The Playgoer: Arthur Miller's "Secret"

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Arthur Miller's "Secret"

I've refrained from commenting so far on the recent Vanity Fair piece "exposing" the existence Arthur Miller's purportedly abandoned Downs-Syndrome son. (Jason Zinoman also had a follow-up last week in the Times.) Frankly, I don't know what kind of response anyone can have that isn't highly personal. As far as shedding light on his work goes, it's become routine to comb through all an artist's biographical scraps looking for hidden secrets that put the work in a new light. But somehow I'm more comfortable about that approach when it's more in the past. Right now, it just feels like gossip, albeit true gossip.

The righteousness of Miller's plays has long turned people off, so it will probably be those same people who hold against him as a playwright his later decision (later than his major plays, that is) to have this son raised outside of the family in a special institution. For others, Miller's appeal was never in his moralizing but his sheer confronting of huge political conflicts at just the right time. And for exploring all the ugliness and guilt that connects the personal and political--especially in the father/son relationship.

Christopher Bigsby--the leading Miller scholar and biographer and, to be fair, a real champion of the man he became very close to--had a thoughtful take in the Guardian last week, offering a useful balance to the VF sensationalism:

The logic of these pieces is that Daniel [the son] was like a figure out of Jane Eyre - a guilty secret. He was, after all, it has been pointed out, not referred to in his autobiography, Timebends, seemingly left out of the family narrative.

In fact, you will find little in Timebends about any of his children. He had no sympathy for the notion that fame places an obligation on anyone to reveal details about their family. It is true that he did himself draw on family members in his art, musing at times on the legitimacy of doing so, but his life was the well from which he drew.

[...]

Daniel was not a secret. I had long recorded conversations with both Inge [Inge Morath, Miller's third wife and Daniel's mother] and Arthur about him and their decision in 2001. This was not the act of two people who wished to expunge him from the record. Neither, they insisted to me, regretted their decision, though another generation might have found it more difficult to grasp. Daniel was plainly the source both of pain and pride but it seemed to them both that they would not have been equipped to help him and that he had flourished in a way he would not have done had he ended up alone with them in the family home. It would, Inge told me, have been impossible to give him the kind of life he deserved.

And if the decision was wrong (though quite who would have been able to adjudicate is difficult to know) is it, anyway, so difficult to envisage that it is possible to be morally confident in the public world and unsure in private? Arthur Miller's work is precisely about such flawed men and women. In The Crucible a courageous public stance is taken by a man whose private behaviour is fallible. After the Fall is in part about a series of wrong choices. What are Willy Loman and Eddie Carbone, in Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge, if not men struggling to do right while unsure what form right action might take?

I totally understand people reading the VF article and thinking "Yuk, what a cold and pompous man." But to attempt to reevaluate the plays based on this particular bit of news strikes me as just not very sound criticism. As Bigsby points out, it shouldn't be news to any attentive theatre lover that Miller's plays have always been about guilt and moral failing. (If not as a father, certainly as a husband--adultery is always the original sin in Miller-land.) And I for one will always be glad Miller refused to name names before HUAC regardless of how many skeletons may lurk in his closet.

The particular feeling of violating privacy is poignant in this case since no one in Miller's family has brought this grievance. His daughter, the screenwriter-director Rebeca Miller--Daniel's sister--practically refuses to comment in the VF story. And when a glossy gossip rag like Vanity Fair holds itself up as the outside arbiter of morals peering into others' souls...well, as someone once said, "attention must be paid."

But, hey, truth will out, I suppose. And famous artists will never be able to contain what posterity makes of even the most intimate aspects of their life and work.

Matt Freeman, by the way, also had some good thoughts on this--as a playwright--in a blog exchange to which I contributed some additional comments.

9 comments:

Christopher Shinn said...

In his play "The Rules of Charity," the late John Belluso wrote about "the apothetae," a chasm in Ancient Greece where disabled and deformed infants were thrown away. I wonder what John would have had to say, or write, about this.

It's inappropriate and pointless to engage in armchair psychoanalysis. But to thoughtfully interrogate how a writer grappled in his life with the themes in his writing seems to me to be a very important task for the artists who come after him or her. The only way an art form can grow is by a deep engagement with the art and artists that have come before us, and the times and cultures in which they toiled.

Anonymous said...

The righteousness of Miller's plays has long turned people off...

Do you have documentation or quotes about this perspective ? If so please post. Otherwise, are these just friends ?

NYC

Rdavis said...

1. The temptation to draw the connection between a life and a work is obviously flawed, but always tempting (see Stephen Greenblatt's Will and the World). However, as you point out, Miller himself did it, so it's hard to think about this as something divorced from his work.

Ultimately, though, to reduce Miller to this decision is a bit reductive to say the least. I didn't see the VF piece, so I don't know how gossipy it was.

2. The Apothetae was only in Spartan territory. Not all the Greeks were that fanatical about perfect youth.

3. I think that's a pretty standard assessment of Miller, right?

Christopher Shinn said...

I don't know exactly what RDavis meant to communicate in "2" above, but I inferred a denial of how disabled people were treated in Ancient Greece. If he'd like examples other than the Apothetae, here's one:

"A pharmakos {is} the ancient Greek term for a 'scapegoat' who was ritually expelled in an annual ceremony... On the first day of the festival of the Thargelia, which was held yearly in classical Athens, two pharmakoi were expelled from the city in a ceremony to rid the city of all defilement from the previous year. They were paraded through the streets wearing a necklace of dried figs, beaten about their sexual organs with scilla bulbs, figs, and wild plants, and then expelled. The origin of the ritual was the Athenians’ impious murder of Androgaeus the Cretan; the custom of repeated purification through the expulsion of a designated “scapegoat” was introduced to remove the defilement associated with this legendary crime."

The quote is taken from the following blog posts, which are a good place to begin learning about disability and Ancient Greece:

http://www.autismvox.com/scapegoats-and-disability/

http://www.autismvox.com/oedipus-the-lame-more-notes-on-disability-in-ancient-greece/

Anonymous said...

I still want to know the folks who are calling Miller "righteous?"

If he's righteous we've got a serious issue that theatre can no longer question society nor hold the mirror up to the public and ask "are you seeing what I'm seeing ?

Is this "righteous" quote misspoken ?

NYC

The Playgoer said...

Dear "NYC"--I'm sorry for not maybe citing some more specifically stated opinions on Miller, but all I'm saying is quite frankly, yes among my "friends" (and colleagues and practitioners in their 20s-30s) many of us constantly casually refer to Miller as someone's whose legacy we respect and political engagement we admire, but whose dramaturgy of concluding moral speeches is just not our style.

Perhaps you're right about our society being in trouble if we're too cynical about moral rectitude. But I can't deny the opinion exists. If you've never heard it, then I suspect you may be of another generation of theatregoers?

Anonymous said...

Nope - just from the midwest.

Thank you.

NYC

maninchair.com said...

Terry Teachout also had some interesting things to say on the Miller revalation regarding whether it's possible to keep an artist's personal life separate from his/her work. Among his thoughts:"George Bernard Shaw was a loyal supporter of Soviet Communism who looked the other way when Stalin started piling up corpses. That doesn't justify a ban on performances of "Pygmalion," but it does mean--and should mean--that there will always be a blood-red asterisk next to Shaw's name in the literary record book. The ability to make great art excuses no man his basic human responsibilities."

rdavis said...

Christopher,

Rather than deny how the Greeks treated people with less-than-perfect physical capabilities, I was trying to point out that the Spartans were the only Greeks to my knowledge who had a special pit to toss deformed babies into. Not ever Greek city was that gruesome!

The link you provided was interesting, but a little misleading. I have read Chew and like her writing, but isn't there a great deal of difference between murdering disabled babies in Sparta and scapegoating adults in Athens? Just because the men in the latter were ugly doesn't seem to justify a connection.

The book that Chew cites is a very good volume, but its authors are deeply invested in a ritual explanation for Greek tragedy, and so make more of the Thargelia than it may deserve. This case is especially true with Oedipus (the second link you provided didn't work, at least for me), where scholars in the past have tried to connect the tragedy with the scapegoating ritual, an approach that is deeply problematic (not the least because Oedipus never leaves Thebes in Oedipus Tyrannus).

It was certainly an poignant article, and Chew is an important voice in the autism community, but I would not use it to understand history. Chew herself distances herself from claims of veracity in the opening disclaimer, reminding the reader what she wrote is a personal reflection.