A sharp time, now

February 12, 2005

IT'S A GOOD BET that many if not most of the obituaries for Arthur Miller will work in one of the playwright's most well-known and anguished lines: "Attention must be paid." That's Linda Loman saying it, wife of Willy and mother of Biff and Happy, and she is bringing to it a mixture of distress and outrage over the hand her husband has been dealt. She had faith in him, even if he didn't - and what about everyone else? Death of a Salesman is about a discarded life, and it is a particularly American story.

Mr. Miller died Thursday night at the age of 89, old enough to have thrived in a long-gone era when Broadway could tackle serious themes, when plays about right or wrong, courage and cowardice, could be money-makers. He was political, certainly - just as his contemporary Tennessee Williams was personal - but his plays succeeded or failed on the emotional depths of his characters.

He was a young man during the Depression, which ruined his father, and the experience loomed large in his work. Betrayal was never far away. Willy Loman was betrayed by the system, and by his own illusions. Italian dockworkers betrayed each other in A View from the Bridge. Mr. Miller claimed After the Fall was not autobiographical, but no one believed him, and the implication was that he believed Marilyn Monroe had betrayed him when they were married - not sexually but emotionally. (In truth, it was probably the other way around.)

But betrayal gets its biggest workout in The Crucible, in which Mr. Miller reached way back before the Depression for his material, to the Salem witch hunt of the 1600s, for an allegory on the McCarthyism of his time. Battered by countless high school productions, The Crucible might seem creaky today, but only to those who don't listen to the words. Consider this speech by Judge Danforth, and its discouragingly contemporary sentiment:

"You must understand, sir, a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time - we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it."

Ouch. Mr. Miller didn't care for self-righteousness, or the blind faith that sustains it. He was unhappy with the direction of American politics - had spent a whole lifetime being unhappy with American politics - and thought the only thing to do about it was to be honest and unflinching. Yet life's coarser and darker themes will always be with us, which is why his best work, in years to come, will continue to take on new relevance, new meaning, as great plays always do. Attention will be paid.

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