Legendary playwright muses on state of theater, politics
The legendary playwright sat on a stage where, silently, he played a bishop in "Henry VIII" many years ago. This time, he was characteristically vocal about a country run by actors and about the campus that helped shape his literary life and political views.
Arthur Miller, class of 1938, visited campus last week and spoke to a sold-out crowd in the Mendelssohn Theatre during the April 1 "Conversation with Arthur Miller," facilitated by Mark Lamos, visiting adjunct professor in theater.
"Our politics now is more about acting," said Miller, whose leftist politics are almost as well known as famous plays such as "The Crucible" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Death of a Salesman." "Whatever is real gets drowned in effects."
Miller, 88, offered his thoughts on politics, the arts and activism to a rapt audience. The man widely considered to be the greatest living playwrightwho came across at once as stately and approachably folksydrew cheers from many as he discussed the Israeli conflict. In Israel, he said, "fanatics" on both sides "are tearing each other to pieces."
In the world at large, religious fanaticism and the belief that "we're right, they're wrong" is the root of many wars and conflicts, he said.
In a discussion about the theater, Miller said plays and other arts can influence people to take action or at least to think about important subjects in new ways.
"All we can hope for," he said, "is to illuminate something, and people can make up their own minds based on the reality of something rather than the mythology."
Miller arrived in Ann Arbor on a bus in 1934 and was so tired he slept for two days in his newly rented room. The house where he lived, he said, had a barrel filled with teeth in the attic, probably belonging to some dental students. "That is a very vivid memory," he said.
He came to U-M for a variety of reasons, he said: The school accepted him (after rejecting him twice), it was more affordable than New York schools and it "seemed to be taking writing seriously."
Miller went on to win two Avery Hopwood Awards. He also worked as a writer and editor at The Michigan Daily, where his work included writing a story about a doctor "who discovered that people got fat because they ate too much." In a performance of "Henry VIII," he had no lines and had to bow on cue.
He recalled returning to U-M in the 1950s to write an article about how much things had changed. He was dismayed to find that the FBI asked students and professors to report anyone who spoke about radical ideas. One girl told him, "I live in a co-op house, but I don't let anybody know. They think it's Communist."
Miller spoke briefly about Marilyn Monroe, whom he married in 1956, and the role he wrote for her in the movie "The Misfits." He said he knew she could be more than a comedic performer.
"She had a terrific insight into human behavior," Miller said. "I thought she was pretty good in it."
Miller's life story sweeps across some of the major events of the last century. When he came to U-M in 1934, the country still was reeling from the effects of the Depression. His experience here was heavily influenced by the politically charged atmosphere of a pre-World War II campus.
As his plays became prominent, his politics grew to be well-known. One of the most notable examples was that when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to name writers believed to hold Communist sympathies. "The Crucible" was a parable of the misery caused by the anti-Communist hearings.
At the same time, Miller's friend, director Elia Kazan, named names before the committee. The resulting rift led to a PBS special called "Miller, Kazan, and the Blacklist: None Without Sin."
Lamos asked Miller about the reunion with Kazan, which occurred when Miller contributed a play that Kazan directed at Lincoln Center. The play had a character in it who clearly was an informant, but Kazan seemed unfazed, Miller said.
"He had a great capacity for keeping a straight face," he said.
He recalled some questions by the press about why Kazan, who could make much more money directing movies, would return to the stage. The idea seemed to be that the theater "should be run by failures," Miller said.
That couldn't be further from the truth, Miller said. Indeed, a vibrant theater is a necessary part of society, one that should be nurtured and supported, he said.
"We go to the theater to stay alive, to celebrate life," he said.
The conversation will be broadcast several times on Comcast Channel 22, the U-M channel. The School of Music's Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting "An Arthur Miller Celebration" in conjunction with his visit; performances are 8 p.m. April 8-10 and 2 p.m. April 11 at the Trueblood Theatre.