I’M NOT particularly interested in league tables. But if you put Shakespeare to one side, Arthur Miller stands comparison with any playwright writing in the English language for his contribution to our culture and our understanding of what it is to be human. He uniquely captured the pain and the anguish, the hopes and aspirations of human beings in the modern world. And perhaps most importantly, he understood how human beings are connected to events in the greater world.
The paradox at the heart of his work is that on the one hand, individuals attempt to control their destiny, but on the other, they are shaped by the world—even in ways they cannot grasp or understand.
Miller himself was changed for all time by the Great Depression in the 1930s. His family had grown from poverty to affluence, but then his father lost everything overnight in the crash. This is well documented in his play The Price, which, although fictional, is based on what happened to him at the time. The mother of one of the central characters in the play actually vomits when she is told the family has lost everything in the crisis.
The realisation that you could lose everything, that capitalism might lurch into devastating crisis, remained with Arthur throughout his life. And his broad philosophical response to such an uncertain world was fundamentally humanitarian.
Underneath the different cultures and languages, we are fundamentally one humanity—whether struggling in a poverty-ridden village in Africa or dealing with emergent wealth in China. And every one of Miller’s plays deals with our responsibility for our actions.
He wrote All My Sons during the Second World War and it was performed after the conflict ended. It centres on a factory owner’s conspiracy to sell damaged aircraft parts to the US air force.
He allows a friend to go to prison rather than go to prison himself. His son finds out and it is only at the end of the play we discover the tragedy that results.
It is not surprising that this forthright writer in his twenties was very unpopular with the US establishment. That came to a head in the 1950s during the McCarthyite witch-hunts against left wingers and Communists. Miller was dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But he refused to “name names”—accuse others of Communist sympathies—even though this could have meant the end of his career.
In his play The Crucible he found the perfect analogy for McCarthyism—the witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts. The character John Proctor goes to his death rather than name names. The forces at work in that society were greater than any individual could control. There was what we could call a “religious right”, using false testimony from young girls to accuse people of witchcraft.
Arthur always used to say that whenever democracy was under threat, you would generally find that The Crucible was being performed in the country where that was happening.
You only have to look today at how the occupation of Iraq has been driven by the religious right in the US (supported by our own religious right in the form of Tony Blair) to understand the relevance of the play. Individuals are trying to stand up to that. I think Arthur understood that only through our collective efforts would we actually stand much of a chance.
Probably even more relevant is Enemy of the People, his reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s play about a doctor who discovers the town’s local water supply is polluted.
The town depends on tourists visiting its spas. So instead of being treated as a hero, the doctor becomes an enemy of the townspeople for standing up for the truth. It is a fantastic piece of work which neither Ibsen nor Miller could have written by himself.
We performed it at the Young Vic and in the West End when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Arthur was closely involved in the production. There is a fantastic speech in the middle of the play that would always get people on their feet with its depiction of a man of integrity.
One reason why Miller’s plays are regularly performed in Britain is that they are so easily accessible. At the Young Vic we tried to attract an audience that did not usually visit the theatre. We put on one Miller play each season on average.
A View from the Bridge deals with illegal immigrants in New York sending money home to Sicily. I think it should be performed across Britain as mainstream politicians compete to be the most anti-refugee and anti-immigrant. Arthur’s deep humanism ran through his plays and his public pronouncements. Most recently he made many public statements against the war and occupation of Iraq.
His plays will continue to carry that vision. But we have lost a great artist and a man of the highest integrity.
David Thacker has directed a film, Faith, for the BBC about the Great Miners Strike of 1984-5. It is due to be screened on Monday 28 February.