Arthur Miller after Monroe: an artist's life in the shade


BIOGRAPHY:Arthur Miller, 1962-2005 By Christopher Bigsby Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 589pp. £30

IN A 1983 interview Arthur Miller told a grim story about an encounter with a young woman. The author had been checking in at a limousine-service desk when someone overheard him giving his name to the clerk. “Oh!” she said. “That’s the same name as the man who wrote the book.” A bemused Miller told her he was that very man. “Oh no,” said the woman. “That’s impossible. Arthur Miller has been dead for years.”

It was Miller’s misfortune that he would spend the second half of his life being famous for achievements that had long passed. There was his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe, which had ended badly in 1961, and there were the four extraordinary plays he wrote between 1947 and 1955: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucibleand A View from the Bridge. In successive revivals around the world those dramas would be hailed as American classics, even as Miller’s newer works were dismissed, often viciously, by the critics. And although Miller was married for 40 years to the photographer Inge Morath he continued to be questioned about his relationship with Monroe up to his death, in 2005.

Arthur Miller, 1915-1962, the first volume of Bigsby’s biography of the writer, was remarkable because it cast new light on those long-familiar aspects of his life. In contrast this second volume is important because it demands that we stop neglecting his many achievements after 1962. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a man who was certainly flawed but whose attempt to find common ground between art and activism was astonishingly courageous.

Art, Miller knew, must be beautiful, but “its degree of perfection . . . is subordinate to its relevance” to the society that produced it. As the cold war progressed governments everywhere would seek to maintain control by manipulating our understanding of reality through censorship, surveillance, propaganda and violence. Miller saw his theatre as reasserting the value of the real in the face of such developments. He was determined always to “speak the truth to power” and did so consistently, often at significant personal cost.

That attempt was courageous precisely because, as Miller’s life went on, fewer people were willing to listen to him. After the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell, in 2001, he immediately prepared an article that argued that “food rather than bombs should be dropped on Afghanistan”. No one was willing to publish it.

Similarly, almost no one was interested when Miller was summoned unexpectedly to meet Mikhail Gorbachev during a 1986 visit to Moscow. The Russian premier had just returned from a summit with the US president, Ronald Reagan, a meeting widely regarded as a failure. Yet Gorbachev insisted that progress could be made, and outlined to Miller his ideas about glasnost, or openness. The role of intellectuals, said Gorbachev, was “to concern themselves with politics and to keep the human being at the centre of consideration” – a principle that might be used to explain Miller’s own attitudes to art and life.

Despite being ignored, Miller persisted. He was instrumental in demanding the release of imprisoned authors around the world, intervening on behalf of such writers as the Nigerian dramatist Wole Soyinka. His liberty was secured when the head of the Nigerian government was told that Miller had been married to Marilyn Monroe. For once that association was used to good effect.

Bigsby also considers the famous story of Miller’s trip to Turkey with Harold Pinter, how they met imprisoned writers (some of whom had been tortured) and were thrown out of the US embassy when Pinter insulted the American ambassador. Those details have been recounted in Pinter’s wonderful essay Arthur Miller’s Socks, but here Bigsby provides new information from Pinter, who explains that, in their final hours in Turkey, the pair were told that the military had issued a decree for their arrest. They faced an extraordinarily tense journey to the airport, relaxing only when their plane was in the air.

These details are fascinating in their own right, but Bigsby also shows brilliantly how Miller’s plays were grounded in such experiences. He provides what ought to be the final word on Miller’s After the Fall, which has for too long been seen reductively as offering a portrait of Monroe. He also shows how, with appropriate direction and a responsive audience, many of Miller’s later works can be performed successfully.

This aspect of his argument is likely to be of particular interest to Irish readers: few of the plays that Miller wrote after 1968 have been staged in this country.

Bigsby is particularly strong in providing a balanced approach to the most controversial aspects of Miller’s life. His opening chapter, for instance, offers a stimulating argument about the ethics of representing the Holocaust, pitching Miller’s attitudes to that atrocity against the views of the political theorist Hannah Arendt and others.

He’s also very careful when writing about Miller’s son Daniel, who was placed in care when it was discovered after his birth that he had Down syndrome. Bigsby points out that, in agreeing to the institutionalisation of his child, Miller was following what was at that time standard practice (a rare instance of Miller surrendering to the received wisdom). But he also reveals that Miller had little or no contact with his son thereafter. “Understanding our own motives is hard enough,” writes Bigsby, “understanding other people’s, harder still.”

He is sensitive too about Miller’s relationship at the end of his life with the artist Agnes Barley, who was 55 years his junior. Theirs was a “romance that potentially leaves the outsider and the family alike uneasy”, writes Bigsby, though he is careful to note the care that Barley gave Miller during his final battle with cancer.

“Artists are always the prey of sadists,” wrote Miller. In the second half of his life Miller was often the victim of such sadism, but what is most inspiring about this biography is its meticulous recording of his refusal to surrender. “If you refuse to submit,” Miller wrote, “they can’t get you. So I really go inch by inch . . . You make what can be made in a day.”

Patrick Lonergan lectures at NUI Galway and is director of the Synge Summer School for Irish Drama, which takes place in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, from June 30th to July 3rd