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The Master Builder

The impeccable craft and enduring genius of playwright Arthur Miller, as explained by Tony Kushner

By Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 19, 2007

The Master Builder

"Arthur Miller's was a great voice, one of the principal voices, raised in opposition, calling for resistance, offering critical scrutiny and lamentation – in other words, he was politically progressive, as politically progressive is best defined in these dark times."

Tony Kushner offered up these words at a memorial service for Arthur Miller following the elder playwright's death in 2005. Miller had had a profound influence on Kushner, and in such plays as A Bright Room Called Day, Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, you can see the younger writer carrying on the tradition of politically and socially engaged drama found in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Kushner was invited to speak at the service by Miller's family, and in the months since, he's received many more invitations to address Miller's legacy. The Library of America asked Kushner to edit its collected volumes of Miller's plays. (The first volume, Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961, was published last year; a second volume is forthcoming.) And he has received numerous invitations to speak about Miller in print, on radio, and on college campuses. One such invitation came from the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center, which is showing the exhibition "Rehearsing the American Dream: Arthur Miller's Theater," drawn from the center's archives of Miller's papers from 1935 to 1953. Kushner will come talk about Miller with fellow playwright Steven Dietz Thursday, Oct. 18, in Jessen Auditorium. In advance of this visit to Austin – his first since he was 7, the playwright says – Kushner shared with the Chronicle some thoughts about the writer to whom he feels American playwrights owe "an unpayable debt."

Austin Chronicle: Since you've become so involved with Arthur Miller's work since his death, do you feel protective of Miller's legacy?

Tony Kushner: Oh, I don't think Arthur needs me to protect him. He's gonna do just fine.

Unlike our other two greatest playwrights, [Eugene] O'Neill and [Tennessee] Williams, Miller is overtly political, whereas O'Neill and Williams were absolutely political writers but less overtly so and less identified as political. And certainly not activists in the way that Arthur was as a person. David Mamet ran a piece in The New York Times when Arthur died, saying – I'm summarizing what Mamet said; he said it much more elegantly than this – but he basically said, the plays are great because they're not political really rather than great because they are political. It's not the political stuff that makes us weep at the end of Death of a Salesman. It's everything else, and Arthur understood that. And I think there's even some truth to that. I don't know that we're weeping about capitalism at the end of Death of a Salesman; we're weeping because of Linda at that grave.

The Master Builder

But part of Miller's genius, and especially the genius of Death of a Salesman – and to a certain extent, I think it's there in all of his work – is that he forges an absolutely indestructible link between the personal and the political. And I've said this many times: I don't think there's any way of understanding what happens to Willy Loman, why he is the person that he is – I mean, on the psychological level – without understanding his class situation, the very politically inflected aspirations of his family. That's what makes that play so universal and astonishing and recognizable in all circumstances, as it apparently is. I mean, in China, in Africa, in India, people do it.

There's no separating Miller from his politics, so I feel somewhat protective of that. But, as I said, I don't think that any case that I can make will render a service to Death of a Salesman that it is incapable of rendering itself. Just go and see a production of it, and you won't need to know anything more than that.

AC: He certainly is, as you say, a playwright whose works speaks to people across the planet, but there's also something so American about him, and I'm wondering about your take on that.

TK: I think in at least a couple of ways that he's a profoundly American writer. He's a liberal democrat, "small d" and "big D." He's somebody who came through the Depression, who absolutely honors in his work the best impulses behind the socialist American left, somebody who was never, ever willing to say that money doesn't matter, that money has nothing to do with justice. He was always insistent that you can't talk about ethics, you can't talk about politics, you can't talk about families and psychology and sexuality, without also having some understanding of where the money's coming from and who owns the money and who's after the money and who's taking the money from people who had the money. He's very much Homo economicus. And where you see that idea go in his plays is very much where the idea went in a certain kind of progressive liberal tradition. He is not, finally, I think, a socialist in a particularly comfortable way. Nor is he willing to reject the insights of socialism, but he's a profound believer in constitutional democracy and in pluralism and in the possibility of justice and fairness being achieved through legal means.

And he also has a degree of Calvinist fatalism and darkness. It's why he could write The Crucible. He was a Jew from Brooklyn, but he got that New England [sensibility], in a funny way, much more convincingly than O'Neill, who tried to put on Hawthorne drag and write about New England people, but they're really Irish Catholics. But Miller really [got it], and I think it comes from his deep emotional engagement with the ugliest parts of the Depression, really this hardscrabble life, married to a very parched theological [tradition]. To the extent that there was a Jewish tradition in Miller's life, it was very much kept on the back burner and kept away from him. So it adds up to something that smells and feels a lot like the kind of world-view that would produce the Deists who produced the Constitution of the United States. So Miller has this Lincolnian, 19th century quality. He's an Emersonian, an individualist. Much more than O'Neill, as I said, or Williams, who, of course, is absolutely not of any of those traditions, who's a Mediterranean in every way, shape, [and form]. For all that he grew up in St. Louis, he's really from New Orleans; he's from some warm coastal region.

Sometimes I feel that O'Neill starts it all – he's our Aeschylus, he's the person who really insists on and pulls out of almost nowhere serious American drama. And his two impulses, the poetic and the ethical, which are in such spectacular combination in O'Neill, are split up in a way into Williams on the poetic or lyrical side – Williams becomes this great singer of the American drama – and Miller, who becomes Sophoclean in a way. There's no American playwright who has a finer or more perfect sense of dramatic structure than Arthur Miller. If you want to know how to make certain events, certain effects happen on stage, you just go to him. He did it better than anyone. He knew how to gather the entire audience together to a certain point and break everybody's hearts all at once.

Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in the original production of <i>Death of a Salesman</i>, 1949
Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in the original production of Death of a Salesman, 1949
Photo by Fred Fehl

My friend Craig Lucas says, "The plays take such good care of you." [In the plays,] there's a sort of structural integrity. ... Miller says in Timebends and in many places that he was a carpenter, a constructor, a builder of things. There's an American pragmatism in his dramaturgy. And it creates something – as is true of most pragmatic American products – it has a universal currency. Everybody gets taken care of. Everybody wants to move into that house.

AC: Where's the personal intersection between Miller's work and you? What were your earliest encounters, and how did it affect you?

TK: Well, I've talked about this a lot. My earliest encounter was really, really early. My mother was a really wonderful bassoonist – she was first bassoon for the New York City Opera – but when we moved to Louisiana, she didn't have as many opportunities to play, and some of her immense creative spirit went into acting. When I was 6 years old, I saw her do Death of a Salesman in the Lake Charles Little Theatre, and it had a huge impact. I remember distinctly not knowing what the hell the play was about. I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about, this lady in a negligee in a hotel room I didn't get. Or what the rubber hose meant. All that stuff was mysterious to me, but I could tell from the reactions of the grownups all around me and from my mother onstage that something of tremendous significance was happening. And I remember Death of a Salesman much more vividly than the other plays that my mother did – The Diary of Anne Frank and The Subject Was Roses and A Far Country. I remember her vividly at the grave at the end and having this awareness of the gravity of life and the seriousness and the unhappiness of life, even at a very early age. I knew that I was in the presence of something else even then.

Then I saw lots of bad high school productions of The Crucible, and at one point in my 20s, the only playwright that existed for me was Bertolt Brecht. I always loved Williams, because he was gay and his language was so beautiful, but I thought O'Neill and [Edward] Albee and those people were just not worth thinking about. Then when I went to graduate school – as a director, not as a playwright, but I knew that I wanted to be a playwright – and when I would direct a scene from The Lady From Dubuque or A Memory of Two Mondays or something by Arthur, I'd go, "This really works." I've directed Clifford Odets, who is not a writer that I like very much at all, and it's very hard to make it work. You really have to fight to make the dramatic event. And then you do something like Death of a Salesman; it's like you don't have to do anything. It just does it. It's there. It's so true; it's so powerful; it's ineluctable. I began to think: "Oh, wait. I've misunderstood something. There's something that these guys did that they could do almost as well – in O'Neill's case, as well – as Brecht, which is making immensely entertaining theatre, entertaining in the deepest and best sense."

I saw the Robert Falls production of Salesman with Brian Dennehy about 10 years ago, and from almost the first five minutes of the play, it's like somebody has stuck a knife in your heart. You feel this terrible pain, and it never lets up. It's quite astonishing. You watch these things – I saw Falls' production of Long Day's Journey Into Night – you know, four hours and nothing happens, and the audience, this huge Broadway audience, just sat there, and there were times – same thing with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – at the most powerful moments, you can feel the entire audience not breathing, because you can't. You're so out of yourself and absorbed, you can't move. You can't respire. That's very powerful magic.

AC: I intended to ask you if the plays speak to us now in the same way they did when Miller wrote them, and your description makes it sound like, absolutely, as long as they're done well.

TK: Yeah. Salesman is almost indestructible. You'd have to really fuck it up to fuck it up. It's very hard to not make that work. But I saw Richard Eyre's production of The Crucible, which is not a play, honestly, that I had liked all that much before. I had lots of political reasons for having problems with it. And they did a great production on Broadway with Liam Neeson. It was stunning. Just stunning. Suddenly, it was like, whatever objections I have to this, this is spectacular. And, of course, it was in the middle of the Ashcroft era, which at the moment we thought was as bad as it could get. We didn't know that John Ashcroft was actually going to wind up sounding like a moral visionary compared to the guy who took his place. But it was at the beginning of the Bush years, and you thought, "Oh my God, I thought I understood McCarthyism; I thought I understood what it feels like when democracy is really dying in this country or at least in terrible jeopardy, but now in 2002, I see it in a different way, and this is a play for now."

You read about people seeing Death of a Salesman for the first time, like you read about the Berliners watching Mother Courage for the first time right after the war, when Berlin is still in rubble, or you read about people coming to see Long Day's Journey in 1956 after they had basically written O'Neill off as this irrelevant 1930s campy nobody, and you can't ever recapture that. There's no going back to the first time a genuinely great play appears in the world ... when something that just fundamentally changes the landscape forever first appears. People talk about seeing Death of a Salesman, both onstage and in that television film with Lee J. Cobb, and being shattered by it. I don't think you can get that back, but you get something else that's in a way richer and deeper. You come to Death of a Salesman now; everybody knows the story; everybody knows what's going to happen. It's like watching Oedipus. Willy is part of our mythology now. It's like rereading The Great Gatsby for the 95th time. You enter it with a conversation already ongoing that makes it very rich, and that's a wonderful thing.

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