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The eternal theater of Arthur Miller

February 20, 2005|Carlos Fuentes | Carlos Fuentes is the author of more than 20 books, including "The Death of Artemio Cruz," "The Old Gringo" and, most recently, "This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life." This tribute was translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam.

There is a photograph of several thousand Parisians marching along Rue Soufflot toward the Pantheon to celebrate Francois Mitterrand's presidential inauguration in May 1981.

One man, taller than all the others, stands out in the multitude. Anyone who knew him could easily identify him as Arthur Miller, his head bare that stormy afternoon, his raincoat draped over his shoulder, his glasses firmly perched on a profile worthy of the monumental presidential reliefs at Mt. Rushmore. As William Styron put it: "Arthur Miller is the Abraham Lincoln of American literature."

But, as I said to myself as I stood next to him that day in Paris -- and as I repeated upon the news of his death Feb. 10 -- Miller's physical stature was equal only to his enormous moral, political and literary stature. Nothing brought him down. Not personal tragedy, not political challenges, not intellectual fashion.

I grew up in the United States of the 1930s, that "dark valley," as British historian Piers Brendon calls it, the cruel decade when ideological conflicts, economic policies and the human condition were in a profound crisis.

Between the financial crash of 1929 and the world conflagration of 1939, the responses to the crises of the time were worse medicine than the sicknesses they pretended to cure: totalitarian regimes, militarism, bloody civil wars, the destruction of human rights and human life itself, lassitude and indifference in democratic societies. The great exception was the United States. President Roosevelt and his New Deal did not have to resort to totalitarian measures or suppress liberties to take on the challenges of unemployment, the financial crisis, the poverty into which millions of people had fallen and the bankruptcy of thousands of businesses.

Roosevelt and the New Deal turned to the United States' most valuable resource: its social capital, its human dividend. The nation rebuilt itself using its own human and social potential, which acted also as a stimulus to the arts, particularly theater.

It was in this world that Arthur Miller came of age, and that Mt. Rushmore profile of his was also the profile of an era in which the great American nation placed its confidence in the power of its people. They acted with energy and justice, which comes about when ideals and practice unite.

Since then, whenever the United States has separated ideals from practice -- when its government has said that the United States has no friends and only interests, and when its leaders have asserted that the United States "is the only surviving model of human progress," thus excluding the rest of humanity (that is, the rest of us) -- I have looked back to Roosevelt, the New Deal and the eternal theater of Arthur Miller. His was the highest artistic representation of the human politics of permanent inclusion, of a fraternity that recognizes itself by embracing others and saying to them: You, the others, will never lack consideration.

When my faith in the great nation that is the United States was crumbling, all I had to do was look to Arthur Miller for renewal. He faced up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who used the pretext of fighting communism to duplicate the practices of Stalinism: secret denunciations, show trials, the destruction of lives, families, reputations and careers. He faced up to Sen. Patrick McCarran and Rep. Francis Walter (chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee), who took away his passport, as if exercising the right to criticize were treason. The lawmakers have been forgotten, but their threat must be remembered.

The 21st century is opening with ominous clouds of racism, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing, radical nationalism, state terrorism and terrorism without a face, arrogant hegemony, contempt for international law and its institutions, and fundamentalisms of various kinds.

What lies beneath all these dangers?

Not the evil eye, but the evil of intolerance and disdain for anything different.

Be like me, think the way I think, and if you don't, beware the consequences.

Arthur Miller's splendid plays, all of them, constitute an inclusive human hypothesis, a demand that we pay attention to others, help them, help the men and women who, thanks to their differences, complete our identity. To recognize ourselves in those who are not like us. Perhaps that will, expressed in terms of dramatic conflict, is the thread that runs through Miller's works.

"All My Sons," "The Crucible," "Death of a Salesman," "A View From the Bridge," "After the Fall" -- through his plays, Miller makes us feel that the dilemmas faced by his characters are our own, dilemmas shared by a world to which Miller said: There is also an America wounded in its humanity, just as you are, our brothers and sisters.

In "Death of a Salesman," Willy Loman speaks to us tragically from the abyss that marks a growing separation between being and nonbeing, having and not having, belonging and not belonging, loving and being loved.

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