Evelyn's Blog for April 7, 2018 - ARTHUR MILLER & 'DEATH OF A SALESMAN'

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I revere Arthur Miller, author of the play  “Death of a Salesman, the Tragedy of an Ordinary Man.”

In March, Arthur Miller’s daughter Rebecca posted on HBO a  biographical film about her father that she had built for twenty years.

When Miller finished writing “Death of a Salesman,” he sent it to his closest friend Elia Kazan

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whom Arthur considered the greatest realistic director probably of all time. Miller waited two agonizing days to hear from Kazan. Finally the phone rang. In low tones, making Miller wary (predicting Kazan would say the play was an impenetrable piece of wreckage), Kazan said, “This is the saddest play I ever read. I want to produce it in the fall or winter.”

On opening night, the final curtain came down and met silence. Miller said, “Some people stood up to put on their coats and sat down again. A strange sound emitted from the silent audience: weeping from grown men. Sometimes the men covered their faces. Eventually someone remembered to applaud. Then the entire audience joined in applause; and there was no end to it.”

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Mike Nichols said, “It was not like seeing a play. It was something else. . . . it was alive. I heard several stories about fathers crying all night and then visiting their doctor the following day. . . . He nailed reality.”

I point out here that it was “fathers, not “men” who saw their doctors the next day. The reason for this must include the fact that the play was also a love story between father and son, between Willy and Biff.

I love this play beyond any other. For those of you who have read my biographical novel THE PROVIDER, you understand.  In both cases, a man tries and fails. In both cases, the wife stays by his side.

The play is produced all over the world: Japan, Germany, Italy, France. . . . . In the United States, countless great actors have portrayed Willy on Broadway: Lee J. Cobb, Brian Donnelly, Sidney Phillip Hoffman, Dustin Hoffman (on HBO). 

An incident occurred in my life that I would now like to share with you, especially if you have already read THE PROVIDER. It begins. A girlfriend of mine read the novel, and with rapid-fire, matter-of-fact delivery slapped the following on me me, “I would have left Sanya after his second failure.”

That girlfriend is no longer in my life.  I cannot forgive her such cockiness because to forgive her is to dishonor my father. She confessed at an earlier time that she never liked “Death of a Salesman” even though she saw it more than once.

The wife of Cole Porter said of her husband in his final years of suffering, “I cannot leave a man when he is down.”

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Tony Kushner is a preeminent American playwright and screenwriter. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993. He said,  “Arthur Miller is the greatest narrative realist dramatist since Ibsen.”

Miller said, “I don’t know why I immediately turned to playwriting rather than novel writing, but it did seem to me that plays were more tangible, that theatre had a higher mission since the early Greeks in their appeal to the citizenry.” Miller was interested in touching people, reaching them.

And finally, Miller’s high school grades were dismal; he was not accepted into U of Michigan. He  worked in a factory and rode the train an hour-and-half daily. During that traveling time, he began heavy-duty reading. He read Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers’ Karamazov” and couldn’t get over the fact that a human being wrote that. After two years, he had saved up $500. He persuaded the U of Michigan to take him in on a six-month trial basis.

He won the prize for the best college play – equivalent, he said, to the Nobel Prize. He wrote it on Spring vacation and won $250 for one week’s work. It took him two years to save up $500 to enter the college.

Writing meant freedom to him, “as if I had levitated.”

When he graduated, he found work by writing scripts for radio. His first play in New York closed after five nights.

Here are some of the questions that Arthur Miller’s daughter Rebecca asked her father, and each response.

R: Is “Death of a Salesman” a realistic play?

A: No. It was modeled after my uncle who was completely crazy. He had a damaged memory. For him, the past was as alive as the present. The original title was, “Inside his Head.” He was delusional, striving to do something wonderful, extraordinary—a bit like an artist.  This could not be accomplished through conventional realism.  Elia Kazan said of the play’s structure that "it is like film. One scene bleeds into another. Past and present."


R: How do you go about starting your writing? Doo you start with a character?

A: I start with a person, a human being, yes a character. I don’t write much abstract emotion. I develop the character and like to get him up on the stage. Willy is the male force, and his dignity is everything to him. He lost it.  He didn’t know who he was or what he was doing.  He was searching for a value for himself. {Sanya in THE PROVIDER]


R: Explain tragedy.

A: Tragedy is an ultimate confrontation with reality; it gives you a firm grip on reality. Let’s say you think you know what reality is. I, as the playwright, expose what reality REALLY is.

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R: Regarding your marriage to Marilyn Monroe, tell us about her.

A: She was the saddest person I ever met. I told her that. I used the line in the film “The Misfits” when Clark Gable says it to her. I wrote that play for her after we were no longer together; she always wanted to appear in a serious film


R: Talk a moment here about your film "The Misfits."

A: I was in Las Vegas getting a divorce from Marilyn.  I had fallen in with three cowboys who rounded up wild mustangs to sell. “The world is so hard that these people couldn’t find a niche to call home.” {In THE PROVIDER, think of Sanya. The world was so hard for him.  Rosa was his home.} 


R: What was Marilyn like?

A: She was very witty. She could make fun of the cute image that she was emoting; a very difficult feat. She seemed guileless, honest, because she believed people at face value and was straight-forward with them. But she was really wearing a disguise; she was terrified that at any minute she would be found out as a faker. She was a very repressed person because of childhood abuse and abandonment. She was in great pain, but very brave. At the last minute before meeting a rehearsal, she would find something imperfect about herself, being so insecure. Consequently she was always late, hours late.


R: You did not write much while you were married to her. Why was that?

A: I was taking care of Marilyn. Trying to give confidence to her, trying to build her up. It’s a thankless kind of job.


MORE COMMENTARY

In “Death of a Salesman, the Tragedy of an Ordinary Man,” the wife’s words to the sons tore me apart. She was scolding them. “When your father failed, he didn’t know who he was. . . . Something terrible is happening to him. . . .  He is a human being and attention must be paid. He must not go into his grave like an old dog. Attention must be paid.”


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