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STAGE : Arthur Miller: Reflections on a Life in the Theater

November 15, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

ROXBURY, Conn. — He taps the new wall-lamp into its slot with a satisfied little grunt. "Designed it myself." He also designed and built the big cherry table in the dining room and some of the plainer chairs around it. And the cabin where he does his writing, some yards from the main house.

Arthur Miller has lived on this hill for 40 years. He realized at a recent town meeting that he was one of the oldest guys in the hall. Still, in his new autobiography, "Timebends," Miller ironically refers to his home as a "temporary residence." At 72, a man is aware that it's all temporary.

If he's a writer, he's also aware that it's all stored up there in his head. "Timebends," from which Miller will be reading at the Los Angeles Theater Center on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m., doesn't hew to a strict time-line. It curves back and forth around Miller's life, linking this episode in his childhood with something that his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, might have said on the beach; or with Miller's appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the '50s; or with Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Miller has met and feels warily hopeful about.

The book works somewhat as Willy Loman's mind did, with this difference: Willy was capsized by his memories, while Miller keeps his hand firmly on the tiller. His first novel was called "Focus" (1945) and it's important to him to keep things in focus, to speak as clearly and simply as he can, without giving the impression that he thinks the world is at all a simple place.

Also unlike Willy, Miller has no reason to feel "temporary" about his place in life. He knows that his plays are beginning to be regarded as classics: Not just "Death of a Salesman" but "The Crucible" and "The Price" and "A View From the Bridge," which has just opened on the West End.

To ward off complacency, he can also consider the poor reception given the recent Broadway revival of "All My Sons" and the Lincoln Center premiere of two new Miller one-acts, collectively entitled "Danger/Memory." Miller is not without honor in his own country, but he is still taking his lumps from the critics. It is better than being written off as a Living Cultural Treasure, but it still stings.

A big man, he speaks in a gravel voice, a Brooklyn voice that he has never tried to get over. The rasp adds to the down-to-earth quality of his thoughts about the American theater, which he is not sure is any worse these days than it was when he was coming up in the 1940s.

"They look back at it as though it were a romantic, wonderful era. Actually, one had a terrible time putting on anything that wasn't sheer entertainment. It was a tough time for anything approaching a statement of any kind. You had to overwhelm the audience. The play that was very good, but not necessarily a knockout, was dismissed.

"Things were about the way they are now, except, maybe, the attitude. Those of us trying to do serious work had an illusion which I don't believe exists anymore. Namely, that you as a playwright were addressing the whole country from the New York stage.

"Now you knew that the whole country was by no means coming to the Broadway theater. But the audience was more variegated then, because ticket prices were more reasonable. You would find ordinary schoolteachers in the audience. Even the better-educated working man.

"So you could think of yourself as a serious artist--whether actor or director or playwright--and still stay in the popular theater. We were holding the fort for culture, we thought, against a movie industry which was then very trivial.

"But in the mid-'50s, the Beckett thing hit. The avant-garde began to split completely away from anything approaching a popular theater and Broadway just got to be a bunch of wisecracks. At the same time, movies were getting to be more serious. Now they are much more interesting than the theater."

How does a playwright deal with that?

Fatalism. I always felt that if it was any good, it was good. If it wasn't, time would tell. After all, when I was coming up, there were a half-dozen playwrights who were regarded as good if not great. Within a decade, no one had ever heard of them. So with that lesson in mind, a little humility is in order, before the decision of history. You never know what it is going to be, so why take it all with such deadly earnestness?

Is it that easy to do?

You're bound to get discouraged. I've been discouraged from time to time . . . if not all of the time. But then suddenly it changes. And I've got stuff running all over the world again. The human race uses what it feels like using at any particular moment. It's a little bit like when you go into your clothes closet and suddenly discover a suit you haven't worn in seven years and it looks great. Or a pair of shoes. And I'm afraid a lot of the time the basis of the choice is as trivial as that.

So theater is fashion?

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