After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.
--T. S. Eliot, "Gerontion"
Almost everyone believes that Arthur Miller deserves the title of "social dramatist"; apparently the only question is whether to call him a Marxist or a humanist. The first label has bad a certain currency: some critics believe his work presents a socialist commentary on the economic structure of the United States. "It would be going beyond the evidence to suggest that he adheres to any 'line,’ whether political or ideological," Tom Driver declares; "nevertheless, he bears a quasi-Marxist stamp and most of his plays tend to become mere partisan social critique."1 William Wiegand sees Miller as a borrower of [Clifford] Odets's "Marxist" themes--as a preacher who sermonizes on the pathetic martyrdom of an oppressed middle class.2 And Eleanor Clark arrives at this conclusion concerning Death of a Salesman: "It is, of course, the capitalistic system that has done Willy in; the scene in which he is brutally fired after some forty [sic] years with the firm comes straight from the party line literature of the 'thirties, and the idea emerges lucidly enough through all the confused motivations of the play that it is our particular form of money economy that has bred the absurdly false ideals of both father and sons."3
Even when readers and spectators do not go so far as to find Miller a socialist reformer bent on condemning the faults of capitalism, they usually take his plays to be pointed critiques of contemporary values. They feel that his purpose is to render humane judgment. "The merit in Miller's treatment of his material lies in a certain clean, moralistic rationalism," writes Harold Clurman; "his talent is for a kind of humanistic jurisprudence."4 Paul West argues that Miller's warning against dedication to material success supports "Christian existentialism."5 "He does blame the ‘System,’" Henry Popkin claims, through "a liberal parable of hidden evil and social responsibility."6
It is quite understandable that Miller should be regarded as a writer with a message, whether affirmative or negative, humane or socialistic. His early socialist associations and his bearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 were widely publicized. In many essays be has affirmed his belief that tragedy "brings us knowledge . . . pertaining to the right way of living in the world."7 During the Depression--he recalls in an article entitled "The Shadows of the Gods"--he had been impressed by "the powers of economic crisis and political imperatives which bad twisted, torn, eroded, and marked everything and everyone I laid eyes on. . . . So that by force of circumstance I came early and unawares to be fascinated by sheer process itself. How things connected. How the native personality of a man was changed by his world, and the harder question, bow be could in turn change his world. . . . You can't understand anything unless you understand its relation to its context."8
Above all, his plays appear to be vehicles for argumentation. Put in non-Marxian terms, their argument might be summarized as follows: to achieve dignity, to develop their talents, and to avoid self-defeat, individuals must acknowledge and adjust to their limitations rather than obsessively pursue egoistic ambitions. "You can know there's a universe of people outside and you're responsible to it," Chris Keller instructs his father in All My Sons.9 Other lines and situations in the plays can be cited to support a radical social thesis. "Half the Goddam country is gotta go if I go!" Joe Keller shouts in an attempt to justify dishonest business dealings; and in Death of a Salesman Biff calls "all wrong" Willy Loman's desire "to come out number-one man."
Is Miller not pointing an accusing finger at a culture that encourages "wrong" values? Is he not campaigning against an uncharitable social order that deprives honest workers of constructive labor, then discards those who are no longer useful (Focus, Death of a Salesman, A Memory of Two Mondays, The Misfits)--an order that condones profit criminally gained (All My Sons), fosters belief in the inferiority of minority races (Focus), and suppresses liberty in the name of a sacred cause (The Crucible)? Is he not attacking, in short, a system that is geared to exploit the common man? There are some particularly impatient words spoken by a character in an early unpublished play, They Too Arise: "the day is coming Dad when the people are going to take back what's been stolen from them. . . . I’m a Communist because I want the people to take the power that comes with ownership away from the little class of capitalists who have it now."10 Miller must be haranguing his audience on the evils of our "machine civilization" (his term) and on the virtues of communal cooperation.
The purpose of this study is to view Miller in a different light. His plays do register indignant protests against injustice; they do suggest a humanistic thesis on mutual responsibility. In his best writing, however, that thesis is implied in the psychological consequences of fanatic self-assertion, not prescribed in moralistic" pronouncements on "the right way of living." Miller's forte is to visualize the causal complexities and the intensity of deeply personal motives: his moral insight focuses most clearly upon subjective process. The playwright has well summarized his subject, his ethical bias, and his theatrical perspective in a comment on After the Fall: "this play is not 'about' something; hopefully, it is something. And primarily it is a way of looking at man and his human nature as the only source of the violence which has come closer and closer to destroying the race. It is a view which does not look toward social or political ideas as the creators of violence, but into the nature of the human being himself."11
As an analysis of a playwright's distinctive "way of looking," this discussion centers its attention upon Miller's technical resources--dialogue styles, narrative conventions, symbolic devices, and structural principles--and undertakes to judge the success with which progressions of personality, theme, and tension have been executed and interrelated. Almost every technical shortcoming can be attributed to a self-conscious attempt by Miller to augment his work's "social" or philosophical significance. When he tries to formulate objective truths about man's place in the "outside world," his language becomes superficial, his structure disorganized. Ironically, when he explores his characters' inward "nature" he comes closest to fulfilling his ambition to write coherent social drama. The plays and essays testify to a persistent artistic dilemma; Arthur Miller's effort to unify social and psychological perspectives has been the source of his accomplishments and his failures as a dramatist.
(c) Twayne Publishers
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:09 EDT