Power and Style in Arthur Miller’s Middle Period

Trevor Laurence Jockims

 

Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1964-1982

The Library of America

Edited by Tony Kushner

 

 “Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1964-1982,” edited by contemporary, award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, is the second volume of the planned three-volume Collected Arthur Miller from the Library of America. This is one of those instances in which the book as an object asserts its own importance, since the look, feel, and heft—this volume alone runs to 848 pages—of the high-quality Library of America series is itself testimony to the cultural prominence of the authors included in its series.

 

The first volume in the series—“Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961”—appeared in 2006, featuring landmark plays by Miller, including “All My Sons,” “A View from the Bridge,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “The Crucible.” These are the plays that cemented Miller’s place in the American theatrical canon, while the plays of 1964-1982 represent Miller’s middle period, including “After the Fall” (1964), “Incident at Vichy” (1964), “The Price” (1968), “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” and the teleplay “Playing for Time” (1980). In addition, several of Miller’s one-act plays and sketches—such as “Fame” (1970), “I Think About You a Great Deal” (1982), “Some Kind of Love Story” (1982) and, published for the first time, “The Reason Why” (1970), are also included in this volume. These sketches and shorter pieces give a particularly concise account of the experimentation and dramatic growth Miller sought in his middle period, following the enormous success of his early works. Importantly, the collection includes many instances of Miller’s own lucid writings on his work, and the crafts of dramaturgy and acting, including reflections on several of the middle period plays.

 

Miller’s position as perhaps the foremost of American dramatists is suggested by the full treatment he receives within the Library of America Series (the only other dramatists given comparable consideration are Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams). The release of volume two coincides nicely with the major production of “Death of a Salesman,” staring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. Clearly Miller’s most famous play, “Death of a Salesman” marks many of the traits that are extended in the 1964-1982 middle period, especially the social consciousness of “Playing for Time”—which tells the story of a Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz—and the family drama of “The Price.”

 

In many respects, the middle period of a writer of Miller’s stature represents a critical conundrum: Having surpassed the early rush of creativity and innovation, and not yet having arrived at what Edward Said would call the fullness of a late style, the middle period may easily be overlooked. Part of the function of this series, presumably, is to mitigate this very problem.

Perhaps the best-known work from Miller’s middle phase is the 1964 play “After the Fall,” which offers a deeply personal account of the writer’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe. The play was not a commercial success, but its experimental and stream of consciousness construction—the entire play takes place ‘inside’ the mind of its protagonist, Quentin—have made the play an object of much interest within academia, especially in terms of its bridging of intimate material with experimental form. The play’s symbolic settings evoke the existentialist drama of earlier works by Samuel Beckett—the action takes place in the mind, thought, and memory of Quentin. Except for one chair there is no furniture in the conventional sense; there are no walls or substantial boundaries, the set direction begins—all while maintaining the naturalistic speech patterns Miller was lauded for:

 

MOTHER—her laughter turning bitter: God! Why must every wedding in this family be a catastrophe! … Because the girl is pregnant, darling, and she’s got no money, she’s stupid, and I tell you this one is going to end up with a mustache! Five beautiful men like that and one after the other … I don’t know where they find such women!

QUENTIN, watching her, seated: But what the hell has this to do with a concentration camp?

MOTHER: And wants a tight gown! As though she’s fooling somebody! That’s why, darling, when you grow up, I hope you learn how to disappoint people. Especially women.

 

The many prose works included in this edition provide real insight into Miller’s continued development as a thinker through his middle period. Never one to shy away from reflecting on his own works, this volume nicely showcases several pieces in which Miller discusses his own plays—including especially intriguing essays on “After the Fall,” “Incident at Vichy,” “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” and “Some Kind of Love Story”—making one able to appreciate the ways in which the theater was always, for Miller, intimately connected to the political and intellectual worlds that surrounded it. Take, for instance, Miller’s statement on “After the Fall,” in which he links experimental theater and personal crisis to the political milieu of 1960s America:

This play is not “about” something; hopefully, it is something. And primarily it is a way of looking at man and his human nature as the only source of the violence which has come close and closer to destroying the race. It is a view which does not look toward social or political ideas as the creators of violence, but into the nature of the human being himself. It should be clear now that no people or political system has a monopoly on violence. It is also clear that the one common denominator in all violent acts is the human being.

 

The Library of America’s gathering together of Miller’s middle period, under the astute editorship of Tony Kushner, marks a major literary event, one that will help readers and scholars to continue to appreciate the arc of Miller’s great career. As a playwright, Miller both cemented and challenged the conventions of the modern American stage. In one of the essays included in the volume, “To the Actors Performing this Play: On Style and Power,” one is able to see how adroitly Miller understood the connection between convention and innovation, on stage and beyond. A great virtue of the Library of America collection—whose quality editions are a wonderful reminder of the important cognitive act that the physical bringing together of works into bound volumes can have—is the opportunity to read statements like the following note on actors’ styles within the full context of the middle period, and the whole political and intellectual climate they speak to:

A man wearing a beard in this country is expressing a certain attitude toward society. Judges, policemen, executives, admirals, and the power structure as a whole are clean-shaven. The bearded man adopts a convention to protest or separate himself from another convention. The beard in this culture is connected to art, the free spirit, the opponent of Philistinism in all its forms. The function of the beard is to impart to its wearer certain particular values in opposition to power.

 

Author Bio:

Trevor Laurence Jockims, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine,  teaches English literature at Hunter College, City University of New York. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Anderbo, Kino Kultura, Connotations, and elsewhere.

 

Photo of Miller and Monroe: Popstar.com

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