Arthur Miller and The Witch Hunt

Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89, and the reactions were not universally of grief. Lights were dimmed on Broadway and one paper cleared its front page, but several dissenters made themselves heard over the empty rituals of public praise. The most famous of America’s playwrights had always called forth divided reactions from critics and public, so reactions after his death were in keeping with that.

Actually, the dissenters made him so famous because they kept him in the public eye with their criticism all his life, and now even beyond. Only when able to produce work provoking enough to be both criticized and defended a writer becomes famous in publishers’ eyes and news worthy for the press. From a marketing point of view, Arthur Miller had done everything right.

Author Christopher Bigsby is director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia. He was and is a constant and staunch defender of Arthur Miller; the resulting biography, therefore, is no great surprise. Covering the years from 1915 to 1962, it ends with Miller’s divorce from Marilyn Monroe.

Arthur Miller had granted Christopher Bigsby access to his papers prior to his death, and the biography will become a standard work for future scholars in its wealth of detail and data. On the down side, it is completely one sided and uncritical; future scholars will be able to use it as a reference book and a timetable to work with, but the real work has still to be done.

No doubt, Christopher Bigsby is working on the sequel from 1963 to 1989, but his decision to end in 1962 lets him off at least one major hook he will face in the second part: The play After The Fall of 1964, where Arthur Miller tried to cash in on his former wife Marilyn Monroe’s suicide. I am curious how he intends to bend that into something positive.

It also keeps him out of the quandary over Arthur Miller’s personality. Arthur Miller's behavior as a private person was simply indefensible, but Christopher Bigsby tried just that in the biography. This might be the major flaw of this book. How could you defend a serial adulterer?  How can you defend his blatant money making bid on Marilyn Monroe’s death? And what about the son of his third wife born with Down’s syndrome, shunted off to an institution and then forgotten? Arthur Miller’s earlier autobiography doesn't even mention the boy.

Wives and children came only second in Arthur Miller’s life to his all important career. By even trying to defend him, Christopher Bigsby shows even more of the cold and ruthless personality. It might be that the essence of his work would not have been possible if he had functioned as a human being, a husband and a father. As it is, that question must remain open until someone more gifted deals with the subject.

Christopher Bigsby bailed himself out by leading the biography into the House of Un-American Activities Committee at the end of the book. Arthur Miller’s refusal to name names before HUAC in 1956 was doubtlessly a major feat. To stand up against fascist McCarthy in a fascist American society was brave and praiseworthy. But it is no all redeeming feet in my view.

Arthur Miller had dug himself into these hearings all by himself with his play The Crucible. The 1953 play about the Salem witch trials was just a bit obvious and intended to be so. In it, he draws a clear parallel between McCarthy's paranoid fear of Communists and the hysteria that led to the witch hunts in 17th century Massachusetts. In hindsight, there could be better parallels for him to draw on, especially if you follow the permanent shady dealings of the CIA.

The play angered fascist critics so much, they regularly put down Arthur Miller’s plays as bad on the grounds that it was by Arthur Miller, rather than on their intrinsic merit. Christopher Bigsby has done his homework in this section rather better than in others, and he names and shames these critics. He also managed to show them up as paid for pawns of the all controlling CIA.

Christopher Bigsby’s Arthur Miller was published by Weidenfield & Nicolson. This authorized biography covers the years 1915 to 1962.

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