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Arthur Miller: The Conscience of the American Dream

Underneath all forms of defeatism, there’s always a possibility of victory. This principle was etched into Arthur Miller as an adolescent who was 14 years old when The Great Depression of 1929 engulfed the women’s underwear factory of his father. Although it was a thriving business, it was much easier to make money speculating in the stock market. The crash of Wall Street left the senior Mr. Miller broke, and the family business went down the drain.

Instead of renting a suite on the top floor of the Waldorf Astoria to hurl himself into the void as many others did, Mr. Miller moved to Brooklyn, and spent some time in an armchair with his fist on his chin staring at the wall; however, he got up one day and became a traveling salesman. He never got anywhere, but he didn’t need to crash his Studebaker into a tree so his son could collect the insurance in order to continue his education. His son found work on his own in a warehouse of replacement parts for automobiles, a job that allowed him to attend the university.

Nothing works, but it’s necessary to get up every morning with the attitude that things can change: this is the spirit of the old American dream. It was also the spirit of Arthur Miller. Tall, tough, dour, ironic, this anti-Zionist Jew also belonged to that other race of those who, in any place in the world, never lower their arms before injustice and fight it even beyond desperation. I don’t believe this spirit would have been any different if he had been a stevedore in the port of New York. The adversity of The Great Depression led to his becoming the best playwright in the United States instead of a wealthy manufacturer of cloth, heir to the family business. In essence, pessimism is always a sort of ethic and for that reason one must never submit. From this setback, Miller extracted his first victory. Death of a Salesman, inspired by the experience of his father, was the work that made him famous.

When everything seemed to be going well, he was dealt another low blow. It happened in 1956. Miller was 41 years old and his success was at the point of being destroyed. One must try to imagine him entering the crowded chamber of the Committee On Un-American Activities, summoned by Senator Joe McCarthy. On a similar occasion, the director John Ford, standing in the same chamber, looked at his watch, and said these words to the committee:

You have a half hour to ask me what you want. At ten, we begin shooting.

Arthur Miller was even more succinct, and in this chamber where famous actors, directors, and producers, who were heroes only on the big screen, acquiesced in becoming informers against their colleagues, he took refuge in the provision for silence with an attitude that was closer to contempt than to anger. He didn’t seek to make an impression with a historical phrase, nor did he lower his arms on this occasion. Normally life gives you one opportunity to measure up to your own highest standards and to be consistent with what your say or what you write so you can shave in front of a mirror every morning without feeling shame. Miller took advantage of this moment, and in spite of the moral integrity he had evinced, on leaving the chamber he said:

I don’t feel so innocent that I can curse those who didn’t know how to be strong.

This is something that can be said only after multiple readings of Isaiah. Arthur Miller was not a moralist because he knew that insecurity is the only valid principle in life and he drew his inspiration from the sensation that everything could be demolished in a fraction of a second. That also was the hidden face of the American dream. This sense of imminent disaster inspired The Crucible, an attack against fanaticism.

And one day this tough, reserved man, with his incisive eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses, burst into the headlines of all the newspapers when he was discovered in the arms of Marilyn Monroe, the erotic myth of North America. Suddenly, Arthur Miller was carried off by a tempest which converted him into a segment of the celebrity news in which intelligence and sex formed a kind of obscure amalgam that began to cater to the sleazy underside of the American dream. Marilyn was infatuated with that intellectual. She looked up to him with eyes burning with admiration and he glanced back with a smile that expressed complicity, but also surprise — the same smile with which he would express his attraction to a piece of art that teetered on the brink of destruction.

Miller withstood the fury of that windstorm. When everyone expected him to be devastated, this time by the tsunami of Marilyn’s curves, the intellectual bended like the thinking reed of Pascal, but again rebounded to the vertical line of his steel axis, although he could not have resisted for much longer. I don’t see what more is needed for Broadway to convert this pair’s passionate collision into a musical.

With Marilyn dead by her own hand or by someone else’s, Miller recovered by writing After the Fall, but by then there wasn’t one interview in which the journalist did not ask him about her:

Do you think about her often?

How could I avoid it? Everywhere there are portraits of her.

This constant publicity was a great problem for our personal relationship. I remember her with compassion. She was like that clown who wanted her poetry to be heard in some corner of the world, but whom everyone expected to take off her clothes.

That American dream, which used to fascinate us when we were young, is now broken: the landing at Normandy, the cigarette of Bogart, Gene Kelly singing in the rain in Paris, the glamor of Marilyn herself, the illusion of the Kennedys: the North America that said farewell to Miller in his grave was by then a country with a grimy capitalism, having vanquished the communism of of the Soviet Union; but in the middle of a society of ants with no common sense, carried forward by the fever of mergers and sharks’ teeth with which they devour one another, for millions of traveling salesmen like Willy Loman, the only thing left is the critical conscience of this playwright. As long as one fights, he is not dead. 80% of North Americans believe they will go to heaven; however, the majority thinks that they won’t run into anyone they know there.


  1. Louis S. Bedrock March 6, 2014

    Mr. Lambert:

    First appeared in El PAIS of August 13, 2006.

    It is also one of 31 mini-biographies of writers in Vicent’s book of 2009, Póquer de ases (Four Aces).



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