ARTHUR MILLER has always been a man with a message. Throughout the playwright's career of nearly 50 years, he has insisted, as in his classic play, ``Death of a Salesman'' (1949), that ``attention must be paid.'' The subject of Miller's attention is never trivial: Deeply committed to moralistic art, he dramatizes social issues of universal concern.
Miller's new play, ``Broken Glass,'' which opened at the Booth Theater Sunday, is his latest attempt to fulfill the artist's duty as oracle and conscience for humanity.
This didactic impulse has been called a flaw. Critics accuse the writer of venting lofty maxims in his plays, as if the audience were a congregation rather than spectators. In a recent telephone interview, Miller defended his serious purpose.
``In other parts of the world,'' he says, ``it's accepted that, of course, a play is written because the author has something to say about the world.'' On the other hand, he says, American critics complain ``when anything departs from pure entertainment, or when an author has any viewpoints on society or politics.'' He surmises that this is the critics' way of avoiding a discussion about the playwright's message.
``Broken Glass'' demonstrates a 1960s battlecry: ``the personal is political.'' Set in Brooklyn in 1938, its plot concerns a middle-aged Jewish woman, played by Amy Irving, who suffers psychosomatic paralysis in her legs. The illness is linked to her terror at the persecution of German Jews by the Nazis as well as to her despotic husband's coldness.
Ron Rifkin brilliantly performs the role of Phillip Gellburg, the husband. Loathing his Jewish heritage and lusting for assimilation into the WASP world of yachts and white-buck shoes, Gellburg condemns his wife to a sterile existence.
The play implies, Miller says, ``that the solutions are generally too late, but that they're important anyway.'' Attempting to reform, Gellburg discovers that denying his ethnic identity has made him emotionally impotent.
``The play comes from a deep, private part of myself,'' says Miller, who is Jewish. Writing was difficult, involving multiple revisions during the play's out-of-town run at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. During previews, Miller said, ``I unearthed things I wasn't expecting.''
While a personal story, the play also has a public dimension. As is usual in Miller's work, family conflict is a microcosm for searing global problems.
Referring to recent events in Bosnia and the Middle East, the author says, ``I've been more and more struck by what I never thought would happen. I thought this upsurge of ethnic conflict was past, and here it is again. We're back to Square 1 with the tribes banging their chests and nobody reconciled to each other's existence.''
The play insists on the basic similarity of all people. Its premise is that no ethnic group has a monopoly on suffering and victimization. Since everyone is to some degree persecuted, the play maintains, Gellburg must assume responsibility for his fate rather than blaming external forces.
``I don't believe in the idea that victims are angels; they're human beings,'' Miller says. A character in the play has a line that points out even Hitler was persecuted. ``I've always felt that,'' Miller says.
Despite this belief in the commonality of human experience, Miller portrays his characters as individuals with distinctive idiosyncracies. ``You get more generalized significance and more intense identification the more detailed the characters are,'' he says.
Rather than creating a play that applies to a narrow subset of humanity, he writes to erase frontiers. ``People said no one outside the US would understand Willy Loman. They called `Death of a Salesman' an arch-American play that would be incomprehensible beyond our borders,'' Miller says. ``That has not proven to be the case. People are people.''
His messages are broadly applicable because the plays spring from feeling as well as social theory. ``If an intellectual is not passionate, he's not a very good intellectual, and his play will not come close to the truth,'' Miller says.
``My plays are conceived emotionally,'' the playwright says. ``If they were merely schematic, I could have written a hundred plays by now.'' He adds, ``The idea for this play goes a long way back into the '30s. It took that long to find the symbolic form for it.''
Miller's outlook has always reflected the need for balance. Characters discover they must maintain their self-respect and identity while contributing to the communal whole. Self-esteem is ``as much socially based as genetic. They both go together,'' he says. ``It's never all one thing. Life is a contradiction.''
``Death of a Salesman'' embraced such contradictions and aroused great controversy. Critics debated whether a lowly huckster could be a tragic hero but praised the work as an indisputable masterpiece.
More recently, as in Miller's last play on Broadway (``The American Clock'' in 1980, which closed after a brief run), American critics have been harsh. Perhaps his reputation as a preeminent playwright makes for impossibly high expectations.
``That's not the case any more with a new generation not familiar with the classics,'' Miller says. ``If Death of a Salesman' came out now, they'd say it's no `Death of a Salesman.' ''
Whatever the critical response, this production of ``Broken Glass'' satisfies its creator. ``As a play, it does what I wanted it to do,'' he says. ``It's written as a series of body blows, like hitting somebody with a hammer. It's all essences. That's why it's rather short and to the point. From the time the curtain goes up, the audience doesn't move.''
The audience does, however, laugh, although despair lies below Neil Simon-like quips. Miller unleashes his humor in the new play much more than in grim parables such as his 1953 play, ``The Crucible.''
``I see the absurdity of all our seriousness,'' he says. ``We're always on the edge of being idiots.... When you get old, it all gets funnier.''
* A review of `Broken Glass' will appear tomorrow.