Arthur Miller, The Crucible, the Red Scare, and McCarthyism — two important resources

Reflections on re-reading The Crucible, continued from here.

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This will be a lot shorter, just because my scholarly investment in the twentieth century pales in comparison to my personal investment. That is to say, I don’t have as many perspectives from which to discuss the question of the play as an element of Miller’s biography, and its relationship to the Red Scares of the first half of the century. I suppose I could have told you what one of my graduate school mentors said to me about The Crucible as I prepared for my doctoral exams: “That play has nothing to do with the seventeenth century. Tell your students everything they know is wrong. Start over. And tell them they can talk about that play in a course on the Cold War that you will not be teaching.” Well, I also took modern history exams, and also taught the twentieth century — so she wasn’t completely right about that. Even so, I’ve got less of historical relevance to say about that period.

11707However, before I get going on analysis — I have read and can recommend both of the “obvious choices” on this topic. I have mixed feelings about both, but both are definitely worth the interested readers’ time.

First, especially for those readers for whom authorial intent plays an important role in plumbing the meaning of the text, Miller’s autobiography is probably indispensable: Timebends: A Life (New York: Grove Press, 1987). The Crucible grew out of from one of the most intensely creative but personally difficult periods in the playwright’s life, and Miller has plenty to say about it. In particular I think his discussions of his reactions to the politics of the time at which the play was original stayed are important, and the conflict between himself and Kazan over how he reacted to Kazan’s decision to “name names” is fascinating to ponder. Still, the problem with relying on this account as a definitive account of the creation of the play is mainly that Miller had numerous things to say about it as it moved from its heavily criticized, rather flat Broadway opening in 1953 to its current status as one of the most popular works of American literature worldwide. So it’s important to realize that even as some themes remained constant, the meaning of the play changed for Miller himself as his life moved on from the 1950s. Here, for instance, is his statement in the New York Times from 1953, and here, for instance, is his statement after the film production (thanks to reader miapatagonia for forwarding the second link). My bigger issue with Miller’s autobiography, though, is that I found while reading it that the more of it I read, the more unlikeable I found its author! I was really prepared to love the author of such wrenching plays as The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, but I found him often cold and insensitive on the whole. The book offers an honest accounting of the author’s recollections and reactions to them, I believe, but not a very probing or self-revealing one. And the jumps back and forth in time can be extremely confusing to the reader.

9780297854418Second, the best detailed biography of Miller is commonly acknowledged to be the two-volume work of Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller (volume 1, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010; first UK edition 2007; second volume, 2011). The first volume, to 1962, is longer and more detailed and Bigsby apparently considers this part of his life most important. If it weren’t for my historian’s tic about always reading the primary sources first where possible, I’d almost suggest that one read this work before looking at Timebends because as the story of a life, it is a much better read.

Bigsby doesn’t follow a strict chronological narrative, either, but the sensible way that he divides up certain themes that stretch backward and forward from 1945 to the 1960s helps the reader along. UK style can be a bit of a pill for me (too many “be” verbs and “there ares”), but on the whole, the book is briskly written, accessible to the educated general reader, and offers an interesting but not overwhelming level of detail. It also points one to other relevant primary sources from the period of Miller’s life that one might want to read. Bigsby is an expert on twentieth-century U.S. theater, and has published a definitive critical work on Miller with Cambridge University Press as well as editing scholarly guides to this body of work. As a result, his knowledge of the interconnections between Miller and artists, celebrities and politicians of the time is both detailed and deep, but (I found) not so overwhelming that someone with a basic knowledge of the American cultural world of the 1950s couldn’t follow it quite easily. As a (now retired) professor of American studies, moreover, Bigsby incorporates critical readings of the plays and the amazing number of unpublished works by Miller that he has consulted. In particular, for any reader who favors the autobiographical approach to an author’s oeuvre, Bigsby does a good job of showing how elements of Miller’s writing related to his own personal experiences, situations, and conflicts at the time he was writing.

The parts of Bigsby’s work I most appreciated were those that wove what was happening with Miller into the larger narrative of the artistic confrontation with radicalism in the 1930s and 40s and then with the U.S. establishment in the 1950s. We see clearly how Miller’s choices were influenced and limited by the decisions and actions of his fellow artists as well as by developments in the broader political realm. It must have been strange for Miller to see his work recognized as the pinnacle of a free America among artists and audiences abroad, even as it fell under increasing criticism at home. I found hilarious the detail that in a proposed deal to make a film of Death of a Salesman, the film studio commissioned a short to be shown alongside it that praised the figure of the salesman as the quintessential American and suggested that Willy Loman was not a good example of one. (Miller threatened to sue and the proposal fell apart.) In a way, it almost makes one nostalgic as a reader; this was a period in which art and letters really mattered (in compared to what feels like our decadent age) and were acknowledged to do so by almost everyone.

Though I have no sense of how original the reading is, I also found provocative and convincing Bigsby’s suggestion that Miller’s construction of the triangle between John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth, and the servant girl Abigail Williams reflected the tensions in his own rather joyless marriage with his wife, Mary, a comrade from his student days and the mother of his children, and his explosive reaction to (and then retreat from) his initial contact with Marilyn Monroe who was, for Miller, truly a bombshell.

My one reservation is that, while Bigsby is occasionally critical of Miller as a person or as an artist, he’s ultimately convinced that Miller stood on the right side of history and politics. This admiration shines through the entire book. He takes a positive joy in insisting that early critics of the play who saw it as agit-prop or dangerously radical were misguided misreaders of Miller’s message. Miller seems to be Bigsby’s political hero. While I admire Miller’s stance of refusing to betray his friends, from my perspective, both U.S. liberal democracy as it was lived and preached in the 1950s and communism as existing phenomenon and as boogeyman for the general American public, most of whom had no idea what American Communists wanted politically, were/are ideologies. Neither of them really claims any necessary connection with truth, justice, or a higher morality. If Miller’s work (apart from his status as a hero of both the radical and liberal Left in the U.S.) should survive beyond the purchase of these ideologies, then it must be because of something else — and what exactly that is is not entirely clear from this book.

In sum, I suspect we continue to want to see it because it is an extremely human play that entirely transcends its clumsy intended historical parallels and its awkward tendency toward allegory and even the statement Miller wanted to make about early postwar U.S. society. If we are to continue watching productions of The Crucible, it must be not because it was a brave political and personal statement in 1953 — but because it is a good play.

~ by Servetus on June 13, 2014.

5 Responses to “Arthur Miller, The Crucible, the Red Scare, and McCarthyism — two important resources”

  1. Thanks a lot
    Do you know this book by Maryse Condé “Moi, Tituba, sorcière, noire de Salem “? http://www.critiqueslibres.com//i.php/vcrit/2344
    About Maryse Condé: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maryse_Cond%C3%A9

    Like

  2. […] from here, a series on re-reading The Crucible for the third time in light of Armitage’s appearance as […]

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  3. […] play. It’s definitely a play of the misogynist 1950s, and one can’t escape the feeling, after reading his autobiography and most important biography, that Miller was not only a product of his period but a significant chauvinist all on his […]

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  4. […] nonetheless, it’s a fair assertion to make for someone familiar with Miller’s life, and it brings me to wonder again whether Armitage has read Bigsby’s biography, which postulates a … Of course, we’re also familiar with the contention that it was Miller’s association […]

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