Have Arthur Miller’s plays lost their edge?
ARTHUR MILLER did not aim to please his audiences. He reckoned that new ideas were a “humiliation” and an “affront” not only to people’s sensibilities but to their convictions, too. Like the ancient Greeks, Miller thought of drama as a “civic art”, a discipline that could contribute towards a state’s social and political progress. Unlike his contemporaries, he was not commercially minded. He said what no one else had the courage to, and his audiences would weep, or sit with their heads bowed. Irate patriots picketed theatres, and producers shied away from his work. Actors who appeared in his plays were shunned by their friends.
Miller’s observations hold true in the 21st century, particularly about the fallacy of the American Dream. Many still think of material wealth and status as essential to happiness, as Willy Loman does in “Death of a Salesman”. “The American Clock”, which reflects on the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, is a reminder of the perils of short-termism. “The Price”, set 30 years later, focuses on the longer-term repercussions. In “All My Sons” Miller questions individualist thinking. “The Crucible” examines the destructive allure of ideologies.
Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.
Those insights, far from alienating today’s audiences, are now Miller’s selling points. Productions of his work have increased since his death in 2005, according to Susan Abbotson, the president of the Arthur Miller Society. He has been among the ten most-performed playwrights in American theatres for the past four years. Six productions of his work are currently being staged in London, an unusually high number for any playwright other than William Shakespeare. Tickets in the West End sell for as much as £142 ($186), a sum Miller would no doubt have been uncomfortable with given his belief that theatre should be affordable. Does this popularity suggest that his plays have lost their subversive edge?
Perhaps—time can dull even radical ideas. It is no longer shocking to hear that humans are doomed to repeat their mistakes. But Miller’s fashionableness also suggests that directors have stopped confronting their audiences, and have started pandering to them. A recent production at the Union Theatre of “An Enemy of the People”, Miller’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play, had an image of President Donald Trump on its poster. The action was set in a contemporary “small-town Republican” community. Mayor Stockmann, a manipulative politician, dresses in a red suit, grinning and waving to chants of “USA! USA!” Miller never assigned a political persuasion to the play’s characters—he saw himself as a mediator, showing disparate groups what they have in common—but the suggestion here was that only Republicans can succumb to populist rhetoric and misinformation. This version of “An Enemy of the People” reinforced divisions, and allowed its audience to leave feeling smug.
Productions can also be too reverent of the source material. “The Price” (at Wyndham’s Theatre) strives for a historically accurate depiction of New York in the 1960s. The audience sees Gregory Solomon, a Russian-Jewish émigré, blessing his meagre lunch—a hard-boiled egg—in Hebrew. When the play was first performed in 1968, such details invited audiences to reflect on their city’s recent past, particularly the emotional fall-out from the boom and busts of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Now heightened for comic effect, they seem alien and strange. Miller wanted his plays to be relatable, not preserved in aspic—“there are museums for such activities,” he said—and so the setting must be familiar. In 2012 a production in Mumbai turned Solomon into a Muslim nonagenarian to great effect.
Miller’s plays provoked because they were about the audience as much as for them. “The Crucible” (pictured, at the Yard Theatre) opens with the townspeople of Salem dressed in the same style of clothing—beanie hats, baggy t-shirts, cargo trousers—as the audience of this edgy North London theatre. They are invited to confront an uncomfortable truth: any society, no matter how educated or tolerant it believes itself to be, can submit to hysteria. Reactions ranged from brow-furrowed confusion to wide-eyed fascination.
It is difficult for Miller’s plays to have the same effect today as when their themes were still unfamiliar, even taboo. Perhaps contemporary playwrights are better placed to touch modern nerves. But thoughtful stagings can continue to make audiences reflect on their own prejudices and shortcomings.