The University Record, October 30, 2000

Arthur Miller: ‘Can’t make people see unless they feel’

By Britt Halvorson

Enoch Brater, on stage in Rackham Auditorium, speaks with Arthur Miller, who was interviewed from his home in Connecticut. Miller, recuperating after breaking several ribs, was unable to attend last week’s symposium in his honor. Joan E. Smith, coordinator of services for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, is in the background. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
Boosted by 21st-century technology, famous playwright and U-M alumnus Arthur Miller appeared Oct. 26 in Rackham Auditorium for a seemingly intimate “conversation” with more than 500 attentive listeners.

Miller spoke to the U-M audience from his home in Connecticut and answered questions posed by symposium coordinator Enoch Brater and others. Seated on the porch of an out-building he uses for writing, Miller’s face was projected onto three large screens in the auditorium. A wooded area behind his house and the day’s sunny, warm weather provided a picturesque backdrop for the satellite feed.

Miller’s appearance marked the opening of “Arthur Miller’s America: Theater and Culture in a Century of Change,” a three-day symposium sponsored by numerous University units, honoring the playwright’s 85th birthday and the establishment of a theater in his name on campus. Miller had planned to be at the opening ceremony in person, but suffered a bad fall two weeks ago and broke three ribs. Since his doctor advised against travel, the live satellite interview proved the best way for him to participate. Broadcast media staff from News and Information Services (NIS), UMTV and BMC Media, among others, pulled together just 48 hours before the ceremony to coordinate the interview’s sophisticated video and audio components.

“While we’re very pleased with the way the satellite feed integrated with the program, we’re not surprised,” said Roger Sutton, manager of broadcast media and information technology at NIS. “This is the type of thing broadcast-related people on campus are doing on a weekly—sometimes daily—basis.”

Brater, who is professor of English language and literature and of theatre and drama, addressed the audience prior to “A Conversation with Arthur Miller,” offering glimpses of Miller’s life on campus as a writer for the Michigan Daily and a Hopwood Award-winner. Throughout the symposium’s opening remarks by President Lee C. Bollinger, Provost Nancy Cantor, LS&A Dean Shirley Neuman, Rep. Liz Brater and Sen. John Schwarz, Miller listened at his home to an audio feed from Rackham.

Miller’s plays, Neuman remarked, “shake us out of complacency and they force us to pay attention to the beauty and the terror of everyday existence. No playwright in the 20th century has explored the emotional connections between the people we misname ‘ordinary’ to greater effect than Arthur Miller.” Bollinger noted that Miller often turns in his writing to the “somewhat confusing state between sleep and wakefulness to create that sense of bewilderment that we so often feel when things really matter.”

“He has been a major influence in preserving and strengthening our cultural heritage,” Cantor emphasized, “sometimes against the tide of popular sentiment.” A strong and vocal supporter of American theater, she said, Miller has publicly acknowledged the importance of adequate funding for the arts.

“If I’d known there would be this much praise,” Miller joked when he appeared on the screens after a warm welcome, “I would have been more careful about falling down.” On stage, Brater posed questions with an eye to Miller, shown to Brater on a special monitor near his chair. Miller was able to hear Brater and the audience members who stepped up to microphones to ask questions.

On his Michigan education

After a three-week stint at City College in New York City where he grew up, Miller decided to work for a few years. In one of his letters applying for admission to the U-M, Miller appealed to a dean that working had made him more mature.

Michigan was the only university in the United States at the time that actively supported creative writing through the Hopwood Program, commented Miller, who attended the U-M in 1934–38. “Tuition also was so cheap,” he remarked. On a video shown to the audience before the “conversation,” Miller noted that he liked the U-M’s friendly, unpretentious atmosphere. “And it was the one place that would take me in,” he joked. Traveling to Michigan from New York City, Miller said, was a sort of adventure to the “wild West.”

While on campus, Miller wrote articles for the Michigan Daily, including a sharply ironic, signed editorial, and completed three plays, two of which won Hopwood Writing Awards.

Miller left the Daily to devote more time to theater. He studied with several theater professors who acquainted him with the history of theater and taught him how to hold the stage with dialogue. “I decided to pursue theater because I loved it,” Miller said.

From Michigan to international acclaim

After graduation, Miller wrote theatrical scripts for the “Cavalcade of America” radio program during the day and worked 11-hour shifts building ships at night in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Arthur Miller attended the symposium via 21st-century technology. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
Following his work for the radio program, Miller wrote the novel Focus, which recently has been made into a film that will be released next year. “If you wait long enough, everything happens; the thing is not to fall down,” Miller deadpanned.

After one play was unsuccessful, Miller spent two-and-a-half years writing the critically acclaimed hit All My Sons. Miller said he did not want to wait until “lightning struck,” so he spent a great deal of time completing a play with which he felt fully satisfied. All My Sons, Miller added, “was a long job that I imposed on myself.”

Providing the grist for Willy Loman

Miller described Death of a Saleman’s tragic character Willy Loman as a “segment of my flesh.” Loman provided a “vessel for many feelings, thoughts that had been floating in my head” for many years, and even since childhood, Miller said.

When asked if he thought the play has been too effective, with audience members often crying at the highly intense scenes instead of pondering their meaning, Miller responded: “I’m happy that it affects people so profoundly. I was disturbed at first that it was sweeping people away rather than offering them clarity, but you can’t make people see unless they feel.”

Miller added that his following play, The Crucible, was a reaction against the emotions that were in Death of a Salesman.

Standing up to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee

Many people viewed Miller’s The Crucible (play, 1953) as a statement about the Communist “witch hunts” of the late 1940s and 1950s.

When asked by the House UnAmercan Activities Committee why he did not write happier plays or ones with pleasant endings, Miller testified, “I’m not a fictionalist. I reflect what my heart tells me from the society around me. It is not for me to make easy answers and to come forth in front of the American people and tell them everything is all right. My criticism, such as it has been, is not to be confused with hatred. I love this country as much as any man.” Because of his “uncooperative” testimony, Miller was cited and convicted of contempt of Congress, but the conviction was later overturned.

Brater asked Miller why he stood up against the committee when he was called in front of it in 1956, at a time when it was socially difficult to do so. The committee, Miller commented, “seemed very opposite of what being American was.”

“I could follow through on my feelings because I always knew I could sit down to my typewriter and write a play,” Miller said. The fact that he was not dependent on any corporation or business for his livelihood allowed him to more freely speak his mind.

On seeing his plays performed

Until you hear and see a play performed, “your experience of it is only partial,” Miller said. “The play is at the mercy of the actors and the directors and the designers. You hold your breath when you cast a play—you don’t know what you’re getting into.”

Miller added that he is often “very moved” by actors’ and directors’ work. “I remember performances that still [create] a tingling in my spine when I think about them.”

Screen adaptations of his plays, Miller remarked, often have been disappointing. With The Crucible movie (1996), Miller wrote the screenplay and was pleased to work more closely with the actors and directors.

Theater as an art form

To students wondering about the future of American theater, Miller advised: “The country is neglecting an enormous asset by not doing something about helping this art to survive. It is the most direct approach to addressing your fellow citizens. You don’t need anything but a man or a woman standing on a board speaking. This so-to-speak nakedness of the form is a great thing. It is probably the most democratic of all the arts, in that respect, because you really don’t require a lot of money to do it.”

Commercial American theater, however, is closely connected to the economy, Miller said, as well as political and social issues. “It’s mixed up in the way we live.”

When speaking on the role of his plays in the future, Miller commented, “The modernity of a work is based on its inner feelings, its original grasp of ideas.”

According to many, Miller’s ideas about people and the relationships, disappointments, hopes, fears and struggles they experience have a timelessness and universality.

“Arthur Miller’s vision for the theater may seem modest in an age of technical wizardry and extravagant productions,” Neuman emphasized, “but for all of us who have seen recent productions of The Crucible, Death of a Salesman or A View from the Bridge, these plays go on speaking to us in important and capacious ways.

“For all that you have given to us of yourself,” she told Miller, “we are deeply, deeply grateful.”

The Miller Theatre

A portion of the symposium’s opening ceremony recognized the establishment of the Arthur Miller Theatre, to be built within the planned Walgreen Drama Center.

President Lee C. Bollinger unveiled a plaque that will be installed in the theater. He also thanked the many people who worked on the symposium and contributed to the concept of the 600-seat theater. Two $5 million gifts by alumnus Charles Walgreen make possible the construction of the Walgreen Drama Center, which will house the Miller Theatre.

“This is far, far more than simply claiming a connection to a distinguished alumnus, important as that is,” Bollinger said. “It is a form of identification, a relationship, and, as such, a special way of learning about the world. Arthur Miller’s life story now becomes a part of our life story. His thoughts become more a part of our thoughts. Every student who comes here will have his or her imagination touched by Arthur Miller’s imagination.”

“It’s an ideal way to honor the contributions of Arthur Miller to the world of theater and to this University community, and to celebrate in a visible and public way the deep affection with which we hold each other,” Provost Nancy Cantor said of the theater. Students will be able to practice their craft and develop their creativity in the new facility, she said. The theater also will bring the University and community closer in the celebration of the arts.