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Feature

The Poet

Chronicler of the Age

By Christopher Bigsby | HUMANITIES, March/April 2001 | Volume 22, Number 2

Arthur Miller once observed that in America a poet is seen as being “like a barber trying to erect a skyscraper.” He is, in other words, regarded as being “of no consequence.” Miller is so often praised, and occasionally decried, for what is taken to be his realism—a realism expressed through the authentic prose of a salesman, a longshoreman, a businessman. But Arthur Miller is no simple realist and hasn’t been for fifty years. Moreover, he is incontestably a poet: one who sees the private and public worlds as one, who is a chronicler of the age and a creator of metaphors.

In an essay on realism written in 1997, Miller made a remark that I find compellingly interesting. “Willy Loman,” he said, “is not a real person. He is if I may say so a figure in a poem.” That poem is not simply the language he or the other characters speak, though this is shaped, charged with a muted eloquence of a kind which he has said was not uncommon in their class half a century or more ago. Nor is it purely a product of the stage metaphors which, like Tennessee Williams, he presents as correlatives of the actions he elaborates. The poem is the play itself and hence the language, the mise en scène, the characters who glimpse the lyricism of a life too easily ensnared in the prosaic, a life which aspires to metaphoric force.

Willy Loman a figure in the poem? What kind of a figure? A metaphor. A metaphor is the meeting point of disparate elements brought together to create meaning. Willy Loman’s life is just such a meeting point, containing, as it does, the contradictions of a culture whose dream of possibility has foundered on the banality of its actualization, a culture that has lost its vision of transcendence, earthing its aspirations so severely in the material world. As Miller has said of Willy’s speech when he confronts his employer Howard, a speech he rightly calls an “aria,” “What we have is the story of a vanished era, part real, part imaginary, the disappearing American dream of mutuality and in its place the terrible industrial process that discards people like used-up objects. And to me this is poetic and it is realism both.” Much the same could be said of the rest of his work. It grows out of an awareness of the actual, but that actuality is reshaped, charged with a significance that lifts it into a different sphere.

But let’s, very briefly, look at some of the component elements that shape Arthur Miller’s poetry in Death of a Salesman. In a notebook he once remarked that “there is a warehouse of scenery in a telling descriptive line.” So there is. Consider the opening stage direction to Act 1, an act, incidentally, that has a bracketed subtitle, “An Overture,” and which begins with music. The description, the first words of the text, is at once descriptive and metaphoric. “A melody,” we are told, “is heard, playing upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.” This is something of a challenge to a composer, but what follows is equally a challenge to a designer as he describes a house that is simultaneously real and imagined, a blend of fact and memory that precisely mirrors the frame of mind of its protagonist and
the nature of the dreams that he seeks, Gatsby-like, to embrace.

In other words, both in terms of music and stage set, we are dealing immediately with the real and with a poetic image, with a poet’s gesture, and that is how it was seen by a young Lanford Wilson who, in 1955, saw a student production. It was, he has said, “The most magical thing I’d ever seen in my life . . . the clothesline from the old building all around the house gradually faded into big, huge beech trees. I nearly collapsed. It was the most extraordinary scenic effect and, of course, I was hooked on theater from that moment….That magic was what I was always drawn to.” And as yet, of course, not a word of the text has been spoken, though a great deal has been communicated as the real has been transmuted into symbol. Incidentally, an astonishing number of playwrights have acknowledged this play as central to them. Tony Kushner was drawn to the theater by watching his mother perform in it. David Rabe virtually borrows lines from it in Sticks and Bones, Lorraine Hansberry acknowledged its influence on A Raisin in the Sun while Adrienne Kennedy has confessed to constantly rereading it and keeping a notebook of Miller’s remarks about theater. Tom Stoppard saw Salesman as a major influence on his first play while Vaclav Havel has likewise acknowledged its inspirational power. But for the moment let’s stay with the set.

As Miller said in the notebook he kept while writing Salesman, “Modern life has broken out of the living room. Just as it was impossible for Shakespeare to say his piece in the confines of a church, so today Shaw’s living room is an anachronism. The object of scene design ought not to reference a locale but to raise it into a significant statement.”

The original stage direction indicated of the Loman house that “it had once been surrounded by open country, but it was now hemmed in with apartment houses. Trees that used to shade the house against the open sky and hot summer sun were for the most part dead or dying.” Jo Mielziner’s job, as designer and lighting engineer, was to realize this in practical terms, but it is already clear from Miller’s description that the set is offered as a metaphor, a visual marker of social and psychological change. It is not only the house that has lost its protection, witnessed the closing down of space, not only the trees that are withering away and dying with the passage of time. It is a version of America. It is human possibility. It is Willy Loman.

Other designers have come up with other solutions to the play’s challenges, as they have to Mielziner’s use of back-lit unbleached muslin, on which the surrounding tenement buildings were painted and which could therefore be made to appear and disappear at will. Other designers have found equivalents to his use of projection units that surround the Loman house with trees whose spring leaves would stand as a reminder of the springtime of Willy’s life—at least as recalled by a man determined to romanticize a past when, he likes to believe, all was well with his life.

Fran Thompson, designer of London’s National Theatre production in 1996, chose to create an open space with a tree at center stage, but a tree whose trunk had been sawn through leaving a section missing, the tree being no more literal and no less substantial than Willy’s memories.

And, indeed, it is the fact that for the most part this is a play that takes place in the mind and memory of its central character that determines its form, as past and present interact in his mind, linked together by visual, verbal, or aural rhymes. In the National Theatre production, all characters remained on stage throughout, being animated when they moved into the forefront of Willy’s troubled mind, or swung into view on a revolve. In other words, the space, while literal, was simultaneously an image of a mind haunted by memories, seeking connections.

Meanwhile, despite his emphasis on “the actual” and “the real,” the language of Death of a Salesman is not simply the transcribed speech of 1930s Brooklyn. Though its author is aware that all speech has its particular rhythms, he is aware, too, that, as he has said, “the Lomans have gotten accustomed to elevating their way of speaking.” “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person,” was not, as Mary McCarthy and others thought, an inadvertent revelation of a concealed Jewish identity, but Miller’s deliberate attempt to underscore the exemplary significance of Willy Loman. For, as he said, “Prose is the language of family relations; it is the inclusion of the larger world beyond that naturally opens a play to the poetic.” And, indeed, Linda’s despairing cry is that of a wife claiming significance for a desperate husband abandoned by those whose opinions he values, as it is also that of a woman acknowledging that that husband is the embodiment of other suffering human beings.

And if Miller was right in saying that “in the theater the poetic does not depend, at least not wholly, on poetic language,” there is no doubt that the poetic change to his language is carefully worked for. And which playwright, American or European, has offered such a range of different varieties of speech: a Brooklyn longshoreman, a seventeenth-century farmer, a Yankee carpenter, each authentic, but each so shaped so that there are moments when it sings. Turn to the notebooks which he kept while writing The Crucible and you will find a number of speeches tried out first in verse. Here is one of them.

We have exalted charity over malice

Suspicion above trust

We have hung husbands for loyalty

To wives, and honored traitors to their families

And now even the fields complain.

There will be hunger in Massachusetts

This winter the plowman is busy

Spying on his brother, and the earth

Gone to seed. A wilderness of weeds

Is claiming the pastures of our world

We starve for a little charity.

. . . nothing will grow but dead things.

           

Even in Death of a Salesman, Charley’s final speech was first tried out in a loose free verse.

All you know [is] that on good days or bad,

You gotta come in cheerful.

No calamity must be permitted to break through

Cause one thing, always you’re a man who’s gotta be liked.

You’re way out there riding on a smile and a shoeshine

And when they start not smilin’ back,

It’s the big catastrophe. And then you get

A couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished

Cause there’s no rock bottom to your life.

In the final version it loses its free verse form and its redundancies but retains its lyrical charge. The tension in the prose, the rhythms, the images, meanwhile, were born out of a poetic imagination. It is spoken in prose, but a prose charged with the poetic.

If Willy Loman was a figure in a poem, that is even more true of the pseudonymous character in Miller’s later play, Mr. Peters’ Connections, set in what the opening stage direction calls “A broken structure indicating an old abandoned night club in New York City.” But that stage direction is itself metaphoric, for it is not the setting alone that is a “broken structure.” It is, potentially, a life. And if this play is a poem it is, in part, an elegy, an elegy for an individual but also, in some senses, for a culture, for a century, indeed for human existence itself.

For as he said the questions theater tries to address are “death and betrayal and injustice and how we are to account for this little life of ours.” In a sense these are the subjects of Mr. Peters’ Connections, though it is not a play that ends in despair.

It is a play that laments the loss of youth, the stilling of urgencies, and the dulling of intensity, as love, ambition, and utopian dreams devolve into little more than habit and routine. It is a play about loss—the loss of those connections that once seemed so self-evident as moment led to moment, as relationships gave birth to their own meaning, as the contingent event shaped itself into coherent plot, as the fact of the journey implied a purposeful direction and a desirable destination. It is about a deracinated man; literally, a man who has lost his sense of roots, his connections. In another sense it is a contemplation of life itself, whose intensity and coherence slowly fades, whose paradox can never finally be resolved, as it is also a confrontation with death.

The conversations that constitute Mr. Peters’ Connections  are the visions of a man in that half-world between wakefulness and sleep for whom life drifts away, becomes a jumble of half-forgotten people, incomplete stories. One by one he summons those with whom he has shared his life, but he encounters them first as strangers, as if they had already passed beyond the sphere in which he exists. A one-time lover, a brother, a daughter appear and disappear, but he can never quite recall what they were to him or he to them. In some senses their identity doesn’t matter. Yet he knows they must hold a clue to the meaning of his existence. The question is, what did he derive from them? What was important? What was the subject?

For Willy Loman, meaning always lay in the future. His life was “kind of temporary” as he awaited the return of his father, Godot-like, to flood his life with meaning, or as he projected a dream of tomorrow that would redeem his empty and troubling present. In Mr. Peters’ Connections meaning lies not in the future but in the past, in memories that even now are dulling like the embers of a once-bright fire, in the lives of those others who, in dying, take with them pieces of the jigsaw, fragments of the world where clarity of outline has been a product of shared assumptions and mutual apprehensions. What happens, he implicitly asks himself, to our sense of ourselves and the world, when one by one our fellow witnesses withdraw their corroboration, when there is nobody to say, “Yes, that’s the way it was, that’s who you once were.” As they die and withdraw from the stage, they take incremental elements of meaning with them and gradually thin his sense of the real to transparency.

In a sense Mr. Peters’ Connections is not set anywhere. The night club had once been a cafeteria, a library, a bank, its function shifting as the supposed solidities of the past dissolve. In a way, compacted into this place is the history of New York, the history of a culture and of a man. It exists in the emotional memory of its protagonist.

The word “connections” refers not only to Mr. Peters’ links with other people, particularly those closest to him, but also to his desire to discover the relationship between the past and the present, between a simple event and the meaning of that event. In other words, he is in search of a coherence that will justify life to itself. In facing the fact of death he is forced to ask himself what life has meant, what has been its subject. In that context the following is a key speech and one in which I find a justification for Miller’s own approach to drama as well as to the process of living, which that drama both explores and celebrates: “I do enjoy the movies, but every so often I wonder, ‘what was the subject of the picture?’ I think that’s what I’m trying to . . . to . . . find my connection with is . . . what’s the word . . . continuity . . . yes with the past, perhaps . . . in the hope of finding a . . . yes, a subject. That’s the idea I think.” In other words, the simplest of questions remains the most necessary of questions: “What is it all for?”

Fifty years ago, in the notebook he kept while writing Death of a Salesman, Miller wrote the following: “Life is formless . . . its interconnections are concealed by lapses of time, by events occurring in separated places, by the hiatus of memory. . . . Art suggests or makes these interconnections palpable. Form is the tension of these interconnections, man with man, man with the past and present environment. The drama at its best is the mass experience of this tension.” Death of a Salesman was concerned with that and generated a form commensurate with its subject. Much the same could be said of Mr. Peters’ Connections.

It is tempting to see a relationship between the protagonist and his creator. Mr. Peters recalls a time of mutuality and trust, a time when the war against fascism gave people a sense of shared endeavor. Once, he recalls, his generation believed in “saving the world.” “What’s begun to haunt me,” he explains, “is that next to nothing I believed has turned out to be true. Russia, China, and very often America. . . .” In a conversation three years ago with Vaclav Havel, Miller himself remarked, “I am a deeply political person; I became that way because of the time I grew up in, which was the Fascist period. . . . I thought . . . that Hitler . . . might well dominate Europe, and maybe even have a tremendous effect on America, and I couldn’t imagine having an audience in the theater for two hours and not trying to enlist them in some spiritual resistance to this awful thing.” Later, when China went communist, he set himself to oppose McCarthyism. He once confessed that he had thought theater could “change the world.” Today, like Mr. Peters, he is, perhaps, less sure of such an easy redemption.

If in some senses Mr. Peters is contemplating death, there is more than one form of dying. The loss of vision, of a sense of transcendent values, of purpose—what he calls a subject—is another form of death, operative equally on the metaphysical, social, and personal level. As Peters remarks, “Most of the founding fathers were all Deists . . . they believed that God had wound up the world like a clock and then disappeared. We are unwinding now, the ticks further and further apart. So instead of tick-tick-tick-tick we’ve got tick (pause) tick (pause) tick. And we get bored between ticks, and boredom is a form of dying.” The answer, perhaps, lies in a realization that there is no hierarchy of meaning. As another character tells him, “Everything is relevant! You are trying to pick and choose what is important . . . like a batter waiting for a ball he can hit. But what if you have to happily swing at everything they thrust at you?” In other words, perhaps one can do no more than live with intensity, acknowledge the simultaneous necessity for and vulnerability of those connections without which there is neither private meaning nor public morality.

Willy Loman believed that the meaning of his life was external to himself, blind to the fact that he already contained that meaning, blind to the love of his wife and son. Mr. Peters comes to understand that his life, too, is its meaning, his connections are what justifies that life. This play, then, is not about a man ready to run down the curtain, to succumb to the attraction of oblivion. He may not rage against the dying of the light, but he does still find a reason to resist the blandishments of the night. So it is that Mr. Peters, a former airline pilot, remarks that “When you’ve flown into hundreds of gorgeous sunsets, you want them to go on forever and hold off the darkness.”

What is the poem? It is Mr. Peters’ life, as it is the play itself which mimics, symbolizes, and offers a metaphor for that search for coherence and meaning that is equally the purpose of art and the essence of life.

Willem de Kooning has spoken of the burden that Americanness places on the American artist. That burden seems to be, at least in part, a desire to capture the culture whole, to find an image commensurate with the size and nature of its ambitions, its dreams, and its flawed utopianism —whether it be Melville trying to harpoon a society in search of its own meaning, Dreiser convinced that the accumulation of detail will edge him closer to truth, or John Dos Passos offering to throw light on the U.S. by means of the multiple viewpoints of modernism.

A big country demands big books. James Michener tried to tackle it state by state, with a preference for the larger ones. Gore Vidal worked his way diachronically, president by president, in books which if strung together would run into thousands of pages and in which he hoped to tell the unauthorized biography of a society. Henry James called the novel a great baggy monster and that is what it has proved to be in the hands of American novelists. Even America’s poets, from Whitman through to Ashbery, have shown a fondness for the epic.

The dramatist inhabits an altogether different world. He or she is limited, particularly in the modern theater, to no more than a couple of hours. (Unless your name is Eugene O’Neill, whose Strange Interlude ran for six hours, including a dinner break.) Increasingly, indeed, the dramatist is limited as to the number of actors he can deploy and the number of sets he can call for. The theater, of course, is quite capable of turning the few into many and a single location into multiple settings but the pressure is toward concision. The 800-page book becomes a 100-page play text. The pressure, in other words, is toward a kind of poetry, not the poetry of Christopher Fry or T. S. Eliot, but a poetry generated out of metaphor, a language without excess, a language to be transmuted into physical form, the word made flesh. Miller collapses the history of his society into the lives of his characters and in doing so, exemplifies a truth adumbrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson a century and a half ago when he said, “We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience and verifying them here . . . in other words there is properly no history, only biography.” Miller does not need 800 pages. He captures the history of a culture, indeed human existence itself, in the life of an individual; indeed in a single stage direction.

At the beginning of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman enters carrying two suitcases. It takes the whole play—and him, a lifetime—to realize that they are not just the marks of his calling. They are the burden of his life, a life that he will lay down not just for his sons, but for a faith as powerful and all-consuming as any that has ever generated misguided martyrs. Staring into the future, in his present, he carries the burden of the past. He is, for a moment, the compacted history of a people, the embodiment of a myth, a figure in a poem: the poem of America, with its thousand points of light, its New Eden, its city on a hill, its manifest destiny. Here, distilled in a single stage image, is the essence of a whole culture still clinging to a faith that movement equals progress, selling itself a dream that accepts that personal and national identity are a deferred project, and that tomorrow will bring epiphany, revelation.

Willy Loman had all the wrong dreams, but they were a country’s dreams instilled into him out there in the heartland where his father, also a salesman, set out on that endless American journey into possibility, unmindful of those he abandoned, his eyes on the prize; a moment never forgotten by his son who constantly hears the sound of the flutes his father made and sold. For those who watch his dilemma, that sound, like the shrinking space around the Loman home, as a subtle light change takes us from past to present, recalls hope and betrayal in the same instant, in a compacted metaphor, the hope and betrayal seen by America’s writers from Cooper and Twain to Fitzgerald and beyond.

The subtitle of Death of a Salesman is Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. Those private conversations are conducted in Willy Loman’s mind, but they are also America’s conversation with itself. Fifty years later, in Mr. Peters’ Connections, comes another such series of conversations as a man looks back over his life and wonders what it may have amounted to, what connections there are between people, between event and consequence, between the present and the past that it contains. He, too, is a figure in a poem. The poem is his life and he its author, but not he alone, for, as virtually all of Miller’s plays suggest, meaning is not something that will one day cohere. It is not an ultimate revelation. It is not contained within the sensibility of an isolated self. It lies in the connections between people, between actions and their effects, between then and now. The true poetry is that which springs into being as individuals acknowledge responsibility not for themselves alone, but for the world they conspire in creating and for those with whom they share past and present. The poetry that Arthur Miller writes and the poetry that he celebrates is the miracle of human life, in all its bewilderments, its betrayals, its denials, but, finally, and most significantly, its transcendent worth.