Saturday, February 12, 2005

"I'm very, very sad. Death of a dramatist - what can you say. He is the grandaddy of us all, really. We modestly try and put social issues on screen and stage through character. He's our model for all that." - Mike Leigh, on the death of Arthur Miller in The Guardian
On the back of news about Charles and Camilla geting hitched, the news that the greatest of all American playwrights has died makes all of our eye-popping, rubber-necking and hand-rubbing about the middle-aged divorcees quite, quite irrelevant - and crass. Who cares if they are getting married? They love each other, they've waited until the time is right and they're going to say their vows and grow old together. What the hell - go ahead, go crazy, enjoy it. Now on to the real news.

We've witnessed the passing of one of the bravest, most uncompromising and truly dramatic writers of the 20th century - a writer that students, critics and bog-standard audience members feel touched by in all the different approaches and contexts we experience his plays. I've read and / or seen several of his plays and managed two thirds of his autobiography and I've studied some of them, I've read some of them independently, I've performed bits and pieces and directed excerpts. I can safely say without any fear of exaggeration or overstatement that every contact with his plays has stirred my blood and shaken my imagination and made me realise how close our everyday lives are to tragedy - tragedy in the ancient Greek sense, the terrible, towering, pure tragedy that isn't just about being sad but about realising, in a moment of horrible clarity, how fallible one is as a human being.

Miller in all his plays shows in the most heartbreakingly clear way the honourable, dishonourable, intense and noble yet flawed life that sits just under the surface of the average, the everyday for folks who are just trying to get by. We strive to be the best we can, to have ideals and live by them - and yet, in trying, we realise that we never can achieve them, as long as we are human and have human weaknesses. The salesman, the ammunition maker, the dockyard worker, the farmer all strive towards the American dream of freedom, of riches, of independence. Yet in striving towards it, they lose everything. Our actions have consequences - we have to face them, live with them, or die by them. We cannot choose to not take action - therein lies tragedy.

MOTHER [of Larry, the letter]: The war is over! Didn't you hear? It's over!
CHRIS: Then what was Larry to you? A stone that fell in the water? It's not enough for you to be sorry. Larry didn't kill himself to make you and Dad sorry.
MOTHER: What more can we be?
CHRIS: You can be better! Once and for all you can know there's a universe of people outside and you're responsible to it, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that's why he died.
(All My Sons)

I'm not sad that Arthur Miller has passed on; he was old and ill when he died and I'm pleased to think he's not suffering or in pain any more. And what a life he has led! What a body of work to leave to the world! Wherever he is now, I hope he knows how important he has been and will continue to be for the arts and for freedom thinkers. Rest in peace.

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