Arthur Miller’s work had a profound impact on me. There were two pieces of theatre that really affected me as a teenager: the first was Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto, which I saw at the National Theatre, and which for the first time made me want to declare with pride that I was Jewish. The second was the National Youth Theatre’s production of Miller’s The Crucible, which took place in a church in Spitalfields, with the audience sitting around the stage on bales of hay. Being immersed in the action – and the Crucible’s “action” is immensely powerful! – was deeply affecting. They showed me the power of “story”, and I have no doubt they played a role in getting me to where I am today, a writer of short fiction.
So it was fairly disturbing to hear Christopher Bigsby, in his excellent talk on Monday night about the second volume of his biography of Miller, say that Miller was really not appreciated in his home country. Apparently, while he is consistently ranked among favourite playwrights in the UK and around the world, the Americans are – and never were – so keen. Bigsby gave a sobering explanation of how a New York Times review could close a play even before the end of opening night, something that couldn’t happen here.
Bigsby also talked about Miller’s Jewish identity. At the beginning of his career Jewish critics said his plays “weren’t Jewish enough”. Bigsby told the audience how Miller’s third wife, Inga Morath, the photographer, took Miller to Matthausen concentration camp before they got married, because her father had been a member of the Nazi party. And after that visit, the Holocaust featured strongly in Miller’s work. Broken is another Arthur Miller play I remember very well, I saw that at the National Theatre too (just goes to show how much Arthur Miller is adored in the UK!) and was extremely moved by its story of a New York woman who suddenly can’t move her legs, partly out of anguish for what is happening to the Jews of Europe at the time.
Bigsby is a delight to listen to because he was a friend of Arthur Miller’s, not just a biographer, and he has a very chatty style, despite being a professor of American Literature. He digressed several times but his tangents were also fascinating. He told us what a wonderful third marriage this was, one that lasted 40 years and was full of mutual respect, each stepping out of the limelight to let the other bathe in the glow. I look forward to reading both volumes of the book – and to seeing and reading more of Miller’s work. It is good to know that even if America doesn’t appreciate him, there are many many people worldwide who do.
Tania Hershman‘s prize-winning flash fiction has been widely published, and a week of her short short stories was broadcast on Radio 4 in June 2010. Tania’s first book, The White Road and Other Short Stories was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty, Bristol University, working on a collection of biology-inspired short stories funded by an Arts Council England award.