Playwright keeps antennae up

Arthur Miller has been watching rehearsals of his own plays for so long that few people remember American theater before he came along. The characters he created - Willy Loman, Maggie and Quentin, John Proctor - have become universal metaphors beyond any national identity. The plays are continually produced in the United States, and as far away as Europe and China, where he is much admired.

Miller is no less the playwright of the moment now than he was in 1947 when "All My Sons" premired, or in 1949 when "Death of a Salesman" stunned its audiences for the first time. "The Last Yankee," his play from the early '90s, is currently the hit of the Athens season. A highly praised revival of "The Price" just closed on Broadway; a new production of "All My Sons" is set to open in England, with another of Miller's plays, "Mr. Peters' Connections," due at London's trendy Almeida Theatre in July.

His current project is assisting on his next Broadway production, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," which opened March 23 at The Ambassador Theatre.

"I sit in on half of the rehearsals. I see something; I give them my notes, let them work on it, and then come back," he says.

Miller took time out from "Mt. Morgan" to speak to this long-time Miller fan at his apartment on New York's East Side, where he's in residence when coaxing a show to its feet. Otherwise, he and his third wife, Inge Morath, make their permanent home on 400 acres in Roxbury, Conn.

Miller, at a towering 6 ft., 3 in., is affable and ready to talk about a new play, his past work, and the future. He has finished "Resurrection Blues," as it's currently titled, and hopes to take it to production in the fall. "It takes place now, in a Latin American country. I'd better not tell you what it's about. I'm very bad at it," he says.

"The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" was first presented in London in 1991, then in the US at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theater Festival, and off-Broadway. The play's success in its limited New York run last year led to this Broadway outing. Miller is quite pleased that actor Patrick Stewart is playing Lyman Felt, the larger-than-life central character who has kept two marriages going for 10 years with neither wife knowing about the other. When Felt is injured in an auto accident, the women meet at his hospital bedside.

"Stewart is right on. It does require somebody you could believe in the role," Miller says.

"I don't know what triggered 'Mt. Morgan,' " he says, jumping up to point out a story published in the New York Post a day earlier. It mirrors Lyman's dilemma in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction coincidence.

"I suppose the spectacle of a person thinking that one could achieve liberation without a price had something to do with it. This is the story of someone who does finally have to confront the consequences of his freewheeling life. At the same time, I think it appreciates the happiness it has brought him and others," he says.

Miller admits to revisiting his own life in his works, but no more than any other author. If Lyman personifies a secret wish for companionship to supply every emotional need, then surely Miller's growing up years during the Depression when his father lost his business are connected to the case of Willy Loman, and Miller's marriage to Marilyn Monroe and subsequent divorce can be detected in "After The Fall."

Yet, he offers a disclaimer.

"I've written plays about the waterfront ['A View From the Bridge'], about Salem at the end of the 17th century ['The Crucible'], about business ['Death of a Salesman'], about people in the Midwest ['All My Sons']. I couldn't have been in all those places.

"Of course, a writer processes his own experiences and issues them in a form which comes from an artistic premise. Everybody has an autobiography, but not everybody can write a play, or compose a piece of music, or make a dance. The only question is how pleasurable or persuasive the result is to other people," he says.

Miller has no doubt that the past is continually present in people's lives. "That's one of the themes that goes through my works. Every tragedy is the story of how the birds came home to roost. 'The Ride Down Mt. Morgan' is the latest example.

"We live in a stream of time, but it's the dramatic form that begins to distort it and knead it according to the needs of the tale. Obviously the mind does not work in a linear fashion most of the time. It's always carrying the enormous freight of memory onto the stage," he says.

"I suppose what I always had the habit of doing is simply keeping my antennae in good order and trying to track the cards of life at any one moment. That always fascinated me, in the way they shift and change. At the same time, the fundamentals don't change all that much, the fundamentals of human behavior."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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