The egghead and the hourglass


Book of the week  

Arthur Miller: American Witness 

by John Lahr

(Yale £16.99, 264pp)

Arthur miller’s Death Of A Salesman, which so precisely conveys the brutality of ageing and the tragedy of lost dreams, is staged somewhere in the world nearly every day of the year.

Until its premiere in Philadelphia in 1949, Miller had been a struggling hack who worked in a factory assembling beer crates. But with the arrival of fame, says the noted U.S. theatre critic John Lahr, author of this absorbing, well-researched biography, he ‘affected a pipe and was accorded the role of public intellectual’.

Since then, 11 million copies of the text have been sold. Miller made the character of travelling salesman Willy Loman — who has been ‘driven crazy’, Lahr writes, ‘by his dream of winning and his fear of losing’ — into a metaphor of the American psyche, with its machismo, competitiveness, push and drive.

The role was based on Miller’s father, Isidore, who owned the Miltex Coat & Suit company, employing 800 people. He lost everything in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Broke, Isidore discovered he couldn’t ‘make it happen any more’.

Arthur miller’s Death Of A Salesman, which so precisely conveys the brutality of ageing and the tragedy of lost dreams, is staged somewhere in the world nearly every day of the year

Arthur miller’s Death Of A Salesman, which so precisely conveys the brutality of ageing and the tragedy of lost dreams, is staged somewhere in the world nearly every day of the year

Because of the perceived Left-wing slant of Death Of A Salesman, the House Un-American Activities Commission sniffed around Miller, determined to find the taint of Communist affiliation.

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ‘ceaseless propaganda’ of the time led to ordinary, honest people being threatened, abused and shunned — which put Miller in mind of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and inspired him to write The Crucible. Capturing the ‘political paranoia’ of the era and speaking to any age or society undergoing repression, it received 19 curtain-calls on opening night in 1953, and millions of copies of the script were sold.

As interesting as all this is — Miller is a staple of A-level English courses — what I’m really only interested in hearing about is Marilyn Monroe, whom Miller met in 1951, when he was enticed to Hollywood to write screenplays.

Seeing Marilyn at a party, Miller was smitten by ‘the swivelling of her hips’. When they shook hands, ‘the shock of her body’s motion sped through me’, he said later.

This was all too disconcerting for the studious, puritanical playwright, known to be ‘a brooding young man burning with all the injustice of the world’. Miller was also (unhappily) married, since 1940, to Mary Slattery, a lapsed Catholic from Ohio. Miller’s Jewish parents were so appalled Arthur had a gentile wife, they threw an alarm clock back and forth at each other.

With Marilyn, Miller, normally ‘rigid with inhibition’, was stirred by physical passion. He was mesmerised by her damaged beauty, ‘a waif haunted by the doom that was her blighted family inheritance’ — the schizoid mother, the orphanage and foster homes. Rather fatally, Miller believed he could be her saviour in ways Joe DiMaggio — briefly Marilyn’s husband, ‘a monster of jealousy and emotional abuse’ — was not.Even while married to baseball hero DiMaggio, Marilyn had ‘fantasised Miller was part of her manifest destiny’, who’d give her credence as a serious actress. ‘She was endlessly fascinating,’ said Miller. ‘There wasn’t a conventional bone in her body.’

Until its premiere in Philadelphia in 1949, Miller had been a struggling hack who worked in a factory assembling beer crates

Until its premiere in Philadelphia in 1949, Miller had been a struggling hack who worked in a factory assembling beer crates

The tabloids whipped up gossip about ‘The Egghead and the Hourglass.’ Marilyn, always on the hunt for a father figure, called Miller, ten years her senior, ‘papa’.

It was papa’s job, he discovered, to bolster her fragile sense of self-worth — which was to prove impossible. ‘She was like a smashed vase,’ Miller was to say. ‘It is a beautiful thing when intact, but the broken pieces are murderous and they could cut.’

When Mary heard about Marilyn, Miller was flung out. He lived at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan and, ‘starved for sexual release’, was glad to marry his mistress in 1956.

‘I have come alive at last’, Miller assured his parents — did they have their alarm clocks at the ready? — but Marilyn was soon suffocating. If opposed, she was instantly convinced she was not loved. It was a catastrophe. ‘I gave her comfort,’ said Miller. ‘She had a bomb inside her. Ignite her and she’d explode.’ Sometimes, and I’ve been there, guys, all a man wants to do is watch TV, not indulge in scenes.

The first thing the Millers did was travel to England for filming of The Prince And The Showgirl, starring Marilyn and Laurence Olivier. Marilyn arrived at London Airport with 27 suitcases, and husband and wife were installed in a mansion near Windsor Castle. Four thousand fans lined the Strand to see Marilyn arrive with Olivier for a press conference at The Savoy.

During filming, there was considerable antagonism between the stars. ‘All right, Marilyn, be sexy,’ said Larry, and she’d take offence.

She found her co-star condescending. He thought her shallow and demanding, with her private cook, hairdresser, bodyguard, make-up team, masseur, publicist and acting coach, Paula Strasberg. Having to provide constant support was an unsupportable strain. Marilyn’s ‘addiction to pills and drugs defeated me,’ Miller said.

The usual portrait in all the biographies is of Marilyn as talented, misunderstood, helpless — ‘all Charlie Chaplin’s heroines in one’. The unique perspective given by John Lahr is that we see the marriage from Miller’s angle, with Marilyn something of a tyrant.

Because of the perceived Left-wing slant of Death Of A Salesman, the House Un-American Activities Commission sniffed around Miller, determined to find the taint of Communist affiliation

Because of the perceived Left-wing slant of Death Of A Salesman, the House Un-American Activities Commission sniffed around Miller, determined to find the taint of Communist affiliation

Matters deteriorated further during filming of The Misfits, in 1961, written by Miller and directed by John Huston. Since he’d been married to Marilyn, she’d had three breakdowns, made three suicide attempts and, because in the past she’d undergone a number of abortions, she was now unable to get pregnant. Her many miscarriages were traumatising.

‘People who succeed are loved because they exude some magical formula for fending off destruction, fending off death,’ Miller reasoned. Willy Loman couldn’t do that. Marilyn Monroe couldn’t do that.

She died in 1963, in circumstances still disputed. By then, Miller was with Inge Morath, a stills photographer. Their daughter, Rebecca, was to marry Daniel Day-Lewis. Miller died in 2005, living off the lavish proceeds from those plays conceived long in the long ago.

One of his final duties was to review my biography of Laurence Olivier, which he perceptively called ‘a portrait of sun-like radiance, a passionate and monumental celebration of genius’. So how come I haven’t sold millions of copies?



Read More

Leave a comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More