Arthur Miller: Man and His Image

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Author: Gerald Weales
Date: Fall 1962
From: Tulane Drama Review(Vol. 7, Issue 1)
Reprint In: Drama Criticism(Vol. 31)
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 2,892 words

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[(essay date fall 1962) In the following excerpt, Weales identifies "the relationship between a man's identity and the image that society demands of him" as a theme that recurs in all of Miller's plays, and he discusses its manifestation in The Crucible.]

Arthur Miller is one of those playwrights, like Thornton Wilder, whose reputation rests on a handful of plays. The quality of that reputation changes from year to year, from critic to critic, but now, five years after the production of his most recent play (the revision of A View from the Bridge), it is generally conceded--even by those who persist in not admiring his work--that Miller is one of the two playwrights of the postwar American theatre who deserve any consideration as major dramatists. Tennessee Williams is the other.

There are many ways of approaching Miller's work. In the late Forties, after All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, popular reviewers tended to embrace him enthusiastically while consciously intellectual critics, displaying the carefulness of their kind, hoped that in explaining him they might explain him away. For a time, his plays were lost in discussions of the author's politics, past and present, or were buried beneath the pointless academic quibble about whether or not they are true tragedies. Miller's own defensiveness on these two points helped feed the controversy. In the last few years, however, with no new Miller play to stir up opinion, his work has begun to be considered outside the immediate context that produced it.

Even so, there is no single handle by which to grasp his works. Since each of his four chief plays is built on a family situation--Sons and Salesman on the father-son conflict; The Crucible and View on the triangle--the plays can be treated as domestic dramas. Since they obviously criticize or comment upon the structure of society, they may be considered conventional social plays; still, as Eric Bentley has pointed out, noting the chief motivating force in most of the plots, they are as much sexual as social dramas. There are probably enough biographical reflections in the plays to send the psychological critic in search of personal analogies; Maurice Zolotow, for instance, interrupts the psycho-anecdotage of Marilyn Monroe long enough to point out that both Crucible and View deal with marital problems caused by the attraction of an older man to a younger woman and to suggest that they stem from the fact that the author could not get Miss Monroe out of his mind between his first meeting with her in 1950 and his marriage to her in 1956.

Any of these approaches, even Zolotow's may manage to say something valid about Miller's plays. To me, however, the most profitable way of looking at his work is through his heroes and through the concern of each, however inarticulate, with his identity--his name, as both John Proctor and Eddie Carbone call it. Perhaps the simplest way to get at what Miller is doing in these plays is to force a path through the confounding prose of his general comments on contemporary drama and on the kind of play which he hopes he has written. Although his opinions on the nature of drama are scattered through interviews, introductions, and occasional articles for the New York Times, the bulk of his theoretical writing is contained in four essays--"On Social Plays," printed as an introduction to A View from the Bridge (1955); "The Family in Modern Drama," originally a lecture given at Harvard (Atlantic Monthly, April, 1956); "Introduction to the Collected Plays" (1957); "The Shadows of the Gods" (Harper's, August, 1958). Although each of these essays has a particular job to do, a recurring idea about the possibilities of modern drama seeps through the ponderousness of all of them, climbs over the barriers of Miller's Germanic fondness for definition and redefinition. For Miller, the serious playwright writes social drama, but that genre, for him, is not simply "an arraignment of society's evils." Just as he refuses to accept the standard definition of the social play, a product of the Thirties, so too he rejects the drama which he sees as most representative of contemporary American theatre, the play in which the characters retreat into self-preoccupation and give little hint that there is a society outside themselves. The true social drama, the "Whole Drama," as he calls it, must recognize that man has both a subjective and an objective existence, that he belongs not only to himself and his family, but to the world beyond.

Since Miller's plays were written before these essays were, it is probably safe to assume that the theorizing is ex post facto in more ways than one, that his general conclusions about the drama are based, in part, on what he thinks he has done as a playwright; his ready use of Salesman as an example strengthens such an assumption. I have no trouble accepting his belief that the best of drama has always dealt with man in both a personal and a social context, but his generalizations are most useful as approaches to his own work. His plays are family centered, obviously, because our drama the last few years has been uncomfortable in any context larger than the family; his heroes, however, are more than failed husbands and fathers because he has recognized that the most impressive family plays, from Oedipus through Hamlet to Ghosts, have modified the concept of the family and of the individual under the pressure of society.

Each of his heroes is involved, in one way or another, in a struggle which results from his acceptance or rejection of an image that is the product of his society's values and prejudices, whether that society is as small as Eddie Carbone's neighborhood or as wide as the contemporary America that helped form Willy Loman. Miller's work has followed such a pattern from the beginning. Even Ben, the hero of They Too Arise, a now happily forgotten prize-winner from the mid-Thirties, has to decide whether he is to be the man that his middle-class, small-businessman father expects or the comrade that his radical brother demands; the play ends, of course, in leftist affirmation, but the conflict has been in terms of opposed images, both of which are assumed to have validity for Ben. The hero of The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), Miller's first produced play, accepts the town's view of him as a man who has succeeded through luck not ability; he assumes that all luck must turn and, in his obsession, almost brings disaster on his head until his wife convinces him that he should reject the town's rationalizing bromide and accept that man makes his own luck. In his novel Focus (1945), a fantasy-tract, his anti-Semitic hero finally accepts the label that his neighbors force on him; he admits that he is a Jew. Most of Miller's short stories reflect the same kind of preoccupation with the self that someone else expects the hero to be; in one of his most recent stories, "I Don't Need You Any More" (Esquire, December, 1959), the five-year-old hero's idea of himself is formed on half-understood perceptions picked up from his parents and the adult world they live in, the only society that he recognizes outside himself. The lament and the longing implicit in Martin's thought--"If only he looked like his father and his brother!"--is a small echo of the bewilderment that haunts all the Miller heroes who do the right things and come to the wrong ends.


Joe Keller and Willy Loman find ready-made societal images to attach themselves to and both become victims of the attachment. Society is not nearly so passive in Miller's next play, The Crucible (1953). Salem tries to force John Proctor to accept a particular image of himself, but he chooses to die. Although there are occasional voices in the earlier plays (the neighbors in All My Sons, the bartender in Death of a Salesman) who speak for society, Miller operates for the most part on the assumption that his audience knows and shares the ideas that work on the Kellers and the Lomans. He cannot be that certain in The Crucible. Whether we are to accept his Salem as historical or as an analogy for the United States in the early Fifties, Miller needs to create a mood of mass hysteria in which guilt and confession become public virtues. For this reason, Proctor is not so intensively on stage as are the protagonists of the earlier plays; the playwright has to work up a setting for him, has to give his attention to the accusers, the court, the town.

Now that Joe McCarthy is dead and Roy Cohn is running Lionel trains, it has become customary to consider The Crucible outside the context in which it was written. Since the play is not simply a tract, there is good sense in that attitude; whatever value the play comes to have will be intrinsic. Still, there is something to be learned about John Proctor from Arthur Miller's opinions at the time the play was written. About six months after the play was produced, the Nation (July 3, 1954) published Miller's "A Modest Proposal for Pacification of the Public Temper," a not very successful attempt at Swiftian satire. What the piece does do is make quite clear that Miller believed that the America of that moment, like the Salem of his play, was going in for a kind of group therapy that demanded each man's mea culpa. It would be simple enough to dissect Miller's use of Salem and to show, as so many critics have, that the Massachusetts witch hunts are not analogous to the postwar Communist hunts, but such an exercise is finally beside the point. The important thing is that Miller found Salem both relevant and dramatically useful. A resurrection of the political situation at this time is valuable only because it is quite obvious that Miller's involvement with that situation dictated his treatment of the material. I am not thinking of the villainous Danforth, the ambitious Parris, the greedy Putnam, the envious Abigail, each of whom uses the cryings-out to his own advantage, although Miller was plainly intent on questioning the sincerity of accusers and investigators in general. It is John Proctor who shows most clearly Miller's attitude. His hero might have been another Willy Loman, another Joe Keller, an accepter not a defier of society, and his play would have had just as much--perhaps more--propaganda value. There is such a character in the play--the Reverend John Hale, the witch expert, who breaks under the strain of the trials--and one can make a good case for Hale as the protagonist of The Crucible. Although Hale is a much more interesting character than Proctor, it is the latter's play and here--unlike in the earlier plays--Miller has produced a romantic hero. It seems likely that Miller's opposition to the investigations and particularly to the form they took, the ritual naming of names, made him want a conventional hero not, as usual, a victim-hero. When he appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in June, 1956, there was dignity in his refusal to give names, in his willingness to describe his past without apologizing for it, in his simple, "I accept my life." Ironically, not even Elizabeth's "He have his goodness now" can make Proctor's dignity convincing. The simplicity of the real situation is impossible on stage. Miller's need to push Proctor to his heroic end causes him to bring to The Crucible too many of the trappings of the standard romantic play; the plot turns on that moment in court when Elizabeth, who has never lied before, lies out of love of her husband and condemns him by that act. This is a sentimental mechanism almost as outrageous as the hidden-letter trick in the last act of All My Sons. There is excitement enough in the scene to hold an audience, but the attention that such a device demands is quite different from that required by John Proctor's struggle of conscience.

Although Proctor is never completely successful as a character, Miller makes a real effort to convince us that he is more than the blunt, not so bright good man he appears to be; and once again Miller works in terms of societal concepts. The Proctor who appears in the novelistic notes which Miller has sprinkled through the text of the published play is not quite the Proctor of the play itself; but there are similarities. We are to assume that Proctor is a solid man, but an independent one, not a man to fit lightly into anyone else's mold. When we meet him, however, he is suffering under a burden of guilt--intensified by his belief that Elizabeth is continually judging him. Miller makes it clear that in sleeping with Abigail Williams, Proctor has become "a sinner not only against the moral fashion of the time, but against his own vision of decent conduct." In Act III, when he admits in open court that he is a lecher he says, "A man will not cast away his good name." When he is finally faced with the choice of death or confession (that he consorted with the devil), his guilt as an adulterer becomes confused with his innocence as a witch; one sin against society comes to look like another, or so he rationalizes. In the last act, however, Elizabeth in effect absolves him of the sin of adultery, gives him back the name he lost in court, and clears the way for him to reject the false confession and to give his life: "How may I live without my name?"


"It is not enough any more to know that one is at the mercy of social pressures," Miller writes in "On Social Plays"; "it is necessary to understand that such a sealed fate cannot be accepted." Each of his four heroes is caught in a trap compounded of social and psychological forces and each one is destroyed. Miller is concerned that their deaths not be dismissed as insignificant, the crushing of little men by big forces. His description of Eddie Carbone expresses his opinion of all his heroes: "he possesses or exemplifies the wondrous and humane fact that he too can be driven to what in the last analysis is a sacrifice of himself for his conception, however misguided, of right, dignity, and justice."

Playwrights, however have always been better at telling men how to die than how to live. A dramatist in opposition is always more comfortable than one in affirmation. When Miller chooses to be a social critic, in the old-fashioned sense, it is apparent what he is against. Although he disavows any blanket attack on capitalism, both Salesman and Son contain explicit criticism of a business-oriented society in which corruption, selfishness, indifference are the norms. The political and governmental targets are obvious enough in The Crucible; in View there is an implicit condemnation of a social system that turns men into submarines. Back in the childhood of his career as a playwright, the days of They Too Arise, Miller might have been able to conceive of some kind of political action as a cure for such societal wrongs, but it has become increasingly clear that his concern is with personal morality, the individual's relation to a society in which the virtuous goals (Joe Keller's sense of family, Willy Loman's idea of success) are almost as suspect as the vicious methods. When there is a concrete situation, a problem like that of Joe Keller's cylinder heads, Miller has no difficulty; who in the audience is going to suggest that Keller was right in sending them out. It is with those other alternatives--the ones embedded in generalizations--that the trouble arises.


Miller's virtues, however, outweigh these faults. The theme that recurs in all of his plays--the relationship between a man's identity and the image that society demands of him--is a major one; in one way or another it has been the concern of most serious playwrights. A big theme is not enough, of course. Miller has the ability to invest it with emotion. He is sometimes sentimental, sometimes romantic about both his characters and their situations, but sentiment and romance, if they can command an audience without drowning it, are not necessarily vices. Even in A Memory of Two Mondays, in which he peoples his stage with stereotypes, he manages, in the end, to make Bert's departure touching. The test of the good commercial playwright is the immediate reaction of an audience; the test of a good playwright is how well his plays hold up under continuing observation. Each time I go back to All My Sons, to The Crucible, to A View from the Bridge, the faults become more ominous, but in each of these plays there are still scenes which work as effectively as they did when I first saw the play. Death of a Salesman is something else again. It does not merely hold its own, it grows with each re-reading. Those people who go in for good-better-best labels--I am not one of them--would be wise, when they draw up their list of American plays, to put Death of a Salesman very near the top.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082411