Saturday, February 12, 2005

A giant has fallen

Arthur Miller, that is. I cried last night when I heard the news the he is dead at 89. He was truly a hero to me: Not only did he act on a well-defined social and political consciousness throughout his life, but he managed to write sublime material - prose, drama, memoirs.

As many have pointed out, if he only wrote Death of a Salesman that would be enough to put him squarely in the pantheon. I'll never forget when I first learned that it didn't only resonate with me because of my Depression-era dad; millions had the same emotional reaction. I can't read it, hear the lines or see it today without breaking into tears for all the hopes and lives broken by the attempt to bend "one's ideals to society's dictates," as Charles Isherwood wrote in a New York Times' appreciation.

Then there was the fateful and fascinating rift with Elia Kazan, who directed Miller's work fabulously, but who had his own political and personal demons that sent him away from Monroe, and later towards HUAC. Just as surely Miller headed in the opposite direction. (A couple of years ago PBS produced a terrific program on their own decades-long drama.)

So the torch is passed - probably to Tony Kushner, in overall sensibility. Here's Isherwood again: "Mr. Miller's greatest plays, in which he used both his conscience and his compassion to question the prerogatives of American society, remain both as unfashionable and as necessary as ever." Amen.

[added Feb 13]
In a Sunday Times op-ed, David Mamet adds this to the eulogies:
"We are freed, at the end of [his] dramas, not because the playwright has arrived at a solution, but because he has reconciled us to the notion that there is no solution - that it is the human lot to try and fail, and that no one is immune from self-deception. We have, through following the course of the drama, laid aside, for two hours, the delusion that we are powerful and wise, and we leave the theater better for the rest."

Then he concludes, "To find beauty in the sad, hope in the midst of loss, and dignity in failure is great poetic art." That's what Miller does, and what really great theatre does: lessen the delusion - after which we leave the theatre better off (not so with O'Neill, or Williams, who have us leave the theatre in tatters - or at wanting a drink).

No comments: