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It Was 'Luck,' and Failure, That Led to His Success

Theater * Arthur Miller's early flop, to be revived in L.A., dramatically altered his creative course.

April 14, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

If the young Arthur Miller ever thought he was "The Man Who Had All the Luck," he learned otherwise when his play with that title closed after only four performances, in the playwright's Broadway debut in 1944.

Miller was devastated not so much by the scathing reviews as "by my own failure to understand what I had done," he recalled in a telephone interview this week from his home in Connecticut. The upshot was that "I left the theater, seemingly forever."

His self-exile didn't last long. Three years later he came roaring back with "All My Sons." Within a few years, "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible," "A View From the Bridge" and other titles blazed into America's consciousness, where Miller's work remains securely lodged--the most recent indicator being today's announcement that the acclaimed Chicago and New York production of "Death of a Salesman," with Brian Dennehy, will open the Ahmanson Theatre season in September.

For 55 years, however, America hasn't seen Miller's initial Broadway effort, "The Man Who Had All the Luck." That's about to change. The play's second U.S. production opens Saturday at the Ivy Substation in Culver City.

Set in a Midwestern town in the '30s, "The Man Who Had All the Luck" refers to David Beeves, a young, self-taught mechanic whose many successes make him more and more fearful that something bad is bound to happen, especially when he considers the many disappointments of those around him. The play could almost be subtitled "When Good Things Happen to Good People."

"It was neither naturalistic nor patently a work of pure imagination," Miller said. "The director and actors [in 1944] had no experience with that kind of play. They tried to do it as 'real' as they could, knowing it was a battle without a plan. They had a general feeling of bewilderment, which I shared."

Miller's frustration was not in vain, however. In his memoir "Timebends," he wrote that "it was through the evolving versions [of "The Man Who Had All the Luck"] that I began to find myself as a playwright, and perhaps even as a person."

His interest in the story was sparked by a real incident. His mother-in-law at the time had a sister whose husband, seemingly a likable and easily employed fellow, had hanged himself. Although Miller created his own characters (first in the form of a novel), he was determined to confront "the sort of fatalism" that he imagined had led to the man's death.

In the unpublished novel, the central character committed suicide, but Miller changed the ending for the play. As recently as 1994, in an introduction to the published play text, he wrote that he still wasn't sure which ending was right. Now, when asked, he replied, "It's an almost-tragedy, but I didn't feel the tone was tragic enough to warrant his death."

Nevertheless, Miller started thinking more seriously about tragedy, especially when critic John Anderson invited him for a drink after the Broadway opening and told him he ought to write tragedies. "I had never thought of it that way," Miller said, "but there was an overhanging sense of doom in the play that I used in my later work." Both "All My Sons" and "Death of a Salesman" were conceived as modern tragedies and ended with the central characters committing suicide.

Miller also credits the earlier play with a familial pattern "that served me well for some years"--a father has troubled relationships with two sons, which also crops up in "All My Sons" and "Death of a Salesman." In the original novel, David was an orphan, but in the course of preparing the play Miller converted him into a brother of another character, Amos, who has been programmed by their father to be a professional baseball player. Likewise, in "Death of a Salesman," Biff Loman was supposed to be a football star in the grand plans of his father, Willy.

Miller tinkered with the play in the '80s and liked a 1990 production of it in Bristol, England. He didn't find it dated--"it's not about a period of time. It's about a condition of the mind." And in 2000, he said, "there is a definite feeling that the whole machine is too big to allow an individual's choices to matter very much"--which is similar to the panic that David feels in the play.

Although Miller wrote a detailed description of realistic sets in the stage directions, "I wouldn't advise that anymore," he said. The English production was in "a space filled with different kinds of light," plus "an enormous old Cadillac. It first appeared with its lights on, like a monster that was coming at us."

In Culver City, said director Dan Fields, "we are trying to make the production hover"--because when Fields asked Miller where the play is set, Miller replied, "Really, it hovers three feet over Ohio." And so "the car is a portion of a car that floats out. The walls are incomplete. It's a fable set ostensibly in a real place," Fields said.

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