The Arthur Miller Moment


It's rare that drama criticism is of any value to a working dramatist, beyond alerting the dramatist as to whether he (or she) will be paying his (or her) rent-bill or feeding his (or her) children. By the time the critic's review is printed, it's usually too late for revision of the play in question—meaning, simply, the play is written/complete, already produced, already available for public consumption. The ship has sailed.

A few years ago, reviewing a public staged-reading of an early draft of my play-in-progress Compromise, Boston Globe drama critic Ed Siegel suggested that, in completing my play, I should find for its second act "an Arthur Miller moment." This seemed to me useful criticism. My play was still in flux, still to be completed. I jumped on Siegel's sage advice, found my "Arthur Miller moment," and, in doing so, created an extremely exciting/successful revision of my play's second act.

What, then, is "an Arthur Miller moment"? Let's have a look.

Miller, like myself, (and like Ed Siegel) is a Jewish-American, meaning, simply, we were born to Jewish parents in the United States of America. Miller grew up in Brooklyn, New York, among many Jews. I grew up in Wakefield, Massachusetts, among no more than a dozen other Jews. This is to say we were born on totally different Jewish planets. But, for me, and for dramatists and drama critics of the generations following Miller's, Miller gave definition to what a play should responsibly contain. Miller has been for me as a Jewish-American dramatist, what Aristotle was for a Greek-Greek dramatist. He gave us thoughtful, practical rules for writing a serious play. He taught us how to be a dramatist writing drama. Tragedy was, I think, Arthur Miller's target, but drama was what he achieved. And, given modern life as it is, that was a huge achievement.

Aristotle taught Golden Age dramatists that characters should be high-flown. He instructed dramatists (in Poetics) to write of kings and queens, gods and goddesses. Miller, by contrast, was born into a less-golden world of economic depression, of the Holocaust, of McCarthyism, of overt racism, of political corruption. And so, by example, Miller taught we dramatists of generations immediately following his own, to create characters who are far more earthbound than Aristotle's Golden Age gods. Miller's heroes are quite ordinary, but almost always in the throes of extraordinary moral dilemma. Consider Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Eddie Carbone in View From The Bridge—all ordinary people flirting with moral corruption. And it is, for me, that moment in an Arthur Miller play in which a character steps over the line and sees his particular moral catastrophe that is the "Arthur Miller moment". It is a moment of profound introspection, and of unthinkably high drama.

As a kid, I remember vividly seeing a Boston try-out of Loraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and, soon after, a local production of Miller's Death of a Salesman. Both plays stunned me into wanting to be a dramatist. The familiarity of the characters of both plays lulled/comforted me into thinking it could be possible, one day, for me to be a dramatist. I wish that Hansberry produced a larger body of work than she did. Alas, she didn't. But, Miller did. He weathered the dark years of Frank Rich as head drama critic at the New York Times, when playwrights like Miller and Edward Albee (and I) were somehow considered unworthy for the New York City commercial stage. Miller's work found a home in England, Albee's in American regional theatre, and mine in France. Miller wrote and wrote, and continues to be, at more than 85 years old, a vital force in world theatre.

It was my good fortune, at age 28, to be invited by a New York-based PBS station to do a nationally-televised conversation with Arthur Miller—just the two of us—a younger and older playwright, talking together about playwriting and about life. Due to technical problems, the conversation had to be re-talked and re-taped—so we ended up spending several hours together. Recently, I was told that videotapes of the show were being sold online. I got hold of one, but cannot watch it without great pain. Miller was kind, generous, wise. I, by contrast, was a pretentious young twit. To quote Jacob Brackish in my play Park Your Car In Harvard Yard, "If the man I am met the man I was, there'd be a fistfight!" But, that direct contact with Miller deepened my interest in both the man and his work. And both have been a source of inspiration.

While I have had, over the years, a passing friendship with Arthur Miller, it was Samuel Beckett who was my true friend, my father of choice. Beckett was a man of profound integrity. Beckett, I believe, was a far greater poet than Miller. But, as we all well know, talent is as random as tragedy. But integrity is not genetic. Integrity is acquired, and then it is vigorously protected. Beckett's life and Beckett's work were equally pure. I can say the same of Arthur Miller.