Arthur Miller, grand old man of the theater, sees modern plays as trivial

June 16, 1992|By Howard Kissel | Howard Kissel,New York Daily News

In January, Arthur Miller was honored by the National Arts Club. As a host of friends -- ranging from Robert Whitehead, who has produced many of his plays, to the novelist Louis Auchincloss -- paid him tribute, Mr. Miller sat with a bemused smile.

At the end of the evening, Mr. Miller, a tall man unbowed by either his 76 years or a career with more than its share of vicissitudes, acknowledged their affectionate remarks and ended his own by comparing the current state of the theater with the condition of Italy in the Middle Ages.

At some point following the decline of Rome, Mr. Miller noted in a husky voice, the Italians lost the principles of hydraulics. And so, despite their living at the feet of the Roman aqueducts, one of the miracles of the ancient world, they were unable to use them to transport water. Instead, they burrowed in the earth to get just enough water to meet their daily needs.

The American theater is in an analogous situation, he fears, oblivious to its great past and its potential power, content with operating on a trivial scale.

If Mr. Miller is pessimistic about the current state of the theater, he has no complaints about his own situation, which has never been better. Though his work has fallen in and out of fashion, right now he is enjoying enormous success worldwide.

He recently returned from Stockholm, where he directed "Death of a Salesman" for the Royal Theater of Sweden. Last December, Martin Sheen starred in a production of "The Crucible." Recently, "The Price" opened in New York.

His popularity, Mr. Miller points out, hinges not on the whims of critics, but on the eagerness of actors to do his great roles. This accounts for his enormous success in London over the last decade, where there have been major revivals of "Salesman," "A View From the Bridge" and "After the Fall." His latest play, "The Ride Down Mount Morgan," received its premiere there in November.

"Salesman" has been given several revivals in the last decade in Communist China. Doesn't China seem an unlikely place for a play about a salesman? an interviewer asked Mr. Miller recently. "The Chinese invented the family," he retorted quickly. "They also invented business."

Even more to the point, a young Chinese man was asked by an American TV crew after a performance what he made of the play. His response, in fluent English, was forthright: "Willy Loman was right!" he exclaimed, with the wholehearted earnestness that used to be reserved for spouting the maxims of Chairman Mao.

"Everybody wants to be No. 1 man!" the young man declared. As Mr. Miller quotes him, he chuckles. "And that's after 40 years of communism!"

Mr. Miller considers "The Price" one of his best plays. The original production, which opened on Broadway in 1968, was plagued with difficulties, including the death of one of the actors on the road. It has since been revived with great success.

"The Price," like many Miller plays, is a drama about a family. In this case, two estranged brothers are reunited after many years when they have to settle the estate of their father. In the recriminations that surround their reconciliation, we piece together the troubled history of the family.

The structure of the play, a succession of revelations, is traditional, and in view of the attack on theatrical forms in recent decades, a bit old-fashioned. Mr. Miller is unapologetic.

"What is life but a succession of revelations? What has happened in the theater is a moving-away from traditional forms and a complete reliance on style. Style is a form of escapism, under the guise of confrontationalism.

"But the reliance on style really reflects a loss of belief in the human being. There's no place in the whole scheme for the human will.

"I think one reason for the continuing popularity of my plays is a return to the belief that a play has to be more than an effusion of enthusiastic responses to nothing."

However heartened Mr. Miller is by the rediscovery of his own work, he is disheartened by the growing ignorance of people who work in the theater. A friend who teaches acting in Los Angeles told him a sobering story.

"My friend asked the 20 or 30 kids in his class to prepare scenes," Mr. Miller recounted. "They all brought in scenes from soap operas. He told them there was no point in working on these scenes because they had no depth, no subtext. He suggested instead they work on some of the one-acts of Chekhov.

"Not one of those kids knew who Chekhov was."

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