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The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller's legacy

Arthur Miller is dead at 89, and to quote Linda Loman in "Death of a Salesman," attention must be paid. The great playwright addressed our nation's capitalist conscience and found it wanting, and for that we owe him a debt.

I was introduced to Miller's work in my upperclass years at Malden Catholic High School in Malden, Mass., a city as blue-collar as any of Miller's characters. In my junior year, we read "The Crucible" in English class; in my senior year, we read "Death of a Salesman." That summer, I had the opportunity to see Hal Holbrook star as Willy Loman in a production at Boston University's Huntington Theater. Yet I do not feel that Miller's work left much of an imprint on me at that point. My politics were still relatively unformed, consisting mainly of automatic approval of whatever Democratic ideas were prevalent.

Then, during my junior year at Harvard College, Miller visited the Yard to deliver three lectures, one of which I attended. I don't remember which lecture hall he chose as his venue, but I do recall his message -- of resistance to totalitarianism and dictatorship -- and of a brief moment after the lecture, when I approached this giant in both reputation and physical stature and gave him my program to sign. I remembered seeing his photo in my English textbook in junior year, and the moment has lingered in my memory. His work somehow seemed more relevant, more resonant, but once more, I had not grasped its full significance.

Today, as an adult, I feel that I do understand Miller's work better, particularly "Death of a Salesman," which may have been the finest critique of capitalism of its time. After World War II, as Levittowns were expanding and ties to family and community were decreasing, Miller spoke presciently to a nation glutted with monetary gains; he was a new St. Paul preaching to the Corinthians.

To some, the character of Willy Loman is a modern-day Faust, who exchanges his soul for a capitalist worldview, thinking that if he works hard, he will reap rewards. Instead, he discovers that in his old age, all of his means of support collapse -- his sons, Biff and Happy, and his own source of income, from which he is humiliatingly fired (or laid off, as Howard the Younger might put it). It sounds simple, yet this play is deeply complex. Like Willy, Charley's son Bernard also puts in his time -- and does find success, enjoying a happy marriage and the chance to argue a case before the Supreme Court. And while putting one's nose to the grindstone may carry its risks, so does gadding about: "Biff, a man is not a bird, to come and go with the springtime," Linda warns her eldest son.

The play addresses the deeper issue of how we define status and success in American society. What are the criteria -- income? prestige? romance? personal happiness? other people's perceptions of ourselves? our own expectations/dreams? It's heartrending to see Willy's sons fail their father, to see Linda try, futilely, to hold the family together, and to see Willy's final, fatal attempt to do just that. It is a chilling commentary on our country that remains, and will remain, powerful.

"The Crucible" is also strong and sincere. Miller was, criticizing the McCarthy "witch hunts" of the 1950s by likening them to the excesses of the original witch hunts in Salem, Mass. It is a play full of false accusations and fear, where, to borrow Yeats' phrase, the worst elements in Salem, personified by the zealous Judge Hathorne, "are full of passionate intensity."

The Venona files from the former Soviet Union show that Sen. Joseph McCarthy's scrutiny of Communism in this country was justified -- that people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, along with Alger Hiss, had some ties to the USSR. However, did that require the means by which McCarthyites sought to terrorize suspected Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee?

Today, we see that Americans are still grappling with the issues that Miller explored in his plays. There are those in this country who feel that the Bush administration is harassing any who might be suspected terrorist sympathizers -- from the detainees in Guantanamo Bay to the conviction of attorney Lynne Stewart for collaborating with a terrorist. The stakes are just as high -- Communists were accused of giving the Soviets information about the bomb, while 9-11 has made us all too aware of the horrors that terrorism can inflict. But can we abandon democratic procedure to keep our democracy safe? To paraphrase Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III," should we forget ourself to be ourself? Sometimes we must -- Lincoln, after all, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War -- and yet we lose part of our national identity in doing so.

Of course, Willy Loman remains as important as ever. In this age of corporate downsizing and outsourcing, it seems that things have gotten even worse since the day that Willy got his pink slip. There is, however, an encouraging sign. More and more artists from all sorts of media -- music, film, letters -- have taken up their tools against Big Business. From the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen -- "I got laid off/Down at the lumber yard/Our love went bad/Times got hard..." -- to the documentaries of Michael Moore, such as "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for Columbine" -- to books like Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed," increasing numbers of people are taking notice of the excesses of capitalism. This scrutiny might not extend to the polls -- Ohio, for instance, which lost 230,000 jobs between 2000 and 2004, nevertheless went for Dubya last fall -- but the artists, our nation's collective conscience, have shown that they will be vigilant. By doing so, they honor and uphold Miller's legacy, and provide a fitting coda to his contributions.


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