know the answer to that question. I think theater now is struggling with the television. People go into the theater now hoping to get out of it and go into movies, because that’s where you make a killing and that’s where you can become famous. And the idea of developing actors and writers who want to be actors and writers for the theater has diminished a great deal. Not just here, it’s in Europe and in England, but we’ve gotten there first, as we do with most things. And it’s a question, really, whether we can continue to create new plays and new productions and new actors and so on, with next to no public support.
Every theater we look back on with any respect was subsidized theater, starting with the Greeks and Shakespeare and Ibsen, and the rest of them. The idea of private theater for profit is a very recent idea, and it’s possibly coming to some kind of an end. I’m speaking of plays, not musicals and big entertainment productions, but plays where people stand up on stage and talk to each other. A decision will have to be made by the society that they want this to happen, that they feel there is a value here that transcends profit and loss. We are nowhere near to even considering such a decision. The British have made a decision but it’s very chancy there, it’s very unbalanced, it’s very uncertain too. The British National Theatre gets millions of pounds a year in subsidy, but they create some very great work. The question is whether there is a value in that work which compensates for all that money being spent, when other things need money too. And there’s a constant debate going on; it’s by no means clear that they’ll survive.
We never even had that debate, we never confronted this issue in any serious way. I can’t foresee that we will. I don’t see anybody talking about this at all. The theater with us has basically been a profit-making theater, or not. There may be local companies which do a little work now and then, but a continuous high-level institution of some sort that deals on a serious basis with drama and high-level comedy, we don’t have it. And we’re not about to have it. People constantly bring it up. But the idea has no power to spread at the moment. There is no consciousness of such an issue.
Lamos: One last question. We’re so overwhelmed now by global conflict, by religious and cultural conflict. What can the average citizen do not to feel powerless, and what can the artist do?
It depends on the moment, of course. I happen to believe that we are now on a very bad course, nationally and internationally. This is the argument of the coming election. The reason I think it bad is that we seem to be wanting to reestablish an America that passed away around the turn of the last century, with McKinley. In fact somebody in the present administration stated openly that their aim was to reestablish the America of McKinley, which means an America with no restrictions on any business whatsoever. That is, if you’re going to pollute, you pollute. Do whatever you like, because the market rules. Even Theodore Roosevelt’s position is not good enough. He established the national parks, tried to limit the decapitation of the forests, all that. They don’t want that, even. Well, that’s one direction. You go there if you want to go there, and you know how you end up. The question is how much regulation and to what end. And if we don’t do this, if we allow people to simply pursue profit regardless of what it does to a society, I think we could easily end up as the biggest third world country on the earth. The capacity to devastate our environment is now up for grabs, we don’t know whether we can survive, and part of the administration is going in that direction. If it isn’t stopped, if it isn’t changed, I think we could end up in an ecological disaster.
You know, about two months ago, a piece of the Arctic icecap broke off, about the size of the state of Rhode Island, and fell into the sea. This is fresh water, it’s now dissolving into the sea. There are scientists, who are serious people, who believe that this is going to continue, and big pieces of that icecap are going to continue to break off and dissolve, which will change the warm currents of the Atlantic Ocean and its direction, and will leave northern Europe and England in an Ice Age. What it’ll do to the American climate, God knows. Now, I don’t hear anybody talking about that. It’s not a subject that’s of interest. Now these people are not crazy. I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not happen. They’re talking about it now as one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in the last ten thousand years. And we’re sitting here talking about the theater! Somehow the political leadership has to be our eyes and our senses, our consciousness, and it’s not there. I don’t sense that anybody can see further than the next vote. It’s not good enough anymore. It really isn’t.
Lamos: I think there is a reason that, at eighty-eight, you’re still concerned about . . .
I’m trying to live to be eighty-nine! [Laughter]
Thank you, Arthur, for still being here.
Inset image 1: Arthur Miller speaking in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater during his last visit to Ann Arbor, 2004.
Inset image 2: Arthur Miller and Mark Lamos in conversation, 2004.
Rachel Farrell is the Blog & Social Media Editor for Michigan Quarterly Review. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ninth Letter, Pank, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @rachelfarrell.
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