- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2005

The quickest route to failure is success.

Arthur Miller.

Producing a masterpiece can be a terrifying thing to a young playwright. All the rest of his life may be spent fishing in the shallows, waiting for the big one that never reappears, and cursing the critics who demand that he repeat the unrepeatable.

It wasn’t just critics Arthur Miller disdained, but criticism itself. He never thought it an independent craft, a discipline as indispensable to civilization as the art it criticized.

For that matter, Miller didn’t think so much as felt. And his feelings remained those of a boy who grew into manhood just as the Depression hit and wiped out his father. In a way it wiped him out, too. For he remained a Depression-era writer long after the era had passed. As if what had been would always have to be. No wonder he was so much more popular in Europe than America; he was an artist of decline.

Willy Loman, the hero — well, the central victim — of Miller’s masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman,” didn’t come from nowhere. He could have been Isidore Miller, the well-to-do garment manufacturer who lived on 110th Street just north of Central Park when it was still a fashionable neighborhood, and who was chauffeured to work every day — till the Depression ended all that.

His son never got over the comedown. To Arthur Miller, America was the Depression. Long after it was over, he was still stuck in it emotionally. First it just tinged his art, and certainly his politics, and then it began to dominate both. The rest of his career would be one long descent.

It was as if the playwright was allowed one masterpiece and that was it. He had received his quota. Fate did not serve second helpings. One to a customer, bub.

But that is only the way it looks from this distance, now that we know how his story came out. Suppose he had written some of his other plays — like “A View from the Bridge,” a personal favorite of mine, before he had polished off “Death of a Salesman” in six weeks back in the late ‘40s. Suppose we could run the reel of time backward, and “Death of a Salesman” had been the culminating work of Miller’s old age and not an early blow. It would have been evidence of his continuing growth, his mastery of pathos, his stature as a writer of that most unlikely but surprisingly frequent American art, tragedy.

Instead, year by year and play by play, Miller’s politics took over his art, and the pontificator replaced the poet.

The great playwright was damned by his early success; he had raised the bar too high for himself. And he wound up voluntarily churning out something like the kind of Sov-Lit that honest Russian writers refused to produce under compulsion. He had ceased to be an artist and become a kind of public monument.

An old man in a dry season, he was left to wonder why American audiences were no longer moved, and to tell himself he didn’t care, when it was all too clear he did — too much.

The quickest route to failure had indeed been success. Some day another genius will write a great play about The Death of a Playwright, and the pathos of Arthur Miller’s own life will touch us rather than just sadden us. Attention must be paid, as the noble Linda Loman said in a line that has entered the American language. Who knew then how well she would foreshadow Pat Nixon?

Miller did one great thing: He demonstrated that tragedy, whatever the Greeks or Shakespeare believed, was not limited to noble characters. The rest of us, too, aren’t just living lives of quiet, or even noisy, desperation — but lives to which attention should be paid.

Offstage, the playwright may best be remembered for marrying, then divorcing, Marilyn Monroe. Best forgotten is how he used her as material for one of his later plays, “After the Fall,” a piece of intellectualized schlock embarrassing to watch and almost indecent to recall in his obituary. It was Monroe and Joe DiMaggio who were the great love story, and not how she got in the way of Miller’s later, inferior work. The more it was interrupted, the better.

How to explain the meteoric rise and long, long decline of Arthur Miller the artist? My theory is that, as with Truman Capote after his masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” it wasn’t drugs that killed his artistry but something even more powerful: celebrity. Just mix it with a little cheap gossip and a lot of simplistic politics — left-wing, right-wing, it doesn’t matter — and success is magically transformed into failure.

Dead at 89, Arthur Miller is survived by the far-flung family he accumulated through a checkered marital past, including the long and happily-ever-after marriage he finally achieved, and by Willy Loman, who will live forever. However disappointing the playwright’s later career, that one act of creation was enough, more than enough.

Attention was paid.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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