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Feature

The Playwright

Living in the Present Tense

By James Houghton | HUMANITIES, March/April 2001 | Volume 22, Number 2

Sitting atop a Manhattan apartment building in a community garden lush with flowers marked the beginning of a relationship with Arthur Miller that opened my eyes and heart to a vista of possibilities I had not imagined.

Now, we all know that Arthur Miller has had an extraordinary life. You can read about his work in this very magazine or better yet, pick up any one of his many plays, essays, or short stories, or perhaps his autobiography. We also understand that Arthur is highly regarded for his intellectual, cultural, and political contributions to our country and beyond. Some might recognize his good taste or know a bit about his carpentry skills and his passion for making practical furniture. Perhaps it is his relentless activism that strikes a chord with you. Maybe you have heard a thing or two about his travels around the world and his relationship with various leaders across the globe. Friends might note his family, his daily laps in his pond, or the grandchild that tickles him. Maybe it is the sweet ditty he wrote, “Sittin’ Around,” from The American Clock, one of my favorites.

I suspect you have an inkling of the remarkable decades of experiences he has lived through and affected. The Great Depression comes to mind, or say, the McCarthy era? Perhaps the civil rights struggle or the too-frequent assassinations. Maybe the great jazz or big band era. The golden ages of radio, television, film, and, some would say, theater. Watergate? Cuba? The construction and destruction of the Berlin Wall? Maybe World War II, Korea, or Vietnam? The Holocaust? The rise and fall of so many governments, democracies, peoples—you get the idea.

The whirlwind of history through which Arthur has passed is nothing less than tremendous, but what distinguishes him from others is that his passions have insistently pushed him to note time. He has been compelled to remember our past, and by not forgetting, to inform our future. But what strikes me most about him is his absolute insistence on living life in the present tense.

Living is something that Arthur does extremely well. Through each decade of his astonishing life, he has managed to be deeply touched and to have deeply touched many. His intellect is extraordinary, his wisdom cup full, his heart swollen to capacity, and his spirit is that of a shy, six-year-old kid trying not to let on.

One of my great pleasures in recent years has been to nudge Arthur about that deep well of optimism I know lies within him. I usually get a good laugh out of him when I warn him that he might be in danger of exposing that neatly covered reservoir. You see, I believe Arthur Miller is a dreamer and seeker of truth—the truth that lies within the mystery of human existence. He seeks the truth and dares to ask the questions Why am I here? How can I make a difference? Who am I? What am I? The big stuff. By merely asking these questions—let alone pursuing cogent answers—Arthur reveals the optimist living within him. No one makes it through the last eighty-five years standing without a pillar of optimism to hold him up in the face of disappointment. Arthur Miller, not only are you an optimist, but a cheery one at that. Sorry, Arthur. Your cover is blown.

Perhaps most profound for me is Arthur’s willingness to embrace his own fear. Fear—the common denominator for all of us. If there is a single gift that my friendship with Arthur has bestowed, it has been the demystification of fear.

Let me go back for a minute to that rooftop in Manhattan. I remember sitting across from Arthur that breezy spring day. We were there to talk about working together at my theater, Signature Theatre Company, where each year we have the pleasure of dedicating a season to a living writer. Arthur and I started by discussing each and every one of his plays and the various experiences associated with his canon. As we talked, that kid inside Arthur surfaced. His eyes lit up as the ideas percolated. The work began to tell us what might be a meaningful season, as it always does when it’s good. We talked not of his works known by many, but rather, the plays that held a special place in Arthur’s heart. Some cried out for mending, some just for another chance, but all fed the spirit of discovery in both of us.

We talked of putting together a season that would answer those “I wish I could reinvent” or “if I had to do it over again” moments we have in our lives. It was quite a joy to give birth to the renewed potential in each play and in doing so, to present a broader, deeper experience and appreciation of Arthur’s work.

Our conversation ultimately resulted in a 1997-1998 season that included a reworking of The American Clock, The Last Yankee with I Can’t Remember Anything, and the world premiere of Mr. Peters’ Connections. In addition, the season presented a live broadcast of a radio play from the late thirties, The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man; and a reading by Arthur of his children’s story, Jane’s Blanket, which he read to a crowd of children and his now-grown daughter, Jane.

That season I had the pleasure of seeing Arthur at work—an artist who is completely in tune with his craft and, most importantly, who is understanding and respectful of his collaborators. He was always available and ready to expose the mystery of the creative moment, either by his willingness to accept newly discovered subtext, or by acknowledging the wonder of the creative process itself. No pretense . . . no bull . . . straight out. He gave life to his work by allowing it to breathe and evolve through respectful collaboration.

There was a fun moment when we were in rehearsal for The American Clock, a Depression-era tale that confronts the impact and toll of the time. It is a bit of a monster with fifteen actors playing some fifty roles and more than thirty songs from the period played live. It’s a big one. We were in the first week of rehearsal, breaking down the text and trying to get all the circumstances of the play in place, organizing the facts. I remember one of the actors had pointed out a discrepancy in the text to Arthur—two facts that that could not have occurred simultaneously. The room fell silent as Arthur contemplated this discovery. He turned to the actor and with great authority and a devilish grin said, “Mind your own business.” He was caught . . . and so were we all, by his honesty and good humor. It seems a simple thing, I suppose, to witness someone “fessing up,” but somehow the stakes seem higher when you are sitting in the room with one of the finest writers and minds of the twentieth century.

Toward the end of our season I sat with Arthur at the opening of his new play, Mr. Peters’ Connections. We were out in the lobby, both having opted to enjoy the peace of an empty room over the tension of an audience surely judging our every move. He turned to me and said, referring to our audience, “Where do they come from? Who are they? Why do they come?” There was a sort of puzzlement, or anxiety—or could it be fear—that ran across Arthur’s face in that moment, a revealing reflection of my own state of mind.

Those questions got me thinking and ultimately I realized that if we are to learn anything about ourselves, we must be willing to be afraid, to step forward into the abyss of uncertainty and fear. Arthur’s willingness to expose his own doubts was an invitation for me to forgive my own. Surely, I thought, he has been at this a long time and doesn’t feel what I feel. But of course he must. Arthur, by example, provided me with a great gift that day, liberating me from expectation and the grip of fear.

I realized in my time with Arthur that experience informs the present, but does not provide answers. Although we all hope for a clear path to take us wherever we think it should, remarkably, we realize there is no such thing. Here is Arthur Miller, playwright, intellectual, activist, etc. He must have it figured out, right? Wrong. What he has is the willingness to say, “I don’t know,” and to muster up enough courage to proceed, one foot in front of the other. He confronts his fear every day and runs straight at it, full speed ahead. Time has told him that there is no other choice worth pursuing if you are to live in the present tense. The final punch is that while our past informs our present, both are irrelevant unless we have the courage to “know” nothing—to approach the present as if it were the first time. After all, isn’t it?

Fear is a powerful tool when someone teaches you how to use it. Courage is contagious when you see the good it does and how it liberates you. Both, together, open your eyes and heart to a vista of possibilities previously unimagined. The “kid” that is present in Arthur is the fear itself. It is his wonder at humanity and his astonishment that we ever connect to one another at all. He has managed, for all his years, to hold on to wonder, embrace fear, and challenge himself and a few others along the way. That is some remarkable kid.