- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

ARTHUR MILLER: 1915-1962
By Christopher Bigsby
Harvard, $35, 739 pages, illus.

Playwright Arthur Miller deserves to be remembered for much more than having made a disastrous marriage to Marilyn Monroe when she was well on her way to self-destruction, and Miller’s friend Christopher Bigsby makes a valiant effort to remind us of the importance of Miller’s vast body of work, not just “The Crucible,” “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons,” and “A View from the Bridge.”

There are several problems with his biography, though, not least the fact that it covers, exhaustively, only the first half of Miller’s life and the plays, novels, radio scripts, screenplays, poems and short stories from that period. Wouldn’t Mr. Bigsby have been well advised to trim some of these 700-plus pages and look beyond Miller at age 47, inasmuch as the writer lived on until 89, at which point he died shortly after announcing that he was about to marry his very young paramour?

Nevertheless, Mr. Bigsby, who is professor of American Studies and director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia, has mined the wealth of personal papers given to him by Miller before his death, and his book largely reflects the way in which Miller wished to be portrayed.

Miller’s early life story is beautifully told and could stand almost as a prototype of the Polish-immigrant, Jewish family’s experience in America. Miller’s parents had an arranged marriage: the father, Isadore, worked hard and succeeded in the New York garment industry; the mother, Augusta, was cultured and ambitious for Arthur (she learned that her husband was illiterate only after they had been married for two months). They lost most of their wealth in the Depression, and Arthur had to work at menial jobs for two years to earn enough money to enter the University of Michigan, which he selected because he had heard it offered an annual writing prize. His first play won the prize. The next year he took a playwriting course and won the prize again. Both plays involve a labor strike and two brothers with contrasting attitudes toward life.

Miller dabbled in Marxism at Michigan and saw a friend off to fight for the left in the Spanish Civil War, where he was quickly killed. After graduation Miller took a job with the Federal Theater Project until it collapsed, and then began writing radio plays. He sustained his faith in the socialist dream, the author says, in the face of the Moscow show trials, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and news of Soviet repressions. In 1940, he married his college girlfriend, Mary Slattery, who shared her husband’s politics but couldn’t compete with Marilyn. Miller abandoned his wife in 1956 after 16 years and two children, and promptly married Marilyn.

The author carefully documents the success or failure and revival of every drama Miller produced, beginning with patriotic and historical wartime radio shows (Miller was 4-F because of a football injury, but worked as a ship-fitter for a time during the war). In November 1944, he launched his first Broadway production, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” which closed after four performances, a victim of poor timing, says the author. Revived in 2002, the play was welcomed as “a fable about the American dream; a fable that wrestles with issues of responsibility for what happens to us in life. …”

Miller’s first major success came in 1949 with the production of “Death of a Salesman,” the first play to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the New York City Drama Circle Critics Award, and a Tony Award for best play. (It was revived and became a hit in China in 1984.) “The Crucible,” an allegorical drama Miller produced in response to the House Un-American Activities Committee’s questioning of artists’ politics, appeared. Miller was denied a renewal of his passport until he appeared before the committee, where he was pressed to name fellow participants in Communist gatherings. He refused, saying, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” His conviction for contempt of Congress was overturned in 1958.

Meanwhile, Miller found being married to Marilyn a full-time job that left him no time for his art. As the author puts it, “Monroe was not just the simple unaffected, girl-like woman, anxious only to offer love. Miller was not prepared just to be the moral and intellectual father to a woman bereft of family. Eventually, she came to think he condescended to her, failed to understand her professional needs or stand up for her in her disputes with the industry that exploited her. He came to feel the full force of her peremptory demands, the way she treated others, including himself, with contempt, had come to depend on drugs to get through a life in which her career became the centre around which everything was presumed to turn.”

When it was over, in 1961, Miller once again picked up his career, found catharsis in writing about Marilyn in “After the Fall,” and apparently found happiness in his 1962 marriage to Austrian photographer Inge Morath, which lasted until her death in 2002.

Mr. Bigsby notes that Miller’s plays are performed “every day of every year to those remote from America but who discover within them human truths easily translated from language to language, culture to culture.” Miller’s central faith, says the author, was that “Past actions have present consequences. The chickens, Miller was apt to say, always come home to roost. If it were not so, the spine of morality would be snapped.”

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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