Life & Culture

Book review: Arthur Miller: American Witness - A decidedly Jewish view from the bridge

A more psychological than biographical profile that reveals the state of the great playwright's mind


1st January 1965: Arthur Miller, American playwright, arriving at the Old Vic to see his own play 'The Crucible'. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Arthur Miller: American Witness
by John Lahr
Yale University Press, £21.59

From this side of the pond it is easy to think of Arthur Miller as an American talent whose Jewishness was no impediment to his creative life.

Sure, Jews had to contend with discrimination like every other community in that country built of immigration. However, the Jewish sensibility — from Clifford Odets to Neil Simon — was never as alien to the American stage as they were/are to British playhouses.

Certainly Miller was not prevented from fulfilling his potential. In Death of a Salesman and The Crucible he wrote two of the greatest plays of the 20th century, plus a handful of others that were merely brilliant including All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and The Price.

However, as John Lahr’s biography points out, by the time America was at war with the architects of the Holocaust (though not because of it) “there were more than a hundred antisemitic groups” in the US and Roosevelt’s nation-saving “New Deal” was widely known as “Jew Deal” because there were Jewish academics in the president’s cabinet.

Meanwhile, Christian Front leader and broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin was telling his 30 million radio listeners, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”

It was against this background that Miller wrote his first success — not a play but the novel Focus (1945) about a casual antisemite who becomes a footsoldier in the cause of Jew-hatred. He is, however, so often mistaken as a Jew by his fellow persecutors he ends up being a victim of his own prejudice.

Before then Lee Strasbourg’s Theatre Group eventually decided against staging Miller’s new play The Grass Still Grows, about a Jewish family (not unlike Miller’s), because, having already mounted Odets’s Awake and Sing, they didn’t want “to do another Jewish play”.

“That was the [their] point — Jewish” wrote a disbelieving Miller to his college tutor and mentor Kenneth Rowe. “It was utterly inconceivable to me that a Broadway producer would refuse to put on a play which he thought would make money just because…in these times it was better not to show Jews on stage.”

Through the course of 200 pages or so — a fraction (a third, in fact) of the number of pages Lahr uses in his acclaimed Tennessee Williams biography — the author cherrypicks the crucial personal and world events from which Miller wrought his plays.

The book is more a psychological than a biographical profile and like a forensic investigator, Lahr, himself a titan of theatre writing who knew Miller well, reveals the state of Miller’s mind as he moves through the tumult of the last century: the Depression, war (though he wasn’t drafted because of an injury), the anti-Communist witch-hunt during which, unlike his peers,
Miller refused to name names, and being married to Marilyn Monroe.

It is a tapestry rich with personal as well as public detail, but it also makes irrefutable the argument (sometimes opposed) that Miller’s Jewishness was foundational to his writing.

If Miller’s illiterate immigrant father Isidore — who became a wealthy businessman before everything was lost in the Crash — is there in his college play No Villain (1936, about the dilemmas faced by a family business in the teeth of industrial action), so too is the crushing memory of Isidore needing his 16-year-old son to pay a subway fare.

"Some people don’t bounce,” says Victor about his father in The Price (1968), an observation says Lahr that was certainly true of Isidore who is surely there too in Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman, another father whose life spent chasing the American dream leads to humiliation.

By then Miller had become defined by what director Harold Clurman described as the playwright’s “moral talent”.Though that moral authority might be the quality that America grew tired of late in Miller’s career, in Britain even the Jewishness of his writing could not erode his reputation, being, as one British director described it, a little below Shakespeare’s and a little above God’s.

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