A Social Critic In The Theatre

No playwright has been “in the news,” in the popular sense, of recent times to the extent of Arthur Miller. His personal contact with two of America’s most famous institutions; Miss Marilyn Monroe and the Un-American Activities Committee, has put him before the public gaze in a way that his ability as a writer would not. But for this we might hazard that his name would never have moved beyond the small and inconspicuous criticism. It would be a pity if his achievements as a dramatic writer were obscured by his more publicised activities. This, even at the risk of appearing ungallant to Miss Monroe.

Writers of Mr. Miller’s abilities are rare, and those who combine them with a zest for social criticism are even rarer. Arthur Miller therefore is a controversial playwright. He believes in the Theatre as a social force, and deals with certain subjects in a way that might easily incur him the censure of many of those people whom he approaches as an artist.

Such a position for the playwright is far more precarious than for the novelist behind the printed page; the novelist has a public, but no audience, whereas the playwright standing (albeit metaphorically) in full view of them, is on trial for his artistic life and living. For people are less likely to accept what they see and hear as a group, than what they read as individuals.

Among American playwrights of the present day, Arthur Miller occupies a high place. His first successful play All My Sons (1947) was an indictment of war-profiteering and the philosophy of self-interest. Two years later he wrote Death of a Salesman. Here Miller sets out to show the contradiction between what many Americans think and the way they actually live. The “Salesman,” Willy Loman, is a failure who, when he is not lamenting his fate, is extolling the virtues of “go-getting,” “know-how,” and all the other baubles of American jingoism. It is a virulent condemnation of the American way of life with its fetish of personal success at the expense of other values, and well exemplifies the way people can make a religion of social dogma.

When Mr. McCarthy was at his most ebullient (1953) Arthur Miller used the circumstances of a previous witch-hunt in American history, that which occurred at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, to illustrate in The Crucible how a whole community can be disrupted by fear, ignorance and superstition combined with official dogmatism. The analogy with the Senator from Wisconsin and his inquisition is unmistakably obvious. Here is the same tight-lipped philosophy, the same calculated fanaticism depicted in the character of Deputy Governor Danforth that we have come to associate with McCarthy.

Arthur Miller’s dramatic essay, A View from the Bridge, has recently been seen in this country. It is doubtful whether those who do not belong to Theatre clubs such as the ‘Arts,’ will have the opportunity of seeing it, owing to the restrictions imposed by the law.

That Arthur Miller is no Socialist need not be stressed here. Social critic though he is, there is nothing that could even remotely be considered revolutionary in his work. Nevertheless, writers of his stamp do help to ease the dead weight of social complacency. Even if it is only fractional and relatively of little significance, they at least make a visit to the Theatre more exciting for us than most. We experience the cool breeze of dissent as opposed to the stifling humidity of uncompromising acceptance.

Like many famous writers before him, Arthur Miller has at one time gone the “way of the transgressor” and courted the perils of the road to Moscow. Like them, he has suffered the pain of disillusionment, which has left him a wiser, though not we hope, a sadder man. In his own words, “I had to go to hell to meet the devil.”

Unlike them, it is to be sincerely hoped that he will continue in, and develop his aim as a social critic, at the same time enriching the world of drama, and not sit at home with despair on the other side of the fire gate; like Arthur Koestler—waiting for the white mushroom-shaped cloud.


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