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A crucible of his own

After decades of being alternately honored and ignored, Arthur Miller still has plenty to say -- from the stage and from the wings.

August 22, 2004|Linda Winer | Newsday

NEW YORK — Arthur Miller is folded onto an unexceptional sofa in his modest one-bedroom on a middling floor of a big, old, unremarkable building on Manhattan's Upper East Side. America's great playwright of conscience is taller than expected, a craggy monument of a man with thigh bones that could be baseball bats and forearms that hang from his soiled peach polo shirt like remnants of an adolescent growth spurt.

"I can't really find myself at home in an apartment," he says, explaining how he and his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, bought this place in the '80s, when hotel rates "got to be crazy." Morath, his soul mate of 40 years, died of lymphoma in 2002, but Miller still lives mainly in Roxbury, Conn., on the 350 acres he bought during his tumultuous five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The place is not far from the house he bought in 1947 with money from his first Broadway success, "All My Sons."

By actuarial and theatrical tabulations, this should not be a creative time for an icon who had his biggest hits more than half a century ago. But Miller, after decades of honor abroad and neglect at home, is enjoying a reenergized career that is uncommon in a land so proud of its limited attention span.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Arthur Miller -- The playwright's age was misstated as 89 in a photo caption in Sunday's Calendar. He is 88.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 29, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Arthur Miller -- The playwright's age was misstated as 89 in a photo caption last Sunday. He is 88.

"There is a kind of zeitgeist, a spirit of the moment. I have no way of knowing why," he says in that cranky but bemused voice that, for all his international reach, never gets far from the sound of Brooklyn.

But here he sits, apparently unfazed by the specter of his 90th birthday in 2005, with a major new play about Hollywood called "Finishing the Picture" opening at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in the fall and a rare revival of perhaps his most controversial work, "After the Fall," now at the Roundabout Theatre. He is one short story away from a collection. He is also editing his diaries -- all the way back to the '40s -- for publication. Equally reassuring, his political antennae are as sensitive as ever.

There's also a new woman in his life, a 33-year-old artist named Agnes Barley. The apartment is in the throes of a paint job; a few things are being tossed. Miller can't hear the phone ring without the hearing aids he keeps yanking out of his ears. But clearly, he has no intention of resting on the shelf with his lifetime achievement awards.

Broadway has recently seen triumphant revivals of both of his masterworks: "Death of a Salesman" in 1999, 50 years after it earned the Pulitzer Prize, and "The Crucible" barely six months after Sept. 11, 2001, which eerily connected the Puritan witch trials, anticommunist hysteria and paranoia about terrorists. In 2001, a chilling movie adaptation of "Focus," Miller's 1945 novel about anti-Semitism in Brooklyn during World War II, reminded us that racial profiling is not a new offense.

Even now, however, Broadway is less interested in Miller's daring new plays than in revivals of his greatest hits. "Resurrection Blues," a satire about dictatorship and the media, opened at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2002 and was restaged at other regional theaters but has never been seen in New York. "There's a production floating around, but I can't talk about it," he says with conspiratorial sarcasm.

"Our theater is now about musicals," he says, without trying to hide his bitterness. "Theater got itself involved in high-cost entertainment. It needs to go back to the simplest milieu -- because you can't compete with the excitement of movies. The distortion of the art is to please the so-called theatrical majority.... The production people go for the lowest common denominator because they're so desperate not to lose a million dollars. Without subsidies of some kind, this distortion is going to go to the bitter end."

Two years ago, the Roundabout Theatre did a first-rate production of Miller's "The Man Who Had All the Luck," which flopped after four performances in 1944 and temporarily drove the struggling writer from the theater. This season, the Roundabout opened "After the Fall," his 1964 psychodrama about personal responsibility, '50s redbaiting, shadows of the Holocaust and women much like the ones haunting this playwright's own life.

Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie, is staging another "Salesman" in Minneapolis this month, then will take it to Dublin, Ireland, where Miller's American Dream tragedies are revered (and not far from where Miller's daughter Rebecca, a fiction writer, lives with her husband, actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Miller's other daughter, Jane, a weaver, lives in Connecticut, and son, Robert, who produced the movie version of "The Crucible," lives in California).

Just as important as the revivals are the new plays: such works as the exuberantly sexual "A Ride Down Mt. Morgan" of 1991 (which might become a movie with Michael Douglas as the unrepentant bigamist) and the beguiling smart-old-man rumination, "Mr. Peters' Connections," which had its world premiere during the Signature Theatre's all-Miller season in 1998.

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