“Writer. That’s all. That should say it.”
— Arthur Miller, when asked what he would want his obituary to say
Whenever Arthur Miller’s plays are mentioned in conversation, a certain kind of sadness always seems to befall the person in my company. While words of artistic appreciation are uttered, there’s a look in their eyes – a recognition of regret, of sorrow, of tragedy. No one reads a Miller play to laugh or to kill time. You walk into the theatre to see a revival of his work or pick up your annotated copy of one of his masterpieces to, essentially, let yourself get emotionally destroyed.
But the pieces don’t just stay there on the ground, helpless or hopeless. You are not permanently ruined, only temporarily untethered from some sort of stable story of contentment that you had been hitherto telling yourself. For me, the thread that connects Miller’s plays is the invitation for the reader or the audience member to face the algorithm of life, and to spring ourselves into action, despite the uncomfortable truths of our existence. All without letting certain emotions swing us so far over fine lines that the pendulum snaps apart from its string.
We see what self-delusions of grandeur do to Willy Loman, but many of us still put a little bit of faith – and a whole lot of our time, our energy, and ourselves – into the hackneyed trial of achieving the so-called American dream. We fear the descent into the rabbit hole of obsessive vengeance that Abigail Williams falls down, but so many of us are prone to moving along with the crowd, following trends, and vying for popularity during our most confused, lonely, and lost moments. We pity the uncontrollable urges that strip away Eddie Carbone’s capabilities for self-awareness and compassion, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t turn into the ugliest and most insatiable version of themselves when envy strikes a sudden, poisoned arrow through the heart.
In Miller’s works, we witness the destructions of families, caused by inner instabilities or external forces. But as we identify with some aspects of such charged conversations onstage and toxic relationships spelled out on the page, we would more than likely commit ourselves to the dramas of our own families, our own familiar tensions, than relinquish them for a life of aloneness and alienation. Why do we do that to ourselves? Because we are human, filled with both pathetic agonies and proud triumphs. Because life is short but can often feel dauntingly long during the day-to-day, and because there might be nothing more reassuring than knowing that someone, somewhere out there, has got your back.
Arthur Miller created iconically astonishing fictional characters, as well as awe-inspiringly intense bonds with the people around him. His dramatis personae and the relationships he had in real life are both now the stuff of legend, mythologized to the point where his worldwide celebrity, even posthumously, remains as relevant as ever, his works and his life story canonized as integral to the understanding of the post-war American art world, culture, and society.
Miller, of course, was more than a playwright. He wrote screenplays and essays of theatre criticism. He was, famously, married to Marilyn Monroe. He refused to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, even when threatened with jail time. With HBO’s documentary Arthur Miller: Writer, made available to stream since last Monday, we learn about the masterly intellectual in an intimate, arresting, and loving way. He was a son who saw his own father’s abrupt fall from grace during the crash of 1929. He was a college student who didn’t go home during spring break because that week was the only free time he had to sit down and write his first play. He was a husband who developed a stronger love for someone other than his spouse, and he was, later, a husband in a marriage where love was no longer enough. He was the happy other half to a Magnum photographer for half a century. He was a father who loved deeply. He was a deeply conflicted father after the birth of a son with Down’s syndrome and a doctor’s recommendation for extreme distance between the child and family via institutionalization. Arthur Miller was a man who understood longing, wrote characters defined by their yearning, and yet ultimately lived what appears to have been a very complete, fulfilling time on earth, filled with love, with family, and with faith in the enduring resonance of his life’s work.
Directed and produced by Miller’s daughter Rebecca, the HBO documentary is a chronological illustration of the famed playwright’s life through a compilation of nearly two decades’ worth of footage and interviews. The text from his personal letters is interspersed on screen, as well as audio recordings of Miller reading from his autobiography, Timebends: A Life. We see black-and-white photos of Miller and company, from his childhood to opening nights of his plays on Broadway. These pictures are bursting with aliveness even without actual animation, perhaps because the people that were photographed were living their lives to such an all-encompassing extent. One cannot help but feel the parallels between the artists of the fifties and the activists of today’s era: we see the cost of staying true to your beliefs and fighting the rebellious cause even when your reputation was on the line, conflicting with the exhilaration that came from seeing and being seen, and being heard by the masses. Watching this documentary after the March for Our Lives, I recognize that the Red Scare era by now may seem as intangible or foreign as ever, but I could not help but feel as though the kind of tenacious integrity that Miller and other artists so fiercely displayed back then has only been echoed more and more by America’s youth in these recent weeks and months.
“Arthur Miller was a man who understood longing, wrote characters defined by their yearning, and yet ultimately lived what appears to have been a very complete, fulfilling time on earth”
“As you have never seen before!” is a tired umbrella headline for gossip magazines and celebrity profiles. But this HBO film will actually allow you to see glimpses of Arthur Miller in a way that you previously did not have the chance to, and in a way that you probably didn’t expect. I was most captivated by the grainy video footage of Miller at home in Roxbury, Connecticut, during his later years of life. We see him performing the daily tasks of quiet life: eating at the kitchen table, preparing a chicken for dinner, making a table, playing with his kids and smiling with delight, walking through his garden and admiring a path he cut through the woods.
It is these household scenes that were both the most idyllic and unexpectedly engaging; days after watching the film, I am continually drawn back to these simple moments of serenity. There is a kind of familiarity in watching a family not just passing the time together but continuing to build on their foundations through all the nitty-gritty work that isn’t glamorous or attractive enough for an overly refined Instagram post. This is a brief look of Arthur Miller when he was simply Art or Dad. There is a moment where one of Miller’s children notes that, prior to his third wife Inge Morath moving into the Connecticut home, the house didn’t feel lived in or special. We see the slow, steady, and soulful connection between Miller and Morath as the two of them grow old together, not in an idealistic way (Morath herself candidly states that when they got married, she wasn’t expecting their relationship to last forever, but she wanted to give it a try) but as an incidental byproduct of waking up every day, looking at the person next to you, and actively choosing and trusting them with all of your heart.
In addition to being a frequent filmmaker and writer, Rebecca Miller is a superb interviewer. Her style of conversation is careful without being manipulative, and she isn’t afraid to ask her father the difficult questions in a way that is neither invasive nor insensitive. She asks questions with genuine curiosity and seemingly without expectations of the answers. There isn’t a sense of a push to feed salacious gossip or to broadcast all of her scandalous findings in a tell-all, despite her father’s surreal celebrity status as one of the greatest American playwrights of all time.
When Rebecca asks her father about the dissolution of his marriage to Monroe, there are pauses that seem to stretch into the ether. There is pain in his eyes and tenderness in his voice when he speaks about the actress, as if the desperation and desire so palpable in his letters to her many years ago were still very much alive: “It is just that I believe that I should really die if I ever lost you.” There is sweet dedication when Miller looks at Morath (“I can’t talk to anyone but you about so many things”) in their at-home interviews, and it is so admirable and life-affirming to see such a fostered best friendship only strengthen throughout the years. It is quite the courageous feat to allow for such complicated inner conflict to come to the forefront, such as when Miller writes in his journal about leaving his son Daniel: “I found myself not doubting the doctor’s conclusions, but feeling a welling up of love for him. I dared not touch him, lest I end by taking him home, and I wept.”
While there is no way that Rebecca Miller could ever be an objective eye for any work based on her own father, it is her respectful patience, openness, and ability to be understanding that make way for such welcome and warm energy throughout the interviews. For me, regardless of the intentions behind this documentary, I was left with a strange sensation that I don’t usually experience after watching biographical films (say, Spielberg’s Lincoln, or Scorsese’s The Aviator) or reading celebrity profiles (as in, any interview Caity Weaver or Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written for GQ). The norm is that I finish a piece and feel as though I have ten times the amount of questions about the celebrity or historical figure than I did prior to reading or watching the work based on said person. With this HBO film, I didn’t feel as though I understood Arthur Miller as a person more than I had before (how could I? I never met him), but I did feel as though I had witnessed just a slice of the kind of adult life that I would aspire to work towards, not even in the aspects of making it big in the world of theatre or literature, but simply in regards to building and nurturing relationships that would add bright and bursting colors to my world, whether a year from now or in half a century when my hair is gray and I hopefully still refuse to view the world in strictly black-and-white terms.
“In addition to being a frequent filmmaker and writer, Rebecca Miller is a superb interviewer… She asks questions with genuine curiosity and seemingly without expectations of the answers.”
In one scene, Miller reads a review of one of his final plays, and the contemporaneous critic seemed particularly harsh and unforgiving. Miller, having dreaded the critique in the first place, is clearly disappointed after reading it, but at the very least, he is surrounded by people who are willing to help him see the good in the bad (among them, Morath and Rebecca). To them he is beloved as more than a writer. It wasn’t always this way, as Rebecca’s sister Jane says in an interview, “There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it,” referring to father-daughter bonding time. Miller even mentions that he had spent so much of his time writing in Connecticut in the hopes of returning to New York, but then he describes the kind of natural beauties and simple wonders that only places like Roxbury could behold. Broadway was where he went to get what he wanted; the countryside was where he could find himself and enjoy what he already had.
There are welcome appearances from playwright-cum-screenwriter Tony Kushner (a revival of his Angels in America has premiered on Broadway for a limited engagement, starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield and directed by Marianne Elliott) and the dearly missed director Mike Nichols (who directed the 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, also starring Garfield and the late, incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman). All I can say is that Kushner radiates a true joy when discussing the people he so reveres, and every time Nichols starts to get emotional about topics like life and death and legacy, you’ll have to fight really hard to not tear up yourself.
In geometry, an asymptote is a line that infinitely approaches a curve, but the former never meets the latter at any definitive point. The line can get pretty damn close, though. The first thing we hear in Arthur Miller: Writer is this quote from the bespectacled playwright in an interview: “What a real playwright has to do is to say to the audience, in effect, ‘This is what you think you’re seeing in life every day.’ And then to turn it around and say, ‘This is what it really is.’ Imagine if we knew the truth. That would be a great thing. And once, sometimes, in a lifetime, a playwright can get at it really.” Miller’s plays definitely got as close as any to that special place, where something about the imaginary circumstances of the story ignites our drive to seize upon our own existence. This documentary gets close, too: in presenting to us an honest portrait of an individual man, flaws and fame and all.