Review: Arthur Miller 1962-2005

Life of a talesman: final act

By John Nathan, February 25, 2011
M&M: Miller and Marilyn Monroe

M&M: Miller and Marilyn Monroe

by Christopher Bigsby
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30

It always seemed odd that the plays of the very American Arthur Miller were better received in this country than they were in the US. But it is still a shock to read in this second, substantial volume of Christopher Bigsby's biography - dealing with the years up to Miller's death - just how hard American critics were on the playwright.

The response to After the Fall, the first of Miller's plays to be written after the writer's damaging break-up with Marilyn Monroe was especially vicious. This despite Miller having written, in Death of a Salesman, one of the three pillars that define the American 20th-century dramatic canon (along with O'Neill's Long Day's Journey and Williams's Streetcar).

Bigsby dismantles several of the most extreme attacks on his subject simply by quoting them. Unadorned, the New York Times review of Broken Glass, calling Miller "the world's most overrated dramatist", just looks silly.

Bigsby reveals After the Fall to be the first artistic expression of this hitherto quintessentially American writer's international outlook - which also embraced his Jewishness as never before.

The trigger was the new woman in his life, photographer Inge Morath. The daughter of Nazis, Morath took Miller to Mauthausen. She was the emotional lifeline that led Miller, who had largely rejected his Jewish roots, to write extensively about the Holocaust.

He threw himself into the turbulent politics of the period - or sometimes was just present when stuff happened: in the Chelsea Hotel when Warhol was shot; in Cambodia when Nixon started bombing the country. And the sympathetic chronicler Bigsby puts the much criticised decision by Miller and Morath to put their Down's Syndrome son, Daniel, into a home, into the context of 1960s attitudes and understanding.

Together, both volumes of Bigsby's biography cement Miller's status, in Britain at least if not America, probably best described by the British director David Thacker, with whom Miller collaborated: "A little lower than Shakespeare and a little higher than God."

Christopher Bigsby will appear on February 28. John Nathan is the JC's theatre critic

Last updated: 11:28am, February 25 2011