We were in New Haven. Maybe two weeks into previews for Broken Glass. And tired … so tired. It had been snowing for years. And we had to shovel our cars out day after day. Arthur had written a new scene and we were putting it in that night. There wasn’t enough time for him to go home, so I said, “Rest at my house between shows.” I had rented a small house in Madison—right on the Sound. He said, “Sure. But only if you feed me. I have to eat.” I said, “No problem.”
So … we rested. And then I heard someone walking around. I said, “Arthur, come in. Let’s talk.” And there we were, me and Arthur. Sitting on my bed. Talking about the show, the snow, death, God, ourselves … . If anyone had been watching, they would say, “Gee, Ron looks so comfortable talking to Arthur.” Inside, the voice is going, “Oh no, this is Arthur Miller, one of the last Gods of the Theater, what am I going to do?”
We drove to the theater.
That night, when I came home after the show, I found on the bed, in the indentation where Arthur had been reclining, 83 cents in change and a small Swiss Army knife, which I decided to keep. A week later, my barely recalled Yeshiva training made me give it back.
Months later, I was with my wife Iva on a bus to Southbury, Connecticut. The play had just closed in New York, and it would be good to talk to Arthur again. So much had happened in the intervening weeks. I had hoped for a continuation of the mood on the bed. Two men stretched out, defenses down, confiding and cataloguing without fear—and since the war of putting on a new play had ended, I hoped for clarity—rueful or sharp toothed—but clarity nonetheless. A war fought without interpretation at the end is a pointless thing.
Miller picked us up at the station and said, “It’s just like picking up family.” One is impressed with this part of Connecticut. All rolling and quiet. I had been to the house before. Arthur’s exquisite wife, Inge (Morath) had prepared a wonderful meal for the company soon after we started rehearsals. Then it was wine and fire and winter. Now summer was approaching and in daylight the house looked quite different. It possessed an almost insistent simplicity which seemed to shout, “Hear, hear! Let us have no luxuries here.”
It was a beautiful day. lnge had made a lovely fish salad (from a fish a friend had caught). We ate outside. It was perfect. Then Iva and Inge began to work on emptying the contents of the old refrigerator into the new one that had been delivered that morning. And Arthur and I went into his office to have this talk.
Ron Rifkin So, is David Thacker excited about directing the London production of Broken Glass?
Arthur Miller He loved this play from the first version he read. His attack on it as a director was to make a wholeness of each event in the play, a series of blows, as I had originally imagined it. They sat around after a week of rehearsals, studying it, doing scenes and so on, then read the whole thing through. It came out one hour and fifty-four minutes. I told him, ours, on the stage, is an hour and forty-two minutes. (With the addition of a new scene and an intermission, the whole show lasts well over two hours in London.)
RR And the script that he was rehearsing was our script?
AM With a few changes. He felt that the New York production was too fast, it was as though the play were being pursued. From time to time, I felt the same thing, that we were rushing it. It should have a fluidity but not a feeling of haste. Part of that came from the environment we were working in, quite frankly.
RR Which environment?
AM The environment of the Broadway theater which is always in a state of terror of losing the audience one way or another, so it tends to do things rapidly in order not to, God forbid, bore anybody. So that the actors’ attention, rather than being directed inward, is directed outward, more towards the audience than is really desirable. But all this rushing is not confined to this one play. We’ve all gotten so used to it that it isn’t noticed anymore.
RR I wanted to ask you about the Charlie Rose interview. I was very disturbed by his lack of generosity, in terms of letting you be and letting you talk.
AM That’s his technique, I guess. I don’t know the man—but he seems to have his own agenda and he’s unprepared for another view. He didn’t even know that I’d written an autobiography, or my novel Focus.
RR Do you think he’d seen the play?
AM No, I am sure he didn’t. Nor had he read it.
RR When you said you felt our play was rushed, there was a rushed quality about that interview.
AM It’s a cultural thing here. We have a tendency, in general, to pursue the audience, to rush after them for fear of losing their attention. It’s like we’re playing to five, six, seven hundred cats—at least that’s the production atmosphere in New York.
RR He asked how you work and you said, “I work four hours a day.” He said, “Four hours?” And you said, “That’s a long time,” and he
said, “That’s a short time.”
AM Because he doesn’t create anything. I guess it’s as simple as that. It’s different for people who face a blank page.
RR In 1955 you said, “There are always certain moments in rehearsals, moments of such wonder that the memory of them serves to further entrap all who witness them into this most insecure of all professions.” Then you talk about Lee Cobb: “I think of Lee J. Cobb as the greatest dramatic actor I’ve ever seen in his creating the role of Willy Loman. When I hear people scoffing at actors as mere exhibitionists, when I hear them ask why there must be a theater if it cannot support itself as any business must, when I grow myself sick and weary of the endless waste and many travesties of this most abused of all arts, I think of Lee Cobb making that role and I know that the theater can yet be one of the chief glories of mankind” … It’s how I’ve always felt about the theater. Ever since I was a kid, before I even saw the theater, I knew I’d be on a stage. And that people would listen, and it would transform me and transform them. Does it still feel the same way to you?
AM It doesn’t. Only because I’ve grown to realize that in all probability, due to one thing or another, I’m not going to see on stage what I envisioned originally. I’m just not lucky that way so much of the time.
RR Do you think any writer does?
AM Well, I did once or twice so I think others have, too. However, our conversation now and the conversation you have a thousand times a year on this subject is a very, very old one in the Western world. I’ve just been reading a biography on William Archer, who was a close friend of George Bernard Shaw. Archer, who was partly Norwegian, introduced Ibsen into England; he translated Ibsen. This is the 1880s and you could lift those conversations he had with Shaw directly out of the book and if I fixed up a couple of the grammatical things so that the language would be contemporary, you would think you were listening to me now. Archer conceived this idea of subsidized theater. Why? Because 99 percent of the British plays of the time were trivial things written for money. They were written so somebody could have a career with the public. It didn’t mean these people weren’t artists or that they weren’t even very good ones, but that they felt they had to fit into one of the given clichés in order to survive. He wanted some subsidization of the theater to free artists from this frantic pursuit they were always engaged in, chasing the audience. The audience would finally have to come to them or not come to them but at least there would be on the stage the vision as the creating artist had had originally.
RR And they would be able to do their work.
AM And they could do their work. The British finally did this after World War II. The social imagination of the government was expanded suddenly as a result of the war so that it could conceive of the idea that the government is the servant of the people and its resources should be at the disposal of the people. Oddly enough, that’s exactly when we started to close down. We’d had that kind of government in 1932 with Roosevelt, and for a moment we had the WPA theater. The only reason I’m saying this is that that theater came out of a social situation where there was a general consciousness, a kind of social consciousness that could be applied to the organization of the arts and which had never been done before. But you couldn’t just go into the WPA theater if you were an actor or a writer, you had to have been on welfare first, so it had that limitation, but a hell of a lot of terrific people, nevertheless, were on it. However, that is the whole point; theater was opened up to people instead of people paying forty to a hundred dollars to enter. We are now at the end, I think, of an epoch. It’s the bottom-line epoch, not only in the theater—the idea that a profitable enterprise, as such, is always self-justifying, no matter what it’s doing. We know that’s not necessarily true. We now know that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the rest of it is affected by highly profitable industries and people who obey only the bottom line. And we now know in the theater that if your total concentration is on chasing the buck, what you’re going to have, at the end of the road, is what we’ve got now. The artist can’t do his work. And is at the mercy of critics who are themselves integrated into this system. If they weren’t, it couldn’t operate.
RR They wouldn’t have a job.
AM Let’s face it, there is a limited number of people in any community who are eager to go to see a serious work in the theater. That doesn’t mean there are few, but there never were as many as those looking for a night out.
RR But Arthur, what about the time when my parents were going to the theater. When I hear about the ’50s, let’s say …
AM You already had the problem.
RR But people were going to the theater. People were going. There were about seven, eight, ten straight plays running.
AM Look at what they were charging. The highest ticket, I recall—we can look it up and I could be wrong—was $8.80.
AM In the depth of the depression you could get a seat for 55¢. And in the ’20s, incidentally, the luxurious ’20s, you could also do that. However, it has now gone out of sight. I’ve met one person after another who has told me, “I wanted to see so-and-so but it’s 65 dollars.” Now when I tell this to producers whom I know, I get a blank look. I’ll tell you a quick story. Again this is not of yesterday. In 1952, I was on the Dramatists’ Guild Council and, in those days, they were hiking the prices every three weeks, it seemed. It was $2.20, then $3.00, then it was $4.40, then suddenly it took off to $6.60 and on and on. At one meeting Oscar Hammerstein was the chairman and Moss Hart and Richard Rodgers were there, guys who were not exactly failures but who had a very strong theatrical conscience. Call it a social conscience; rather than charging all the traffic would bear, they knew that the theater should belong to as many people as possible. It just came with the territory, this idea. There had to be some check on the greed. So I said, “Look, we’ve got to stop this or we’ll be out of business. The school teacher, the student will be priced out.” So they called a meeting with the Producers’ Association, The League of New York Theaters, the unions, of course The Dramatists’ Guild and a few of the people who put up money, because in those days there were people who actually made a mini-profession of finding money, and I made my pitch. I said that I already knew people who were avid theater-goers who were unable to go to certain plays because the price was too big. I finished my speech and there was not a sound in the room. Finally, Lee Schubert who was the president, the real Schubert—he looked like a wooden Indian—got up and simply walked out. He never even said good-bye. The unions, I think there were two guys from the unions, they followed him out. Herman Shumlin, may he rest in peace, who was a left-wing producer, got up outraged because I had said that the solution obviously was that each element in the theater should take less and that way we could bring the costs down. How else are you going to bring them down? As a playwright I was prepared to do that, and the Dramatists’ Guild was prepared to work something out where we would take a smaller percentage. Would the scene designers? Would all the rest of the elements? Shumlin was outraged that we would think of taking away any money at all from the producers—and he was the man with the social conscience! He screamed and yelled, “We are dying!” I said, “You’re dying because not enough people are coming at the prices you’re beginning to charge.” So this thing has been going on since I’ve been around. But now as you say, regardless of all that, there were still between ten and 20 straight plays running all the time. But now not only has the ticket gone through the roof but we have television, which we didn’t have back then. And the films have started to do significant themes. Films used to be the escape medium. You saw Doris Day and everything was pink. Now that’s not true. The theater is more escapist now than the films, by far, or even television. They attempt serious social themes sometimes that matter to people, far more than the theater does, far more. And of course you did not have a monopoly of a single newspaper calling the shots in the way we have now.
RR So a play like Broken Glass is not in keeping with what else is around?
AM It’s out of tune, but it’s my normal condition, I’ve been out of tune practically all my writing life. When I did A View from the Bridge people actually told me they were not interested in drab, working class characters and scenes …
RR From the beginning, you think you were out of tune?
AM Basically, yes. See I started out at the beginning of the biggest boom in the history of the world. And I thought we were headed straight back into another depression.
RR When you started writing, you mean?
AM And started producing: All My Sons, Death Of A Salesman, The Crucible, all that. The only people who thought as I did were people like Harry Truman, oddly enough, and that wing of the Democratic Party which was terrified that we were going to head right back into the Depression from which only the war had rescued us in 1939. There was no visible reason why it should be otherwise. I believed that. Consequently, I thought we would continue in roughly the same frame of mind. It didn’t happen. The country took off on a tremendous boom ignited by the paucity of goods here during the war. No cars had been manufactured, no refrigerators, the pent-up demand was enormous and triply so in Europe where we poured in Marshall Plan money and they started up factories and began buying our junk. So this depression didn’t happen. The point is that by the time I did All My Sons it was regarded by most critics excepting two or three as being a very depressing play in a time of great optimism. The man who saved that play was Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, who really went to bat for it. He saw that it was important for this theater to have that play running. He wrote two or three Sunday pieces about it and me, and the play ended up winning the New York Drama Critics Award.
RR You said something interesting about All My Sons. “When the play was first done, the focus of attention was on the father of the play.” Then you saw a production later on where suddenly, the burden of this whole experience was on the mother.
AM That was 20 years later in England. Rosemary Harris, directed by Michael Blakemore.
RR That’s right. Talk about that a little bit.
AM Blakemore instinctively directed this around her for the simple reason that she knows the truth and carries the guilt from the time the curtain goes up.
RR She knows what her husband had done.
AM And she knows what would happen if it were revealed.
RR That he was responsible for his son’s death.
AM And, furthermore, if her older son Chris ever found out, it would explode the whole family. So, she’s carrying a burden, a secret knowledge which that character has to carry, and Rosemary Harris was simply spectacular with that.
RR I saw Arvin Brown’s production of that play with Richard Kiley on Broadway. Afterwards, I was going backstage to see one of the actors and I was in that strange alley. Suddenly, from 40 years ago, this racking sob sound came out of me. I was sobbing. My whole body was shaking. All I could think about was me and my father and my brother and our own story, our history, our competition, our angst. I couldn’t go backstage. I couldn’t stop crying. I never forgot that. That wail that I experienced in the alley is why I became an actor. To be able to cry like that, to be able to feel like that and express it so that other people can feel that same thing is why I’m an actor. It’s why you write.
AM It’s to somehow arrive at the ultimate emotion beyond which is only darkness.
RR I grew up in Williamsburg in an Orthodox Hasidic family and I knew nothing about the theater. Except there was this place that I went to from the time I was two, and when I look at it now, it was an Elizabethan theater. It was a square temple and the women sat upstairs, the men sat downstairs. At the front was the ark, with velvet curtains encrusted with gold. They would open this curtain and inside would be silver scrolls and people would lift them out, hold them up and kiss them and dance with them. Then on Saturdays, at Bar Mitzvahs, the women would throw bags of candy down on the Bar Mitzvah boy and people would sing and dance and wear these boxes strapped to their arms and head. They’d wrap themselves up in black and white striped shawls and they’d kiss the prayer shawl with their beards and shake and dance, and I remember my heart would pound every Saturday when I’d go to synagogue. That was my theater.
AM What you’re saying is exactly what’s been lost. Or maybe I’ve only imagined it. In any case it’s gone.
RR You’ve talked to me about that experience with your great-grandfather when you were a little boy. I tried to explain to you once what they were doing. Somebody had told you it was Simchas Torah. It wasn’t Simchas Torah. Your great-grandfather must’ve been a “kohane,” a priest. They were doing what is called “duchening,” which is the priest’s blessing. You’re not allowed to look. So your grandfather told you, don’t look—they told me that if I looked, I would go blind. They all gather around, wash their hands, wrap themselves in the Torah, take their fingers and go like this …
AM That’s right!
RR They were blessing the congregation. I always looked, too. It was so magical. That was the beginning of my exposure to the theater.
AM Because you’ve got a community. They are unified by some common feeling and they’re trying to find the face of God.
RR That’s it.
AM If the whole thing is going to be about some melodrama, to suck in unwary customers for money … It’s awfully tough to find God, in those circumstances. We’ve lost that impulse. It seems sometimes that it’s been forgotten that we’re a communal enterprise, at least the heart of it is or was.
RR I’ll tell you what, though. When you talk about William Archer talking about the same problems 100 years ago, I suspect 200, 300, 400 years ago they talked about the same thing. Which leads me to feel that there will always be kids who experience something, somewhere, who feel passion and a need to talk about the world.
AM The urge to perform is always there, but how theater is organized is vital. But great acting is a metaphor for the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And that struggle is immemorial.
RR In Time Bends you talked about going to visit your cousin Abby when All My Sons was on Broadway. He knew you were coming and when you knocked on the door, he let you in wearing a silk robe, slick and handsome, with these two beautiful women on each arm, like he’s just obviously made love with them. And here you are doing your play, even though it’s on Broadway, you’re struggling, whatever—and he’s fucking these women!
RR And that’s the struggle. I mean, that’s it, that’s the issue.
AM Well, one likes to think he can do both … fuck and aspire.
RR Do you think people are cursed or blessed with this need to expose or illuminate their own inner world, for whatever reason?
AM The trouble, you see, is that you’re always being asked to explain this.
RR How do you?
AM You can’t explain it!
RR How can I explain the process to my father? He sees people walking on the stage, and he doesn’t understand that it takes six, or eight or ten weeks to do that. He says, “What do you mean? They’re just walking around on the stage saying words.” Not a clue. And that’s because it’s not his world. That’s why that interview with Charlie Rose disturbed me, he was so disrespectful. Forget that it was you, he was just disrespectful of that process—creation.
AM Well it never dawns on commentators as the central thing—that it is such a process, not merely the question of success and failure.
RR If anyone were to ask me, how do you act? I wouldn’t know what to say.
AM Well, in more cases than not, if you can describe it all that well, you don’t have to actually do it. It’s like any artwork; if a play is not a discovery, then it’s already been done, and is simply a copy of something the author already knows. And it has that low level of energy of discovering America twice. You can talk and talk and talk about the process, but it doesn’t do any good because it comes from a part of the mind which is closed to self-observation. Surprise is everything. I’m working on this thing now, which will probably never see the light of day, but it’s purely … I feel happy today. I’ll be damned if I know why I feel happy today. Nothing changed since yesterday except that I experienced a small surprise this morning.
RR I understand. When I read the part of Philip Gelburg—I knew I’m nothing like this guy. Except I’m everything like this guy. I knew I could be this guy. How did Philip Gelburg, come out of you? Who is he?
AM First of all there is no “he” or “him,” not in the normal sense anyway. A dramatic character is actually a relationship first and foremost, a response to other “characters” and to the theme and drift of events. I knew such a man many years ago, but what did I know?—that he always wore black even as a young guy. Go make a “character” out of a suit. But the suit had suggestive implications, and the superior way he grinned, and what one knew was the terror behind the suit and the grin, and so on. So you begin to account for the terror, which is deeply disguised, and pretty soon “he” is talking to his wife who, as it happens, has lost her ability to walk … and so on. Actually, the initial image, the dramatic energy-source is the image of this woman, crippled without a mark on her. Like most of us who show no marks. In her, it seemed to me, was the image of the world denying itself, its holy life, a life from which at first she is attempting to resign, but in the end won’t let her go. There is no “he” or “she” in the ordinary way we perceive individuals; there is a relationship-for-two.
RR It’s an incredible process.
AM And that’s why it’s forever intriguing. You know, reading this biography of Archer, Bernard Shaw was a critic before he was a playwright. And as a critic, he knew all about everything. He was probably the greatest music critic in the English language.
RR I didn’t know that.
AM Oh yeah. But his first attempt at a play, he said to Archer, “I can’t make up a plot. But you can.”
RR Shaw said this?
AM Yeah. So Archer said, “Okay, I’ll make up a plot. And you do that wonderful dialogue that you can do.” Because Shaw was a fabulous speaker. He was rather like the old Irish comics. He had the gift of gab. So they wrote a play in three acts, and in the early part of the third act it stopped, because Archer couldn’t figure out any more plot devices. And Shaw wrote him and said, “What am I supposed to do next?” It was that mechanical. It’s a marvelous beginning for one of the major influences on the English theater. He was just going to crank it up and turn it out.
RR It’s funny how we use our own experiences, our families, our people and put little pieces of them in the work that we do. I know that whenever I’m involved in creating the sort of big characters that I’ve had in the last three or four plays, there’s always a piece of my father or my brother. And when I was reading Time Bends, I noticed that your Uncle Manny had those French postcards that he took out New Year’s Eve.
AM And that’s in Broken Glass.
RR That’s what we do.
AM You’re picking up, it’s kind of a magnet, the awakened imagination.
RR All those things that are in your consciousness, way back somewhere, and a smell, a color, a sound, somebody looks like somebody, will trigger off a feeling and suddenly you’re back there.
AM You know, I had an unhappy experience that way with Jack Warden, who was marvelous in the first ten days of rehearsal of The Price, he played the cop. And we all thought, my God, this is going to be stupendous. And suddenly one day he couldn’t remember any lines. He could have opened after 11 days of rehearsal, he was so magnificent. And on the 12th day, he couldn’t remember anything. And we all sat around and said, “Jack, there must be some reason for this.” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what happens. When I talk about my father betraying us in the play—see, my father left when I was three, and he didn’t show up again for a year. He’d stay around for a few months, and then he was gone again. And at a certain point in that big scene when I’m talking to my brother, I can smell the Newark apartment where we lived when I was a child. And I simply can’t remember the lines.” Memory simply overpowered him.
RR That’s what I felt after All My Sons, when I saw it. I felt some powerful connection to that experience. I was born into a family where there was a child before me. I was never told this. He died when he was two and a half, he choked on a whistle. And one day when I was about four I came across this little black album and inside were these tinted pictures, and I kept turning the pages. Notations kept saying, Lenny at two months, Lenny at six months, look at how green Lenny’s eyes are, look at Lenny’s blond hair—and I didn’t know who Lenny was. Lenny who was this brother I never knew about. And finally my mother told me. So from the age of four, it was always in my mind. And from then, that whole experience of death has always been my friend, my companion. And this competition with this blond prince, this green-eyed Lenny. My younger brother, as a grown man, has a picture of Lenny, but not of me in his house. So it’s such a complicated …
AM Really? That’s interesting.
RR The whole nature of the relationship between brothers and families and fathers and sons …
AM Is infinitely …
AM Complicated. But fruitful.
RR I know that I have created a family around me of people who love me and who appreciate me.
AM Yeah. Well, that’s another thing in the theater, isn’t it?
RR That’s right.
AM All of this is one of the reasons why l didn’t really want to do this play on Broadway. Because the Broadway system somehow contradicts that whole notion of relationships. It’s all down to an impersonal, cynical cash nexus, and that atmosphere affects everything.
RR Arthur, how was your relationship with your father complicated? How did he feel about your work?
AM My father loved theater and took great pride in my work, especially when it began to succeed. He was almost illiterate but had a sharp eye for a good performer, someone who “put it over.” He understood behavior, ideas and such he found “dry” He was the typical audience, and if you were wise you didn’t scoff at his reactions, if only to overwhelm them.
RR If Broken Glass is a story of betrayal, who’s betraying whom?
AM Everybody, in a sense, and by lacking the courage or insight for truthfulness, they betray themselves, of course.
RR The figure of the mocking Jew, that kind of self-hate generated by bigotry, very much formed my character in Broken Glass. Why did you write Broken Glass 50 years after the Holocaust?
AM I’m not really sure. Maybe because, for one thing, much of the play grows out of the period, the late ’30s. The racial attitudes, the kind of consciousness which subsequent years have obscured can tell us much about ourselves now. And of course, the almost magical outreaching of the Holocaust, still so dimly recognized at the time, to this woman mysteriously “slain” in her spirit by its unseen hand … . Look, the human being can adapt to anything. To expand this onto the international level, who would have believed that the Soviet Union would disintegrate in a matter of weeks? Days! Is this believable?
RR And then when you think about Yugoslavia …
AM And how quickly! It takes a week! And people adapt their minds to it. But killing people in such numbers in the middle of Europe … The point is that we have adapted ourselves to this kind of organization of theater and can’t imagine anything different, and we have one or two straight plays a year on Broadway—our “American Theater.”
RR Broken Glass, to me, was very much about how we isolate ourselves into tribes, rather than dealing with the world as a whole. Could you talk about that sense of tribalism particular to Broken Glass.
AM A devout Catholic woman—my mother-in-law at the time, reading about a bank robber who clubbed a teller on the head, said, “I hope he’s not going to turn out to be a Catholic.” A lot of us, perhaps most, maybe all, are in some section of the mind members of a tribe, a group with shared virtues and sins, unlike any other. “Chosen people” applies to every people—nobody else is quite like us. This sense of belonging enriches people, gives them an imaginary community which supports their sense of identity—or can. It is also a source of neurosis, of shame, false pride, contempt for others and their demonization, etc … Part of the impulse behind the writing of Broken Glass was to open up the secret places of the heart where ethnicity snuggles, emitting its poisons and perfumes. The spectacular London reviews, incidentally, may in some way reflect the ventilation of some of the British reticence about this perplexing paradox which is very much alive in their hearts—their reverence for fairness as against a distaste for the foreigner, their respect for justice as against color prejudice and class privilege. Incidentally, the Bible is one of the most profound and thorough testimonies by an ethnic group. The Jews are never spared condemnation in its pages for violations of moral law, which stand right beside their noblest aspirations toward godliness. The thing about it is that its penetration of the human heart is so deep and so remorseless that it emerges as universal, a definition of the human race. And that really is the object and the process of art.
RR Will the play be produced in Germany?
AM Next Spring at the Residenz Theatre, Munich. I can’t say what their reaction will be but the German translators and several other Germans who’ve seen it have a very excited and positive feeling about it.
RR What about Israel? You should have it in Israel.
AM I’m sure it will be. They’ve done all my plays there.