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James Carroll: Your most recent book, Time Bends, is a work-of memory. You made your reputation, in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, with plays in which memory not only appears as a subject but suggests a form. Would you talk for a minute about what memory means to you as a writer and how it generates your work?
Arthur Miller: My way of writing plays involves the birds coming home to roost. It’s also the Greek way, and Ibsen’s way. It’s about challenges that were not met when they came up and so those challenges return and haunt people. History is of the essence in that form.
I’m so old now that it’s appalling to me that people forget ninety-eight percent of what I remember. There seems to be no past in America except that we have to pledge allegiance. The current dramatic forms don’t have much past; they are more like movies. In movies we rarely ask ourselves about the past of the character. A few quick references are enough. In the older forms, what I think of as the dramatic forms of theater, you spend a third of the work dealing with the past; whether it be Shakespeare’s work or almost any you can mention. The past has gone out of the theater. We’re writing films on the stage.
History is, to me, the great mystery. I’ve been trying to think of people and how they would be under different histories. How I would have been if I had grown up at a time when there was no Hitler, when there had not been a great Crash.
In the twenties, when I was a child, there was no menace to America. The whole United States Army had about three hundred thousand men. We were not threatened, it seemed, from anywhere. That’s an odd way to grow up when you think of it now. How different people must have been without the pressure of the real threat that we have had for the last two generations. Plus the propaganda threat-because, as we all know, half the fear is from what we make of it. Where did history bend me? Where did it bend most of us? Is it possible to arrive at a pure person, somebody who exists to one side of his time? The Ur-person, the person who would be there no matter what was happening?
The reason I ask is because I’m aware constantly, as I look back, that my generation was twisted out of shape by history. I was too. I think, for example, of growing up and thinking that there was a way to escape the flood of materialism in America.
In the Depression, whatever anybody has told you about cooperative people, the competition was murderous. One grew up looking towards socialism as a means of escape: the cooperative society, where there wouldn’t be any money anymore or, if there were, there would be enough for everybody. Then going to the Soviet Union in the last twenty-five years and seeing the catastrophe that that is.
If you’ve got a basic American problem you can be sure it is a universal problem. In this country, we do get wherever we’re going sooner than anybody else. This country is in the vanguard on the way to the abyss. We are “numero uno” with everything. We can be good or bad, but we are going to be it first.
The largest single export that the United States has is not steel, it’s not goods, it’s culture. More money comes into the United States from our export of culture than from any other thing. That means we are still the ones who are inventing the age, for good or ill. That doesn’t mean we are any less confused than anyone else, it just means that we’re doing it with more of a contemporary style. But the fundamental preoccupations are the same everywhere, I think.
Carroll: Do you think that life in the tragic sense is another way to describe the American condition we’ve been talking about? Is the purpose of writing to quicken the sense of the tragic in people?
Miller: In the twenties there was a critic who said that there couldn’t be tragic writing in America. The critic said that we had too many chances of avoiding the truth without suffering. The country was too big for tragedy. It was a form for confined societies like ancient Greece.
And Eugene O’Neill wrote a letter saying that would be a damning condemnation of the United States and the American character if it were true, because it would mean that we had no desire for meaning in life. That we were perfectly content to drift from point to point with no significance given to what we did. O’Neill said, it’s true that we find it hard to create tragedy, but we, above all, will create the great tragedies because we are more full of illusions than anyone else. I think he was right.
We may be the only country that still does attempt tragic writing. In Europe and other places they’re tired and they don’t want to hear any big questions. We still have the energy if we could only find out how to form it and use it and symbolize it-to ask the big questions: Why are we alive? What does it all mean? These are the great tragic questions. To confront them, you need great courage, great bravery. You need foolish bravery. That’s not something that goes with timorous, careful cultures; it goes with lunatic cultures, like this one.
I cannot accept that each man is an island and that literature, theater, is something done altogether for the pleasure of the artist and altogether to divert people from real life. I think that there is a mission. It may be terribly subtle, it may be buried deep, but literature has a job that has to do with the way we live, the way we organize ourselves. That is why I find it inescapable that I should be involved in thinking about politics and thinking about society. I think that it is all one piece. In most of the history of literature this question would never even have arisen. It wouldn’t have arisen for Shakespeare, whom we regard as the purest of artists. He was up to his neck in Elizabethan politics. After all, what are those kings fighting about? It’s Bush and Dukakis. It’s a fight for power, that’s what those plays are about. Power to do what? To sell England, to ennoble England, to do something with England.
That we have to ask this question is interesting: that we have so separated ourselves from each other that we have to ask whether literature is involved in real life, politics, and so on.
Carroll: During the McCarthy era, when you wrote The Crucible, you were engaged on one side of America’s fierce argument with itself. Isn’t it true that it is easier to write out of a fierce moral argument?
Miller: Yes, it’s easier when the devil is visible, when you have to decide to face him or not. That’s easier than looking for him every day, and wondering where the hell he’s hiding. The McCarthy era was easier in that sense. It created a locus for one’s feelings, whereas now we aren’t quite sure whether the whole question of right and wrong, good and evil, applies to anything. But that’s temporary maladjustment. All we need is a stock market crash of the first magnitude, and morality will follow in its wake.
I hate to even mention the fact that when you have a war certain values become absolutely obvious. If someone betrays a soldier we don’t argue that betrayal is simply a way of letting it all hang out because innocent people get killed that way. But we are at peace now and we are extraordinarily rich, and whenever you’re rich and at peace, people walk around in circles wondering why there is no enthusiasm for anything. We are not the first civilization to arrive at that point, but I expect it’s going to be a temporary vacation.
Helen Epstein: I want to go back to the question of memory and personal history. You grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City. Your father worked in the garment center. Yet when I read your plays I find very little Jewish content. When you began writing plays did you make a conscious decision not to write about your own family in an explicitly Jewish way? How did your feelings about this evolve?
Miller: The first play I ever wrote was about my family. Despite what the critics have written, the autobiographical element then was discharged. I don’t think the decision was conscious. I felt that there was such a thing as a person and, as I gained more experience in the world, I could find less and less reason to differentiate between people because of their ethnic backgrounds. In All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and so on, I don’t think that if they had been Catholics, or Jews, or Protestants they would have been very different. There is no ethnic identification with these people. Basically they are New York Americans, if there is such a thing.
I’ve dealt openly with Jewish questions over the last thirty years, like in An Incident at Vichy, which takes place in France and where the whole issue is the Nazi treatment of Jews. I wrote a novel about anti-Semitism in New York, and I’ve written journalism about Jews. My favorite character of all, in The Price actually, is a furniture dealer who is manifestly Jewish.
I was in Egypt a couple of years ago, and I had a broken ankle so I couldn’t go traipsing around very much. Our boat docked here and there along the shores of the Nile, and I would sit and talk to the local people if they could speak English which many of them could. One day, in the distance, I saw this dervish approaching. It was a man on horse-back, a man in uniform. He got off his horse and ran over to me eagerly and said, “You’re Mr. Miller.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I’m the chief of police along this area of the Nile, and I wanted to ask you something.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Is it very hard to write a play?” I said, “Yes, it’s hard. Why? Do you want to write a play;” He said, “Well you see we just published The Price in our police magazine.” I said, “The Price? In the police magazine?” He said, “Yes. It’s got a policeman in it. And it’s exactly the same with us as in that play with that policeman.”
And so you ask me why aren’t there Jews? There are Jews, I guess. There are a lot of people. I try vainly sometimes to maintain that with all this ethnic explosion there has to be something called Man, and if he exists in my plays, I couldn’t be happier.
My problem is that I can’t attach myself to a going religion. I keep thinking that between God and me there is a very special understanding. I don’t have to go out of my way to reassure Him; we see eye to eye.
I don’t pray, except in my work. It’s a form of prayer. I have written very few things to the end because if I don’t feel, somehow, that I’ve touched some fundamental flow of energy in the world, I can’t finish the damn thing. It lies there dead. It is purely instinctive as to when I have done it, or think I have done it. I am religious, but I don’t know the form, excepting that it has to do with my work.
You know when Death of a Salesman came to Boston, we had a road company, so-called. In those days when you had a hit in New York you made a second company. I was doing all the casting with the director, Harold Clurman, and by sheer chance every member of that company was Irish. Nobody was conscious of this, but critics in Boston said, “At last we have a good play about an Irishman.”
Carroll: Would you discuss what the Chinese made of Death of a Salesman? We always talk in a very self-centered way about the play giving dramatic form to American dilemmas of success and failure, as if the problem came out with the United States of America. But how did the Chinese discuss the tragedy?
Miller: I’ve seen plays of mine in China, and in every country in Europe, and in Russia, and in places I wouldn’t have believed would understand them, and it’s the same thing everywhere. We’re fighting over nothing.
When I arrived in China for the production of Death of a Salesman, all the cultural people at the embassy said, “You’d better put out a précis of the play because they’re never going to understand what the hell this is all about.” Only two people there said, “It’s nonsense, they’re going to understand every word of this play.” It was the ambassador, who had been born in China, and the political officer at the embassy who made it his business to understand something about China. Everybody else was sure that it would go right over their heads, because they were too primitive. “The Chinese is fundamentally a peasant, and what does he know about salesmen and selling” and so on. And the ambassador said, “What the hell do you mean? They invented it.”
They invented the family as a force in society. It’s the most important thing in China. They’ve toured Death of a Salesman all over the Far East. It’s their national monument. The national company does that and Tea House, which is their national play.
The only difference I noticed in the Chinese reaction to Death of a Salesman was that they thought that the Willy Loman character should be a woman. In China it is the mother who sends the children out into society and tells them that they’ve got to accomplish something. But apart from that the reaction was absolutely the same.
I think that we are mistaking superficial aspects of life, like etiquette, for fundamentals. For example in China, a son would never be so familiar with his father as to call him “pal.” He would have to be more formal. The French would also have a little difficulty with that informal quality. But Salesman just ran again with Francois Perier, a great actor from Paris, and it toured all over the country.
We have differences in language and in the manner in which we convey things, but what we are conveying is at bottom very much the same: life is a bewilderment. We spend our lives learning how to live: the problem of what to do with our lives, how to raise our children. The problem of justice, how to achieve justice without becoming a dictator.
Epstein: Your entire generation’s lives have been twisted by events in the twentieth century, and in your writing you often talk about despairing and about feeling that your life has been a failure. What do you believe in? Where, with all this talk of despair, do you find the energy and the faith to keep on writing?
Miller: I have to feel happy about something in order to write sad plays. I reviewed, for the New York Times, a book of O’Neill’s letters, and I realized that we’re always trying to explain the same thing to everybody, because he was constantly having to say, “Look, I’m very cheerful.” I must hope my plays are about how to hope. The sad part is that we are filled with illusions, and those illusions create hopelessness. The truth makes hope possible. When I see a truth, or think I do, I feel hopeful. And the energy rises.
I find it difficult to write plays now. I think authors pick up one or another fragment of reality and exploit it for two hours and then go away, and that’s because we aren’t moved at the moment. We find it hard to be moved by what we used to call the “moral qualities” because we are doing all right. We don’t want to hear about whether or not we are right or wrong. But the great plays are about that.
Great plays are about illusion and reality. They are about faith and the absence of faith. But you can get along pretty well in this country now without faith. You have to believe in the stock market to make money at it, but, apart from that, we are not in extremis now. It is not an extreme social situation. People are rather confused about most things, I think.
When I came into the theater we used to complain that the theater was trivial. That here we were facing Hitler, the Depression was on, the Spanish Civil War had just taken place, and what have we got? We’ve got farces and comedy, theatrical nonsense about nothing. The problem is always there. The difference is, possibly, the faith that you can change it is not there.
I remember there was no question in my mind that I could reform the whole thing. I would just shake it up and nothing would be left but greatness. I can’t find anybody who even thinks like that anymore. The ones who are really concerned are very minimalist in their views. They try to figure if they can stay open for two months, creep in and creep out, maybe write another play. But change the situation? They wouldn’t even think of it.
That’s the difference. It’s not that the situation is so bad, it’s that the surrounding hopelessness is pronounced to anyone who can remember the past when we wouldn’t accept that hopelessness for a minute. I wonder how many people would agree that the American theater is trivialized, including the artists in it? Did they really think that this is the way it ought to be?
Arthur Miller (1915-2005) was one of the most prominent playwrights of the twentieth century. His works include The Crucible and Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman.
James Carroll is Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University and a columnist for the Boston Globe. His most recent book is Practicing Catholic.
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