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There Are No Second and Third Acts in American Life : TIMEBENDS A Life by Arthur Miller (Grove Press: $12.95; 594 pp.)

November 08, 1987| Richard Eder

In America, Arthur Miller writes, "the quickest road to failure is success." It is the theme of his massive and uncomfortable memoir; the angry cry that the act of remembering keeps wringing from him.

"Timebends" tells of Miller's childhood, his work in the theater, his encounters--particularly with Marilyn Monroe--and his thoughts about art, politics and life. His paradox shadows all of it.

Miller endured its most painful version. It is one thing to succeed and, when the successes run down, to ease gradually out of sight. But Miller remained public and active, the exemplar of the great American playwright, even though his two most important works, "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," appeared 38 and 35 years ago, respectively.

After that, nothing remotely comparable was forthcoming--"A View From the Bridge," has theatrical bite but a mealy aftertaste--and the plays that did appear met a colder and colder critical reception. Thirty-five years is a long fall when the spotlights are stuck on you. His tormented marriage to Monroe stepped them up, for a while, to laser intensity.

In the United States, we do not treat monuments well unless they are made of stone. We do not give our artists lordships, as in Britain; or gold-embroidered academicians' uniforms, as in France; or Living National Treasure status, as in Japan. We do not say: "To have created Willy Loman and John Proctor makes you an immortal." We say: "Now then, Immortal: Show us that you're alive."

Miller refers repeatedly in the memoirs to the honor and appreciation he enjoyed abroad these past three decades. For the chilliness he met in his own country he has a number of explanations, none of which contemplates the possibility that his work is weaker.

Some of the explanations make valid points. It is certainly true that we have a boom-or-bust mentality, particularly in the theater; that to affirm that a work is merely good is to damn it.

What makes Miller's attitude particularly knotty is that while condemning this attitude, he shares it. "Incident at Vichy," he writes, received "an unexcited if respectful welcome" when it opened in 1964. He attributes this welcome to the critics' "ongoing contempt" for the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, the first of a series of ill-starred efforts to make the Center's theatrical component work.

The inference is that anything less than excitement--mere respect, for instance--must be the product of active contempt and that the history of the Whitehead-Kazan-Clurman era at Lincoln Center is one of fine work blighted by critical hostility to the institution, rather than an institution's fading because of faded work.

If this at least astigmatic, Miller's account of the failure of an earlier play approaches pure blindness. "Coming so soon after Marilyn's death, 'After the Fall' had to fail," he writes. As an immediate reflex of pain and bitterness, such a notion may be understandable. Reiterated two decades later, it is deforming. It is hard not to think that Miller caught some of the illness that helped bring down his wife: poisoning by your own image.

Miller treats his relationship with Monroe at great length. On a physical level, he is entirely and fittingly discreet. Emotionally, he is more revealing. Not so much about Monroe; the portrait of her magnetic neediness is striking and pitiable, but it is not very different, except in some of his details, to what we have already been told.

She seems to have sought Miller out as one more salvation--in this case, escape with a certified artist from the reality of her Hollywood life--and to have come up once more against the dilemma of her illness: That salvation by what you think you want means rejection of what you know you are.

The more striking revelations are about Miller's own vulnerability. He tells of the devastating attraction he felt for Monroe. Part of the devastation is to his prose. He can write very well about it; he can also write that Monroe was "part queen, part waif"; and engage in the kind of awful floweriness he uses about a pre-Monroe dalliance: "I let the mystery and blessing of womankind break over my head once or twice."

More startling than such glimpses of a writer going stylistically berserk is his depiction of sex as a kind of warrior's conquest, with Monroe as the ultimate prize. Fidelity to a first wife had become irksome, he tells us, to someone who had achieved his kind of success. "I wanted to stop turning away from the power my work had won for me and to engorge experience forbidden in a life of disciplined ambition."

Miller's account of his family, wealthy clothes manufacturers ruined in the Depression, is full of striking detail. His relatives were colorful and assertive, and his portraits of them and of his childhood are dense and varied. They also possess a certain oppressiveness, as if the vision he acquired had been so hard-won that it was damaged in the winning.

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