Arthur Miller Accepts the 2001 Medal for Distinguished Contribution in American Letters

Steve Martin: Tonight we gather to honor Arthur Miller, exemplary man of letters, fearless novelist and short story writer, outspoken topical essayist, journalist and literary critic, down to earth, irreverent memoirist, versatile writer for radio, TV and screen, and as if all of that were not sufficient, our greatest living playwright.Crossing the boundary of these genres is Arthur Miller’s lifelong preoccupation with the condition of men and women joined together in common society. As he puts it, “Our membership in the ordinary human race”.

“We are trying to save ourselves separately,” Arthur Miller has cautioned, “and that is immoral”. His belief in the responsibility and obligation of the artist as a social being — he is well known for his decades long commitment to PEN — is balanced by an unsparing commitment to art as truth telling, a quality as eternal as the ancient Greek tragedians he has always admired yet especially pertinent to these times.

“Literature and art,” Miller says, “are not required to reassure when, in reality, there is no assurance, or to serve up clean and wholesome stories in all times and places.” Whatever he has written over seven decades, Arthur Miller monitors the tempo of time. This vigilance makes his work so modern and continuously vital. He never gives up attempting to capture time’s mysterious passage, whether it be the dark history of racial and religious repression, the dependable cycle of seasons allowing him to plow and plant his beloved Connecticut garden or the uneven memories of all too human characters in his evocative magical plays.

“The performer is his art,” Miller writes, “whereas the writer can step away and leave it for the world to make of it what he will.” Indeed, this brief introductory praise cannot possibly do justice to the essence of Arthur Miller’s dramatic poetry so let’s watch this excerpt from the 1984 production of “Death of a Salesman” starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich, courtesy of Castle Hill Productions.

Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Miller.

Photo credit: Inge Morath; Magnun Photos, Inc.Arthur Miller: Thank you. Thank you very much. Whenever I get up to thank people for inviting me to speak or accept some honor, I’m immediately assaulted by the memory of the actress, Maureen Stapleton, who stepped up to receive her Oscar some years back, and instead of submitting to hallowed custom by thanking her agent, her mother and father, her acting teacher, a few cousins and the doorman of her apartment house, she cleared her throat and said, “I want to thank everybody I ever met.”

I feel something similar now, probably because when you come down to it, I’m known primarily as a playwright, and playwrights, on the whole, are set slightly apart or below book writers. I’m not sure why this is so, unless it has something to do with how we are described. One doesn’t speak of bookwrights, poetwrights or prosewrights; we alone are associated, at least nominally, with shipwrights, millwrights, boatwrights. This is very odd.

I’ve written prose, of course, two novels, a lot of short stories, several books of reportage and so on; but I’m primarily a writer of plays–and playwrights, at least in America, are not generally thought of as literary. The reason for this, most probably, is that they usually aren’t. We are regarded, at best, as hybrids, people who write, to be sure, but our prose is basically functional. Actors have to be able to speak words easily and it has to nail audiences to their seats. Perhaps it is the utilitarian strain upon our writing that sets it apart and even helps denigrate it.

There were, for instance, a number of masterly European playwrights in the last century whose works have stayed alive through the generations but were left unconsidered for the Nobel Prize. I’m thinking of Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen. And I’ll bet you can’t name the novelists who did win.

O’Neill, who was honored, would probably not have considered himself a literary artist, merely a truthful one. It was more than politeness that moved him to write to Sean O’Casey about one of his plays, “God, I wish I could write like that.” From one Irishman to another, this was a hell of a confession.

Among American playwrights, at least before Tennessee Williams, I can think of only two in the 20th century who manifestly tried to write plays with an eye toward literary style. One was Maxwell Anderson, but to write literary he had to slip on a quasi-Elizabethan disguise which, to be sure, had its vogue for several years but would probably not go down well with us any more because of its artificiality. We can stand the artificial from the British but not from locals.

For most of us, all British speech is artificial so we can’t tell the real artificial from the artificial. In short, we don’t expect reality from the British, we expect style. For the English, consciousness of linguistic style springs from an unshakable fascination with class, which governs speech from the top of the social ladder down to the Cockneys who make a daunting point of artificiality by refusing to speak like other Englishmen. They are free to invent outrageous new usages that generally mock the proprieties of their betters.

Clifford Odets was the American cockney, branding his language with his often delightfully peculiar twists which the critics thought came from the Bronx but were really his own invention. Nobody in the Bronx ever said, “I’m going out and get an eight-cylinder sandwich,” and anyway, he came from Philadelphia. Odets doted on language and kept a card file with lines he’d heard in the street, usages he would take home and do a little carving on.

When he started out, Odets cultivated a proletarian posture in tune with the depression time but he was really a literary man who kept his recondite tastes to himself lest he frighten the critics and scare off the Broadway ticket buyers. This avoidance was more than his eccentric choice, however; American theater distrusted the literary and, in fact, until Williams, the American play, in effect, pretended that it hadn’t been written at all but merely happened. Indeed, the highest compliment a play could have had was that it seemed to have written itself.

The situation has changed in recent decades, but I wonder if the basic acknowledgement of a play author’s existence is basically as a constructor and shaper of the action rather than that of a word artist. It is almost but not quite the present situation of the screenwriter. I have yet to meet anyone who went to see a movie because it was written by somebody. In effect, play writing was commonly thought of as a form of engineering, engineering with laughs, suspense or tears. A play was built rather than written.

This rubric, I suppose, is part of the mythology of authorial neutrality or literary bricklaying. A bricklayer has no ulterior ideology concerning the aesthetic or moral value of his work. It is enough that it be plumb and level and not fall down. If the Europeans quite differently assumed that a play of any moral or aesthetic pretensions was inevitably intended to mean something and was unavoidably metaphorical, the notion was close to anathema here. If you have a message, send it by Western Union was the wisdom of the day.

The Austrians have a saying. When some calamity happens, a train wreck, a collapsed bridge, there’s always somebody to remark, “Well, who knows for whom it’s good?” For American playwriting, this aversion to metaphorical significance exerted a weighty pressure to suppress speechifying about thematic significance, if any, relying upon the implications within the action to expand the play’s general significance.

A play that dared to venture beyond this stricture was suspect as unaesthetic propaganda. That classical plays-from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Chekhov- were loaded with generalizations about power, society and justice and so on was a fact that did not interfere with this aesthetic which itself, God forbid, could not be called an aesthetic at all but simply the only right and natural way of regarding theater or any other art.

Time magazine, after all, always referred to the author of a successful play as a crack playwright, quite as though he had peered through a gun sight and hit the bull’s eye. It was all very steely and mathematical and, of course, menacing to any author with more than pure entertainment in his mind.

The convention of the play as a species of engineering was, of course, unannounced and largely unconscious. American theater, like the British, had never been other than a commercial enterprise, quite opposite to that of Europe, which had developed out of a very different circumstance. It took George Bernard Shaw nearly ten years to get a British audience and critics to so much as listen to an Ibsen play for more than a week’s run and then only by stuffing the parts with great stars. There was always, apparently, an Anglo-Saxon suspicion, if not an aversion, to any play that parted too noticeably from the theater of pure entertainment.

In Europe, theater had traditionally been subsidized by either individual aristocrats — remember Lord Strange’s men during Shakespeare’s time — much as music was, or by towns and cities. These sponsors expected and indeed demanded some kind of compensation in at least some of the works they were paying for.

I recall a conversation I had with Thomas Mann after he had seen “Death of a Salesman” in New York. The play seemed to have somehow distressed him but not for the obvious reason. He was, indeed, affected by it, as he said, but it also apparently aroused some sort of resentment in him. “They are like aborigines,” he said of the characters. “There is no idea coming from them.”

To me, of course, if I may say so, that was precisely the triumph of the play, whose metaphor lay in its very design, in the arc of its story, in the voyage of its characters. Put another way, I had learned my American theater lesson: If you have a message, send it either by Western Union or by virtue of the play’s inexorability.

I think it was Tennessee Williams who first successfully introduced our theater to what could be called literary writing. Clearly, the author of “Glass Menagerie” and “Streetcar” was declaring rather than camouflaging his writerly presence on the stage. This stuff did not just happen nor had it been overheard. It was a highly composed, often sumptuous language, in whose writing one easily sensed a certain authorial joy.

But here I am getting really interested in the subject and I have to stop. So thanks again, and next time it crosses your minds to cite a playwright for this honor, please don’t hesitate. It is like the great comedian, Fred Allen, once said when one of the sponsors of his radio show kept barging out of the control room to excitedly suggest some inept change in the script. After four or five such interruptions, Allen, his patience worn thin, asked: “Where were you when the pages were blank?”

The answer, of course, is that the executive may not have been aware of it but he was waiting for a writer who, God knows, may even have been a literary fellow in disguise. Thank you.