Arthur Miller is Dead

You can read more about it all over (here’s the NY Times’ latest).  The passing of the best playwright in American history should not go unmentioned.  I remember reading The Crucible in high school, watching Dustin Hoffman’s fabulous portrayal in Death of a Salesman, and wondering how closely his great work After the Fall mimicked his real-life dramatic marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

Will there be another playwright as great as Miller?  Others come close in their wordplay: Mamet in particular.  But few are able to wordsmith and touch the heart of the American mindset as well as Miller did.  Rest in peace.

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26 thoughts on “Arthur Miller is Dead

  1. Um, Tennessee Williams?

    Arthur Miller is certainly in the pantheon of great playwrights, for his masterpiece Death of a Salesman, and his other plays about social injustice, A View From The Bridge, All My Sons, and The Crucible.

  2. Agreed — Williams can give Miller a run for his money. Suddenly Last Summer is a classic great, one of many. But Williams, while possessing a psychological reality that Miller perhaps missed, didn’t to my knowledge address wider societal issues the way Miller consistenly did.

  3. There’s also Eugene O’Neill, lest we forget.

    It is true that Miller was unusual in that he chose to write about social and political issues. American plays are traditionally about families, and their function and dysfunction. A play like Death of a Salesman is about larger issues than the family, though this may be in hindsight.

    I do not agree that Williams had more psychological reality than Miller, though Williams was more of a poet (far more).

  4. D., be careful — this could become an interesting discussion.

    First, good call on O’Neill. Vastly underappreciated, IMHO. Are there any modern playwrights you’d lump in there? I mentioned Mamet, who I think has that potential. Any others?

    For me, Williams was much more capable at describing madness, raw emotion and conflict than Miller. Yes, he was more of a poet, which is partly why I feel that Williams has more authentic personal emotion than Miller (note, that’s personal emotion, not emotion in general or anything). He was much more focused on the individual and on internal torment than Miller, who like I mentioned always seemed more interested in the bigger picture. That’s not to slight Miller — not in the least. But the two don’t share the same range of interest.

  5. Any thoughts on Neil LaBute? I’ve only seen his movies, so if anyone’s seen his plays please comment. I find him intriguing if for no other reason than he’s a Mormon and graduated from BYU.

  6. I just saw LaBute’s latest play, Fat Pig, on Wednesday night.

    I think he’s got some ideas, but he seems to be writing scenes for movies, instead of full-blown plays. He is … not in the same league as Miller, Williams, or O’Neill, though I am pleased to see that he continues to write for the stage, all but given up by Mamet and others.

    Mamet has a wonderful, unique writing style, but his body of work is quite slender. Again, it may just be the nature of our society now. Screenplays are the new stageplays, because new plays are simply not produced anymore. Two of Mamet’s screenplays are very fine, The Verdict, and The Untouchables, and his play/movie, Glengarry Glen Ross is superb.

  7. I was talking with a colleague today about this and learned that Arthur Miller never won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    In general, I applaud the move by the Nobel Academy to honor writers from ‘smaller’ traditions, but what’s up with that?

    Death of a Salesman and The Crucible are not only great works of literature, but they are also popular *and* — as has been mentioned — are reflective of and had an impact on American society that goes beyond most works of literature.

  8. “Screenplays are the new stageplays”

    I certainly agree with that assessment, in terms of mass consumption of media. Acting as a form of mass entertainment is simply only acheivable through cinema. That said, the stage remains the proving ground for many writers (Mamet included) and is the laboratory for a lot of great thought. La Bute is an interesting case-in-point.

  9. The problem with cinema acting is that the actor doesn’t really get the chance to fulfill a character — because of editing.

    In a play, once the rehearsals are over, the director and writer have left the theater, and it’s all up to the actors to deliver the play to the audience. This is real acting, unlike movie acting, which is saying lines over and over as naturalistically as possible, that may or may be left on the cutting room floor. Screen actors are more like … the artist’s models, to be painted or photographed.

    Playwriting is a branch of literature. I do not think there is a single screenplay in the same league of profound art as Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or A Streetcar Named Desire.

    Notably, plays promote writers before all else — Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Williams, Miller, Albee, Mamet, Sondheim, or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Movies promote directors — Chaplin, Keaton, Welles, Scorsese, Spielberg, etc. Television is more about producers (who ever heard of a director of a television show). Of course, actors become stars in all the mediums.

  10. “I do not think there is a single screenplay in the same league of profound art as Death of a Salesman…”

    I’m not so sure. What about Charlie Kaufman’s work? I’d put Adaptation up there in terms of original artistry.

  11. The reason screenplays don’t match plays is because movies are about pictures, about presenting drama as rhythmic pictures. Sometimes the screenplay includes descriptions of these pictures, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some great movie directors worked completely without screenplays (Chaplin, Keaton). Most of the time, when a screenplay is really, really great, the movie doesn’t turn out so well — it’s too written. I think Adaptation might fall precisely into this category.

    There are some very great screenplays. Citizen Kane, The Apartment, or L.A. Confidential come to mind. As movie blueprints, and as terse, exciting dialogue, these are art of a high order. Are they in the same literary league as Death of a Salesman? Impossible to judge.

  12. Here’s a little quote from Elia Kazan’s autobiography:

    When I say this was my favorite play, I don’t mean it was the best play. I am not a critic, but I do believe Williams wrote better. They were both Puritans, they were both concerned with morality — Tennessee more open about his “sins” and his problems, Miller more guarded. Still, Salesman is the play that got to me most deeply. It’s as if a brother was speaking of our common experience, a man who’d been through precisely the same life with his family that I had with mine. Art[hur] does an extraordinary thing here; he shows us a man who represents everything Art believes to be misguided about the system we live in, then goes on to make us feel affection and concern, pity and even love for this man. Then he goes deeper and we are aware of a tragic weight. Is it for the Salesman? Is it for ourselves? And along with arousing this sympathetic pain, his horrendous hero is able to make us laugh. He is ridiculous and he is tragic all at once. How is that accomplished? I don’t know any other play in any other language that does all these things at the same time. But Arthur Miller did them all — that one time and never again.

  13. Elia Kazan was the great “enabler” of these playwrights. He directed the premiere productions of both Salesman and Streetcar, and the movie of Streetcar.

    These “great” plays that he directed came AFTER his foray into movies, and winning the AA for Gentleman’s Agreement, etc. I think Kazan brought the movies to the theater, in a way that hadn’t been seen before. He brought fluidity to the theater. The 40s was a great, great time for movies, perhaps their peak time. Movies peaked as a popular art form in 1948.

  14. Sam Shepard, John Guare, Tony Kushner, Wendy Wasserstein, Edward Albee.

    Miller’s early work was great, but his later work really fell off.

  15. Hi, Rosalynde!

    Of those playwrights you mention, only Albee is in a similar class to Miller, with a few works. John Guare, Sam Shepard really occupy a different place altogether, Wendy Wasserstein is a satirist, and Tony Kushner … well, just not in the same league at all (in my opinion).

    Miller had one masterpiece and 4 other terrific works, quite similar to Williams. On the second tier, Inge has 4 pretty good plays, and Albee has 3. Many of these playwrights wrote their best work *before* their masterpiece, and afterwords couldn’t achieve the same standard again. This is true of Sam Shepard, too, who never wrote another play as good as Buried Child.

  16. I don’t think Arthur Miller’s work fell off as much as the theater passed him by. His insistence on theme gives his work a didactic edge that simply fell out of style. Miller had the growing popularity of TV and film to compete with, but rather than embrace the decreasing popularity of theater as an opportunity to be more experimental and provocative (as did many of the other playwrights that have been mentioned) Miller kept doing, or trying to do, what had worked for him early on. He wrote “Death of A Salesman” when he was thirty-three, and apparently it only took him six weeks, so you can imagine how that kind of early success and validation can convince an artist that there’s no need for change.

    Maybe he was right and he didn’t need to change. If we think in terms of whose work actually has a shot of being performed a hundred or two hundred years from now, he has more of a chance than nearly all the playwrights mentioned. That same dogged insistence on theme leads to a universality that was lost as the playwrights that came on the scene in the 60s and 70s pushed the theater in new directions, but often captured more of the zeitgeist of the times rather than anything that will resonate for centuries.

    Which isn’t to say I don’t still desperately want to be a Mamet, an Albee, a Sam Shepard, or a Neil LaBute, it just means that time is the cruelest critic of all. (Of those four, though, I’d probably most want to be Sam Shepard. He probably does the best with the ladies).

    I think Thornton Wilder’s work has a timeless quality, so I’d throw his name into the discussion and as far as new talent in American theater I’d recommend the work of David Auburn and Kenneth Lonergan.

    Finally, a slight clarification to D’s comment that TV is about producers. TV is actually dominated by writers, although it can be misleading because they’re often credited as producers on the screen. The best executive producers in television, Steven Bochco, David Milch, John Wells, Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, these guys are all writers who worked their way up and still write all the time. Plus, D, with all due respect, film acting has a slew of challenges you ignore, to say it isn’t real acting is grossly unfair, but that, of course, is a discussion for another thread.

  17. I have never cared for August Wilson’s work.

    As to film acting versus theater acting, I’ll happily debate anyone on the subject. Film actors are pawns in the hands of their directors — if Shirley Temple can be a big star actor at the age of 4, then one knows it isn’t all that difficult a job. Film actors who try their hand at stage work (I just saw Andrew McCarthy in the Neil LaBute play) quickly recognize how difficult acting can be. Ingrid Bergman won the AA (Best Supporting Actress) for the movie Murder on the Orient Express, over the other big, big stars in her cast. She told the press, “I had a fairly long speech, which I memorized, and did it without a cut. And for that, they gave me an award. I guess the other actors aren’t used to memorizing.”

  18. Hi D. and Brian–

    You’re both right, some of those American playwrights I mentioned aren’t in Miller’s league, and some are apples to his oranges; and Miller’s later work certainly deserves more than my flip dismissal (nicely argued, Brian).

    I’ve never liked “The Crucible” much, and I’ve been forced to read it far too many times, so that’s left me with a sour face for Miller. (Plus he was in love with Marilyn Monroe, which leads me to believe that he never would have fallen in love with someone with me, which also leaves me a little sour.)

    But sentimental as it is, I love “Death of a Salesman.” And stodgy as theme can be, I, being an English major, have a soft spot for a richly developed theme about which one can scribble all sorts of smart notes in the margins of one’s paperback.

  19. All right, D, you ready to rumble?

    First of all, Shirley Temple was a screen star because of her prodigious talent, not because film acting is easy. As a fan of old-time musicals, I think you’d recognize that and give Shirley some respect. Mozart composed minuets at 5 and symphonies at 8. Does that mean composing music is an easy job? No. Your logic is flawed.

    And Andrew McCarthy has trouble on the stage. So what? Does that mean film acting is easy? No, it only means he’s not that good, or maybe just rusty. It’s been a long time since WEEKEND AT BERNIES 2.

    I can assure you that many actors find the transition from theater to film challenging. The vast majority of silent era and early sound films are full of overwrought, overdone acting where the actors gesticulate beyond all reason. Why? Because stage-trained actors had yet to learn the nuts and bolts of film acting. It took years for the craft of acting to catch up to the new medium.

    The camera picks up every tiny and barely perceptible nuance on the human face. These images are then blown up huge on the screen. Any false or contrived emotion is exposed. Even in the smallest of stage venues it is easier for stage actors to hide behind technique. Not only that, but in the theater no one can hit rewind and scrutinize your work over and over again.

    Plus, having a camera in your face is distracting. Add a sound guy hanging a boom mike over your head, throw in some tracks and a crane, and multiply that by three or four times for a multi-camera set-up and a film actor needs astounding powers of concentration. All movement needs to be carefully choreographed so an actor doesn’t go out of frame or otherwise blow a shot. Film actors must also carefully position themselves and any props to preserve continuity. None of this is a consideration in the theater.

    Films are shot on tight budgets and tight schedules. It’s not unusual for a single take to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Often a film actor literally has one chance to get it right or cost the financiers big money—it’s tremendous pressure. Film actors typically have little or no rehearsal time. They often don’t have much time to develop chemistry with their co-stars. It’s not uncommon for them to meet the people they’re working with the day they show up on the set. With the advent of CGI more and more film actors are required to react to nothing but air or blue screens. The traditional “set” is dying and the amount of imagination required to perform convincingly is extraordinary.

    One of the advantages stage actors enjoy is continuity. Plays progress from beginning to end and one thing leads to another through the course of the night making it easier to be in the moment and generate authentic emotion. In addition, a live audience gives immediate feedback to actors on the stage which allows them to adjust their performance as the night goes on. In contrast, films are shot out of order. When the LOTR trilogy was shot, Ian McKellen had to play Gandalf the White, conceptually a different character from Gandalf the Grey, in a scene from RETURN OF THE KING, on the first day of principle photography. Imagine keeping the progress and development of your character straight through three lengthy films and months of shooting when the story is shot entirely out of order.

    The larger scope of cinema and the fact it demands more realism than theater requires many film actors to learn skills such as horse-riding, scuba-diving, rock climbing, piano playing, what have you, to convincingly pull off a role. Theater typically takes place in enclosed spaces where such action is rarely depicted and such extensive training is rarely required.

    Personally, I respect stage acting and am aware of how challenging it is, I would never say of it, as you have said of film acting, that it isn’t real acting. It’s easy to say that film actors are the pawns of film directors, but I believe with very few exceptions professional film directors (or even highly skilled stage actors that have also done film) would ever have the disdain for film acting that you express.

  20. It’s Miller and O’Neill, for me, though I haven’t seen (or read) much Williams. Two of the very best plays I’ve seen on Broadway were the revivals of “Death of a Salesman” (with Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz) and “The Crucible” (with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney).

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