|Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe greet well-wishers after their civil wedding ceremony in 1956. The marriage eventually ended in divorce. (File/Associated Press)|
No enemy of the people
A writer in full, fiercely political with a life of high drama
By Christopher Bigsby
Harvard University, 776 pp., illustrated. $35
In the remarkably short span from 1947 to 1955, Arthur Miller completed five plays that made him famous: “All My Sons,’’ “Death of Salesman,’’ “An Enemy of the People,’’ “The Crucible,’’ and “A View from the Bridge.’’ In so many respects their themes are timeless. Yet Miller’s momentum as a writer was abruptly halted in 1956 during his affair and subsequent marriage to the glamorous Marilyn Monroe, an improbable relationship that began with mutual infatuation but ended with disillusionment and recrimination in 1961.
During that span Monroe starred as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in “Some Like It Hot’’ (1959), a huge hit costarring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and directed by Billy Wilder; but the marriage ended badly soon after she made a much less successful film written for her by Miller, aptly titled “The Misfits’’ - a thinly veiled story about a couple rather like themselves but also reflecting the tensions in Miller’s first marriage, which ended after he met Monroe in Hollywood, but not because of her.
Born in 1915 to an immigrant Jewish family in New York that became quite affluent in the garment industry, Miller suffered from the deprivations of humbling family losses during the Great Depression that damaged relations between his semiliterate father and his bright, cultured mother. He also endured the strains of having an older brother who sacrificed education to work for the family’s survival while Miller managed to scrape together enough to attend the University of Michigan and write prize-winning plays. Whereas the brother served in World War II, Miller was designated 4-F because of a leg injury.
Understandably, his plays concern guilt, tensions between fathers and sons and between brothers, unhappy marriages, persecution, issues of immigrant life, social class, and infidelity, but also redemption from personal transgression. Miller believed that he could only write from experience and drew heavily upon people and places he had known well, including his blue-collar factory work during the war.
The plays are also intensely political, sometimes implicitly but often overtly in the case of “All My Sons’’ (war-time profiteering from inferior equipment) and “The Crucible’’ (witch hunting in 17th-century Salem) because they were written during the first phase of the Cold War, a time of virulent anticommunism and dreams of making good in the struggle for economic survival.
Unlike Tennessee Williams, the other major playwright of his generation, Miller always remained politically engaged. Marxism appealed to him during the ’30s and beyond because he felt so committed to social justice. Although he never joined the Communist Party, he associated with many friends who did, attended numerous party meetings, and signed countless petitions on behalf of leftist causes. Because so many of those petitions were published in The Daily Worker, the FBI developed a file on Miller that fattened when he became famous in the ’50s. Even though he lost sympathy for Stalin, Miller believed that World War II could not have been won without Soviet sacrifice, and he was reluctant to abandon support for the USSR long after more savvy public figures did.
Miller’s political naïveté becomes a central strand in this complex narrative and culminates in 1957 when he is summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs. Unlike his talented pal Elia Kazan, the brilliant director forced to testify before HUAC five years earlier, but like feisty playwright Lillian Hellman, Miller refused to reveal the names of friends who had attended meetings and events with him. Although sentenced to 30 days in prison and a $500 fine, that judgment was eventually reversed by the US Court of Appeals.
Christopher Bigsby, professor of American Studies and director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia, has very likely written the definitive biography of Miller - sympathetic but not uncritical - whom he knew well and interviewed numerous times before the dramatist’s death in 2005. Bigsby has assiduously read countless unfinished scripts, unpublished stories, and drafts of Miller’s plays, and he supplies abundant context so that the reader can compare Miller’s views and social situations with those of his contemporaries. Bigsby takes extraordinary pains to explain how each play evolved and how it was received. He persuasively argues that Miller’s career was shaped by a profound conviction that the theater could play a meaningful role in changing the world. Even if that belief appears overly hopeful, Miller’s plays stand as a testament to his courageous capacity to explore dilemmas of civic conscience and the human heart.
As for Miller’s own heart, while filming “The Misfits’’ in 1960 he met Inge Morath, a vivacious German refugee from World War II who became a talented photographer and world traveler. They married soon after and enjoyed four decades together, especially at Miller’s country place in Roxbury, Conn. Having endured a troubled childhood, much hardship as a teenager, and two problematic marriages, Miller lived happily ever after with Morath.
Michael Kammen, emeritus professor of American history and culture at Cornell, is the author of “American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the Twentieth Century. ’’