Adam Kirsch Talks About Arthur Miller
For whatever reason Adam Kirsch of Tablet Ezine chose to write a very long discussion of Arthur Miller. Although one of the least talented writers ever, Arthur Miller enjoys an enormous reputation. Kirsh titles his essay: Disconcerting Wipeout: How Marrying Marilyn Monroe Ruined Arthur Miller’s Genius.
I maintain that Miller had no genius. His entire reputation rests on a mediocre play. Death Of A Salesman. I was in neither the right place or time to see the play for its 1949 debut. I could swear I saw a 1954 TV version. I can even see myself sitting on the davenport. But according to the internet the first TV production was 1966. In any event Lee J. Cobb recapitulated his stage role. The content of the play made no impression on me. I remember only one scene where a sullen, vicious looking Cobb sat in his kitchen while his two dorky sons hovered around him. I kept thinking, why is this guy so angry.
Since then however I did a study on Miller a few years ago in which I read the play two or three times although I didn’t see it. Kirsch mentions Miller’s earlier play All My Sons as worthwhile but I found it too amateurish for words. Miller’s only other actual claim to fame is his play The Crucible. That received a very mixed reception at the time. Excise Salesman from Miller’s corpus and you’ve got nothing left to base a reputation on.
At the time Miller married Monroe he was already intellectually bankrupt. He’d played his hand. Kirsch does a good enough job on Miller’s bio so I only wish to say a few words on the origins of Salesman. Regardless of what Miller says he was very involved with Communism. He accepted much largesse from the Party. The Party also made sure his plays were produced. One movie and one play are the inspiration for Salesman.
The movie is Fritz Lang’s The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse. This movie made a tremendous impression on Miller as, indeed, it has on me. The movie was made in two versions in 1932, one in German and one in French. These are two distinct films with both different and overlapping casts. Goebbels outlawed the German version because of its subversity, although probably the movie actually represents what was going on at the time. The French version was smuggled out of Germany and then in 1943 smuggled out of France into the US. Miller saw it at that time and was knocked off his feet. He got the coded message. If he wasn’t already he became subversive. I also saw the French version first and reacted as had Miller. Interestingly our memories distorted the picture, falsifying it in almost the same way.
Miller also saw either an edited version of the German film sometime around 1950 and possibly the reconstituted German film before he wrote his autobiography ‘Timebends.’ Tells the whole story. This was an important film for him. His memory collated the two movies replacing the French actors of 1943 with the German actors. He still misinterpreted the film. At any rate he stumbled out of the theatre as though he had been present at the second coming.
Mabuse, a great film, forms the first component of Salesman. The second is the play by Eugene O’Neill: The Iceman Cometh. Miller was present at one of the first performances. Unlike critics and audience Miller immediately recognized the play as a work of genius which it is. Most of O’Neill is scarcely worth watching but Iceman is a stunning achievement. Here is Willie Loman presented whole and entire in the lead character Hicky Hickman. I”m sure that Salesman presented itself to Miller in its entirety on the spot. At any rate he soon went to work on the play. Salesman cannot hold a candle to The Iceman Cometh yet the former is lauded while the latter is seldom mentioned. Miller is a midget to O’ Neill’s giant. Such is the way of the world.
The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse is available on DVD as a single unit with the French version on one side and the German on the other. The Iceman Cometh is available on DVD also. I recommend the Lee Marvin production. Very powerful, superbly done. Marvin captures the essence of the character better than anyone else. I usually watch both films at least once a year.
A word of warning: If you’re a Walt Disney type movie lover I would recommend Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs instead.