“Attention must be paid.” That’s the line — the big line from “Death of a Salesman.” And, if you missed it this last week or so, well, you weren’t paying attention.
It was the headline in the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times: “Attention must be paid.” California’s Contra Costa Times went with: ” ‘Attention must be paid’ to playwright.” And The Chicago Tribune saved it for the slow-motion elephantine punchline of its opening paragraph: “The Man who wrote ‘Death of a Salesman’ died Thursday. And attention must be paid.”
In Britain, where they’ve built an Arthur Miller Center for the Advancement of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, they paid even more attention. For a couple of decades, the Royal National Theater has given the impression it would be happy to stage Arthur Miller’s Grocery List, preferably as a trilogy.
So attention was paid. If there were other memorable lines in the Miller oeuvre, his obituarists seemed disinclined to wander over to the dictionary of quotations and look them up. And in fairness — like “Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories” and “Sinatra: He Did It His Way” — the ubiquitous headline did capture, in its relentless hectoring, something of the essence of the man and his writing. The other word was “moralist”: He was the “Moral Voice of the American Stage” (the New York Times headline) with “A Morality that Stared Down Sanctimony” (another New York Times headline: You can never run enough Arthur Miller appreciations).
“Moralist” in this case is code for “leftie.” For some reason, Miller’s obituarists were a little touchy about the suggestion there might be any partisan political element to his decade-in decade-out unchanging “indictment of the sad, hollow center of the American Dream” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
That, by the way, would be a better name for his Center for the Advancement of American Studies: The Arthur Miller Sad Hollow Center of the American Dream. But that’s why attention is paid: The author of “The Crucible” gave the American left its enduring metaphor for the McCarthy era — the witch hunts — and, indeed, for the post-September 11, 2001, Bush-Ashcroft reign of terror, and for terrors yet to come. It’s the all-purpose metaphor for anti-Americanism.
I tired of his plays long before the politics. In London in the 1980s and ‘90s, there seemed to be a new Arthur Miller every month, until they all blurred into one unending premiere — “The Ride Down Mount Morgan,” “The Last Yankee,” “The American Clock,” “Broken Glass,” “The Last American,” “The Ride Down Broken Glass,” “The Last Yankee Down Mount Morgan,” “The American Yankee,” “Broken Clock,” all playing like scenes that got cut from the out-of-town tryouts of his early hits, all circling back not just to the same broad themes but the same plot — the crushing rottenness of America — and the same resolution — suicide. And, when the cupboard got really bare, the same character — his ever marketable ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe.
Happily for his bank balance, Miller’s utter humorlessness was taken merely as further evidence of his great “moral” seriousness; his tin ear for the rhythm of American speech was mistaken for poetry; and nobody seemed to mind that his characters were thin, and his female ones even more emaciated, especially the ones based on Marilyn. “It is astonishing,” wrote the New Republic’s Robert Brustein in his review of “After the Fall” (1968), “that he could live with this unfortunate woman for over four years and yet be capable of no greater insights into her character.” It requires some perverse skill to be able to demolish even Marilyn Monroe as a stage presence, but in his multiple attempts to wring a hit play out of their marriage Miller never failed to snuff her candle in his windiness.
But there were always the revivals. The playwright’s most lucrative year was 1984, when Dustin Hoffman starred in “Salesman” on Broadway. Miller may have disliked shows, but he understood show business. He and Mr. Hoffman cut themselves in as co-producers with Robert Whitehead, who did most of the actual producing.
After the opening, the other two strongarmed Mr. Whitehead into agreeing to a dramatic reduction of his share of the take — Mr. Hoffman and Miller would each get 45 percent of the production’s profits, leaving 10 percent for Mr. Whitehead.
“Arthur likes money,” said Mr. Whitehead. And there are few surer get-rich-quick schemes than a savage indictment of the cheap hucksterism at the heart of the American Dream. When it came to peddling anti-Americanism at home and abroad, he was a much better salesman than Willy Loman.
Miller was the most useful of the useful idiots. It was a marvelous inspiration to recast the communist “hysteria” of the 1950s as the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. Many people have pointed out the obvious flaw with “The Crucible” — that there were no witches, whereas there were certainly communists. For one thing, they were gobbling up a lot of real estate: they seized Poland in 1945, Bulgaria in ‘46, Hungary and Romania in ‘47, Czechoslovakia in ‘48, China in ‘49; they very nearly grabbed Greece and Italy; they were the main influence on the nationalist movements of Africa and Asia. Imagine the Massachusetts witch trials if the witches were running Virginia, New York and New Hampshire, and you might have a working allegory.
As it is, Miller’s play is an early example of the distinguishing characteristic of the modern Western left: its hermetically sealed parochialism. His genius was to give his fellow lefties what has become their most cherished article of faith — that any kind of urgent national defense is, by definition, paranoid and hysterical. It was untrue in the ‘50s, and it’s untrue today. Indeed, the hysteria about hysteria — the “criminalization” of “dissent” — is far more hysterical than the hysteria about Reds.
“The Crucible” will survive because it is the modular furniture of left-wing agitprop: whatever the cause du jour, you can attach it to and it functions no better or worse than to anything else, mainly because it is perfectly pitched to the narcissism of the left. But I would happily bet David Thacker that in 20 years even the subsidized British theater will have given up on its favorite heavyhanded doctrinaire American leftist. And around 2020 the Arthur Miller Center will be running a week of lectures headlined, “Why Is Attention Not Being Paid?”
Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator and a nationally syndicated columnist.