Last night I watched a documentary on Arthur Miller, made by his daughter. I was keen to see it, not only because he was an acclaimed playwright, but because he was also a seminal figure in the twentieth century. He lived an interesting life.
I’m an admirer of Miller. In my book he’s probably the greatest moral playwright of the last century, and I’m drawn to that kind of writing. My first introduction to him was at high school, where we studied Death of a Salesman. Like many things you’re forced into studying I didn’t take to it overmuch at the time, but I still remember it very well. At some point I caught up with All My Sons, but my favourite of all his plays is The Crucible.
The Crucible takes the Salem witch trials as its setting, but it’s really about McCarthy-ism and the trials that took place trying to root out alleged Communist conspirators in the 1950s. It’s really about paranoia and persecution and the hysterical need to condemn and punish, but it’s also about courage, which is what drew me to the story.
It’s fascinating as a telling of the Salem witch trials, and even more so when you consider it in light of McCarthy, but what rings true in the end is the simple courage of John Proctor and his wife who refuse to submit to untruth, even if it will save them. There’s a line in the play, you’ve taken my soul, leave me my name. That name is their integrity, their identity, and ultimately they can’t compromise on that.
There some who appeared before the HUAC and spilled their guts, revealing to the committee of those who they believed to be Reds. There were others who refused to recognise the authority of the committee, and wouldn’t cooperate. They were punished – as were John and Goody Proctor – but their ‘name’ was more important to them than the threats and intimidation of a blatantly unjust court.
It’s the people who have the courage of their convictions, who are unafraid of going against the flow and are indifferent to popular sentiment I admire. It’s those who are willing to put themselves on the line for a higher principle than self-interest, and will make a stand for what is right and true who elevate society beyond the mediocre.
Miller dealt with such topics, among other fundamental enquiries such as the value of what we do, integrity, belief, the motivations that make us twitch, as well the delusions, and the meanings we come to attribute to our existence. These are subjects close to my heart even at their most raw. Miller was able to encapsulate and give voice to such theme in tales both entertaining and erudite.
I watched, this story of his work, and the life that surrounded it, and in a part of my mind I was working on the story I’d been writing earlier, figuring it out, reflecting on it in light of Miller and his work. It fell full in me, and real. I’ve been struggling with this book but this weekend it began to come together. I saw the depth of it, saw where it might go and how it might get there. It’s an exciting feeling. It’s as if it has gained meaning and life of its own accord and begins galloping away from you, and you hurry after it not wanting it to get away.
And in the background, as it has all weekend, was the sense of contented affection. I know enough that it’s this feeling that I’m drawn to. You fall in love with being in love. I’m not in love, but I have a mighty sense of desire. It feels like a truth that is unique to me, which is likely true. Whether I’m entitled to the love of another person I cannot say, but I know I’ve got every right to feel as I do. I’m easy with it, happy to be myself without striving to be more: it is enough, or it isn’t. I am me, and this is all I have to offer – but it’s much.
So as I watched, reflecting on the work of Miller against my own authorly aspirations, I found myself similarly attending to the story of his relationships, and ultimately the one true love he finally settled with. It seemed right.
There was an affecting moment near the end. After about 40 years together his wife dies. Miller writes to a friend about her, and how it has devastated him:
“I am very old now, like a dog I always laid my catch at her feet. Now I carry it around aimlessly, the happy game disrupted. Forever.”
It seemed such a sad and true thing to say, and I found myself with tears in my eyes. And it seemed right to me that this is something I could honestly aspire to – to be with that person I wanted nothing more than to lay my catch at her feet. To play that happy game. It is something that fits well with the man I am.