Monday, February 14, 2005

Death of a Playwright

There have been a lot of articles on the passing of Arthur Miller last week. Let me add my voice to those, but let me also say that while a lot of people found it interesting to look back at his marriages or his politics, I honor his craft in writing. He was able to use the language and character in ways that were simply moving. There was no mysticism to his characters and Willy Loman is not a classic tragic figure; indeed, Miller details his portrayal of the tragedy of a common man in an essay in 1941:
In the sense of having been initiated by the hero himself, the tale always reveals what has been called his “ tragic flaw,” a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters. Nor is it necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing — and need be nothing — but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are “flawless.” Most of us are in that category.
True genius lies in creating simple truths and portraying them with little flourish, and Miller did that in Death of a Salesman.

There will be endless analyses of his plays for as long as there are theatre scholars like me to pick them apart. Was Death of a Salesman a tragedy or a melodrama? Was it a portrayal of the inside of a man's mind as he descends into madness, or was it just the onset of Alzheimer's? Did he, like Williams, Inge, and the later works of O'Neill, keep writing the same play over and over? I suppose that's a testimony to his greatness, but it also separates the work from the man, and that diminshes both. Miller acknowledged that he put his life on the stage; most modern playwrights do. But he did it in such a way that he was able to touch each of us even if we did not grow up in Brooklyn; we all struggle with the little moments of life that at the time seemed monumental - like how to deal with the insult of "whipped cheese." That's genius.


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