Veteran show-biz biographer Gottfried (George Burns, 1996, etc.) strikes just the right balance between the work and the life in his judicious assessment of the great American playwright.
Now 87, Arthur Miller doesn’t come across as the warmest of men, and he agreed to be interviewed only about his plays, not his personal life. But he granted permission to read and to quote from unpublished material and correspondence, of which Gottfried has made good use; in particular, letters to Elia Kazan, Miller’s closest friend and best director of his work until Kazan’s HUAC testimony estranged them, reveal the funnier, earthier side of a man whose public pronouncements were usually solemn. From his first commercial success with All My Sons in 1947 and the transcendent triumph of Death of a Salesman in 1949, Miller was viewed as the artistic and political conscience of the American theater. He courageously refused to name names and produced a searing parable about witch-hunting, The Crucible, at the height of McCarthyism in 1953. But his draining marriage to the troubled Marilyn Monroe (well described with sympathy for both) didn’t leave much time for writing; nine years elapsed between the premieres of A View from the Bridge and After the Fall, the latter drawing savage reviews in 1964 for its candid portrait of the recently deceased Monroe. Miller was beginning to be patronized by critics as a stodgy social realist, a misunderstanding Gottfried refutes in his exegeses of the later plays, such as The Archbishop’s Ceiling, disdained in New York but received with respect in London. The English championing of Miller in the 1980s and ’90s eventually had an impact: by the beginning of the 21st century, writes Gottfried, “Miller’s place in theater history, already secure elsewhere, was finally established in his own country.” Despite occasionally caustic comments about his subject’s personality, the author’s overall esteem for Miller’s talent and integrity is evident throughout.
A thorough and welcome summing-up of a towering achievement in the modern theater.