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CurtainUp Book Review
Conversations with Miller
Being a fan, meant that I wouldn't miss a Miller play, and usually found a good deal to admire even in some of the plays that didn't make quite as strong an impression as Salesman. But while I also read his autobiography, Timebends, and numerous essays by and interviews with Miller, it wasn't until Mel Gussow's Conversations with Miller that my admiration for Miller the playwright turned into genuine liking for Miller the man.
Maybe age and a new wave of interest in his work have combined to soften the personality that in the past often seemed somewhat abrasive. (Last season seeded Broadway productions of both his first play (initially a flop), The Man Who Had All the Luck!), and the one that's been most frequently produced, The Crucible. Most likely, the format, with its aura of informality, contributes largely to the likeable portrait of Miller that emerges from this slim but packed with interesting detail volume.
Miller is of course a fascinating and historically interesting man but much credit for the high readability quotient of Conversations, is due to The New York Times culture critic Mel Gussow, who is an unobtrusive but trenchantly insightful presence. His own obvious love and knowledge of the theater and the rapport with Miller built over almost forty years make the word conversations in the title fitting and accurate. Consequently reading this book is like having an opportunity to eavesdrop on two old friends exchanging memories, ideas and opinions.
The conversations are bracketed by two 2001 conversations with the interim meetings between October 1963 and September 2000. The settings range from Miller's Manhattan apartment and his Connecticut home, to a restaurant and an office in a theater rehearsing a Miller play. Thus, while some of what's said will be familiar if you read Timebends and have kept up with Miller's talks and essays and works, the various time frames and settings allow for an organically composed picture of Arthur Miller -- the man, the playwright, and yes, the philosopher.
Miller is particularly giving in his appraisal of actors who have been the beneficiaries of "those good parts" he cites as his legacy to the theater. While he admired the original Willie, Lee Cobb, who originated the role, Miller always envisioned "this feisty little guy who was taking on the whole world. " Dustin Hoffman was the first ever actor (in 1984) to fit that physical vision. Miller admired Dustin not just because he was small as originally conceived but as an actor who has "great internal life on stage."
Of course this wouldn't be a book in which Miller is the protagonist without discussing the travails of the Broadway theater which he attributes to a fragmentation of the audience: " Once there was one audience in New York. The same guy who went to see O'Neill went to see the Ziegfeld Follies."
And, yes he talks about Marilyn Monroe. To Gussow's combination statement and question "with Marilyn in a metaphorical if not an actual sense, you took a walk. You left. For the sake of your own sanity?", Miller responds: "There simply was nothing but destruction that could come, my own destruction, as well as hers. The point comes when you cannot continue anymore. There is no virtue to it, there is nothing positive, and your hope is that she can find some other means of saving herself."
I could go on quoting from this very quotable book but I'll stop with this mot which budding playwrights might want to tack to their computer screens: " To be a playwright. . . you have to be an alligator. You have to be able to take a whack and be able to swallow bicycles and digest them."
For CurtainUp's Arthur Miller background page go here
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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