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Arthur Miller sums up his world and his work

By John Beaufort / December 14, 1987



Timebends, a Life, by Arthur Miller. New York: Grove Press. 614 pp. $24.95. More than any other major contemporary American playwright, Arthur Miller has been exposed to the testing issues of the times. Miller's success as a dramatist provided the impetus from which everything else followed. But it is only part of the mix. ``Timebends,'' his autobiography, combines personal and social history, political comment, and theater reminiscence.

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A partisan of liberal causes in the 1930s and '40s, he was cited for contempt of Congress in 1956 for refusing to cooperate fully with the House Un-American Activities Committee. (The contempt conviction was later overturned.) An active member of PEN, which he served as international president in 1968, he has come to the aid of writers victimized by authoritarian regimes of both right and left.

``Timebends'' reflects the fluid, back-and-forth nature of the Miller reminiscence. The book's progress owes more to mood and selected circumstance than to conventional chronology. The playwright begins his account with shifting scenes of a New York City boyhood and returns to this background as it relates to subsequent events and developments. Miller's parents were second-generation Jewish Americans - his father a prosperous coat manufacturer before being ruined by the depression, his mother a woman whose cultural pretensions did not match her husband's intuitive, down-to-earth judgments. It was as a university student that young Miller began writing plays and winning prizes.

As might be expected, his accounts of how ideas developed into viable stage works provide ``Timebends'' with some of its most illuminating themes. How, for instance, the Willy Loman of ``Death of a Salesman'' gradually took his place as a universal, 20th-century Everyman. ``All My Sons'' was inspired by an actual incident similar to the one that forms the crux of the drama. ``A View from the Bridge'' incorporated Miller's observations of clannish Italian-American dock workers on the Brooklyn waterfront. The progress of the plays from script to stage recalls the train of theater artists involved in the process and supplies an incidental fund of anecdotes.

Miller's courtship of and marriage to Marilyn Monroe was a sensational drama with its own dynamics and motivations. The author deals almost fatalistically with this relatively brief but intense relationship. Miss Monroe's stormy association with Laurence Olivier, the director-costar of ``The Prince and the Showgirl,'' and her drug-related breakdown while filming ``The Misfits,'' which Miller wrote for her, contributed to the disintegration of a union that ended in divorce. Domestic serenity has been achieved in his long marriage to Inge Morath, the Austrian-born international photographer, many of whose photographs appear in ``Timebends.''

Not withstanding its 599 pages of text, the book displays a selectivity that can sometimes puzzle the reader. The playwright's first wife, whom he met at the University of Michigan disappears completely following their divorce. Nor are there more than passing references to the children of that marriage.

On the professional side, Miller goes into considerable detail about the underfunded first efforts to establish a Lincoln Center repertory company but omits to say what a recent and happier Lincoln Center association may bode for the future of the present leadership.

More important, ``Timebends'' stands as a thoughtful, often ironic, and widely embracing personal history - a summing up of the world and work of an American playwright who has become an international figure. The ever-widening impact of Miller plays across ideological borders reached a logical high point and made some East-West history in 1983, when he staged the Peking People's Art Theater production of ``Death of a Salesman,'' the first by a foreign director in post-Mao China. Attention has indeed been paid to Willy Loman.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.