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Tag: arthur miller

A Great Communicator

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Over at Buzzfeed, check out this terrific interview with George Saunders talking about Arthur Miller’s memoir, Timebends:

CW: What drew you into this book, initially? What kept you reading, and what inspired the recommendation today?

GS: At first I was just loving the descriptions of his childhood and being reminded of the fact that the only thing that will evoke the world as we actually experience it is great sentences – the difference between a boring, banal account of childhood and one that feels properly rich and mysterious (i.e., like one’s own actual childhood), is the phrase-by-phrase quality of the prose. Perceptions truthfully remembered make great sentences and great sentences provide the way for that truthful remembering to happen – something like that. I guess I’m just saying it was a pleasure to read such intelligent writing.

But also – lately I find myself interested in anything historical that can open up my mind afresh and get me really seeing the past, with the purpose of adding that data to my evolving moral-ethical view of the world. (We only live in one time but can read in many, etc., etc.) To have a witness as intelligent and articulate as Miler is almost (almost!) like having been there oneself. So here, wow, the stories and details – New York before the war, all his crazy relatives and their various ends; stories about Odets, Kazan, et al, Miller’s deep periods of artistic immersion, life with Monroe, trips to Russia, walking around with Frank Lloyd Wright (and finding him unlikeable), the moral-spiritual breakdown of Untermeyer, the way Lee J. Cobb first “got” Willy Loman, and on and on – I just came away thinking, “Jeez, what a life. Good for you, Arthur Miller. We should all live so fully.”

I also found myself really excited by Miller’s basic assumptions about art: it’s important, it is supposed to change us, it’s not supposed to be trivial or merely clever, it’s one human being trying to urgently communicate with another. But it was also exciting to see his uncertainty around this stance – the way he couldn’t always execute, and sometimes doubted those ideas, and found himself fighting against the prevailing spirit of the time – like in the 1960s, when everything felt, to him, ironic and faux-cynical. I found myself inspired by the way he went through his life, always holding out a high vision of what art is supposed to do – he strikes me as having been a real fighter.

I read the book when it came out. Sounds like it’s time to dive back in.
[Photo Credit: Elliot Erwitt]

Yes, I’m About to Go Get Lifted

There’s a nice appreciation of Elia Kazan by John Lahr over at The New Yorker to mark the release of a new 18-DVD set, The Elia Kazan Collection:

“I’ve never seen a director who became as deeply and emotionally involved in a scene,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” “Kazan was the best actors’ director by far of any I’ve worked for. [He] got into a part with me and virtually acted it with me.” Arthur Miller wrote, in “Timebends,” “Life in a Kazan production had that hushed air of conspiracy. A conspiracy not only against the existing theatre, but society, capitalism—in fact everybody who was not part of the production.” Kazan didn’t razzle-dazzle his actors with talk. Instinctively, when he had something important to tell an actor, he would huddle with him privately, rather than instruct in front of the others. He sensed that “anything that really penetrates is always to some degree an embarrassment,” Miller noted, adding, “A mystery grew up around what he might be thinking, and this threw the actor back on himself.” Kazan, who was no stranger to psychoanalysis, operated on the analytic principle of insinuation, not command. He believed that, for an interpretation to be owned by an actor, the actor had to find it in himself. “He would send one actor to listen to a particular piece of jazz, another to a certain novel, another to see a psychiatrist, another he would simply kiss,” Miller recalled. Kazan’s trick was to make the actors feel as though his ideas were actually their own revelations.

Kazan’s ability to submerge himself in a story served writers as creatively as it did actors. “I tried to think and feel like the author so that the play would be in the scale and in the mood, in the tempo and feeling of each author,” he said. “I tried to be the author.” Kazan is remembered primarily as a director, but his invisible contribution to writers is equally important. Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Willy Loman, Big Daddy, Brick, Maggie the Cat, Chance Wayne—defining figures in the folklore of the twentieth century—all bear the marks of Kazan’s shaping hand. Of the many playwrights with whom he collaborated—William Inge, Arthur Miller, Archibald McLeish, Thornton Wilder—he had no partnership that was more intimate or influential than his work with Tennessee Williams. “It was a mysterious harmony,” Kazan wrote. “Our union, immediate on first encounter, was close. . . . Possibly because we were both freaks.” Kazan and Williams also had in common an oppressive father, a doting mother, a faith in sexual chaos as a path to knowledge, and a voracious appetite for success.

Kazan’s 1988 memoir, “A Life,” is well-worth tracking down.

Dark Harbor

The new production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” was enthusiastically reviewed by Ben Brantley in the New York Times earlier this week:

Even more than with “Death of a Salesman,” Miller used “Bridge” to sell his theory that true tragic heroes may well emerge from the common run of contemporary lives. So eager was he to make the point that he even included a one-man Greek chorus, an Italian-born lawyer named Alfieri (here played by Michael Cristofer), who speaks loftily about the grandeur of the story’s “bloody course” of incestuous longings and fatal consequences.

Perhaps Miller felt that plays, like classical heroes, required tragic flaws, and thus provided one for “Bridge” in the form of the long-winded Alfieri. This drama needs no annotator or apologist if it’s acted with the naturalistic refinement — and accumulation of revelatory detail — found in this interpretation.

I had wondered if “Bridge” really needed another revival. New York saw a first-rate production only a dozen years ago, directed by Michael Mayer, with Anthony LaPaglia, Allison Janney and the young Brittany Murphy (who died at 32 last year). But this latest incarnation makes the case that certain plays, like certain operas, are rich enough to be revisited as often and as long as there are performers with strong, original voices and fresh insights.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Nathan Ward, whose book, “Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront,” will be published later this year, has an interesting column about the play’s orgins:

About a year after Miller’s death in February 2005, and a few months before Longhi passed away, I happened to interview the lawyer about the old waterfront. Unlike his “portly” stage likeness Alfieri, Longhi was, at 90, a tall, trim and elegant man. Sitting in his Manhattan law office on lower Broadway, he recalled how his friend Miller, who lived in picturesque Brooklyn Heights in the late ’40s, “often thought about that mysterious world of the Brooklyn Italian waterfront. . . . But he being an intellectual, who’s gonna talk to him? Nobody.” In his autobiography, “Timebends,” Miller remembered wondering, on his daily walks, about “the sinister waterfront world of gangster-ridden unions, assassinations, beatings, bodies thrown into the lovely bay at night.” But, he was forced to admit, “I could never penetrate the permanent reign of quiet terror on the waterfront hardly three blocks from my peaceful apartment.”

…Miller first heard the story that became “A View From the Bridge” while on a trip with Longhi to Sicily in 1948. “Longhi mentioned a story . . . of a longshoreman who had ratted to the Immigration Bureau on two brothers,” Miller wrote, “his own relatives, illegal immigrants who were living in his very home, in order to break an engagement between one of them and his niece.” Longhi told me, “it happened to my client . . . who turned to me and said, ‘I’m going to kill so-and-so,’ and then it turned out that I figured he must be in love with the kid. And I told this story to Miller and he said, ‘What an opera!’”

No one would mistake Red Hook or Columbia Street today for the place whose tough waterfront culture so shocked Miller in the late ’40s. But the last time I was down there, I saw a throwback to Eddie’s world, an aspect of New York dock life that never completely dies: Up on the Waterfront Commission building there was a new banner advertising a special crime-tips number that read: “HAD ENOUGH? Theft, corruption, and organized crime cost the port millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.” One side of the street may sell New Zealand meat pies and feature a French backyard bistro, but the ragged side of his old neighborhood Eddie Carbone would know at a glance.

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