The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.
“Liveness” is a crucial concept that traverses the boundaries of many academic disciplines; however, most prominently, performance studies, media studies, and music studies have been engaged in the ongoing debate regarding its shifting parameters. Not only does the concept navigate through multiple academic disciplines, but it also calls attention to the constantly morphing conditions of social interaction and community formation in an ever-digitizing world. Defined from a wide range of perspectives throughout history under specific sociocultural circumstances, the idea has brought critical scrutiny to the related questions of presence, disappearance, absence, and recurrence of the performing subject. At the same time, immediacy, temporality, and authenticity of human contact as well as human-to-nonhuman contact have also been interrogated under the rubric of liveness.
Interdisciplinary studies of liveness tend to inquire into three areas: ideology, technology, and ontology of performance, which are by no means fixed terrains but rather overlapping and corroborating regimes reflecting the transforming notions of liveness. As the medium of performance became more diversified and convergent over time, the notion of liveness accordingly became complicated. Liveness is no longer defined simply as “bodily co-presence of actors and spectators” (Erika Fischer-Lichte), but with historical specificity in mind and with an eye to the way “the idea of what counts culturally as live experience changes over time in relation to technological change” (Philip Auslander, “Digital Liveness: A Historic-Philosophical Perspective,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 34, no. 3 , 3).
There are no limitations to the performance genres and platforms that fall under the critical analysis of liveness: music, TV, stage plays, online media, live-action roleplay (LARP), and mixed-reality performance—“mixing of the real and virtual as well as their combination of live performance and interactivity” (Steve Benford and Gabriella Giannachi, Performing Mixed Reality [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011], 1)—all wrestle with the ontological questions of what is live. On a more profound level, the derivative semantics of liveness, such as “live,” “alive,” and “life,” point to the ontological dimension of the term as they collectively articulate the “ephemerality, mediation, reproduction, and representation” (Daniel Sack, After Live [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015], 13) of human life.
Heather S. Nathans
Scholars have long wrestled with definitions of what might constitute “American” performance or theater. Early 19th-century histories defined it in strictly white, largely anti-British terms, imagining an art form that could instruct citizens of the newly created nation in lessons of civic virtue. In his History of American Theatre (1832), playwright, theater manager, and theater historian William Dunlap described theater as a “powerful engine” for a democratic state. Subsequent theater historians would catalog records of “firsts”—such as the first American stars (including Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman), or the first long-running American dramatic hits (including The Drunkard or Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The roles of women and racial or ethnic minorities were frequently relegated to the anecdotal or the exceptional.
In the wake of the Civil War, and with the expansion of the frontier, definitions of American theater grew more capacious, encompassing more amateur, popular, and immigrant performances as new groups struggled to establish footholds in American culture. The turn into the 20th century and the unfolding series of civil rights movements on behalf of women, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) citizens, people of color, and people with disabilities rapidly transformed the nation’s theatrical landscape. Groups that had found themselves represented by others onstage discovered new opportunities for creative expression in the playhouse.
Over the past twenty-five years, theater scholars have shifted away from a narrative of “firsts” and national exceptionalism toward a more nuanced series of intertwined histories that illuminate the complex discourses of national and ethnic identity in American culture. Their work has revealed a performance community—whether in the playhouse or on the streets—constantly struggling to create workable definitions of citizenship and belonging. Theater artists have never stopped pushing themselves and their audiences to challenge definitions of national identity. Their work invites contemporary students to expand their understanding of what constitutes the canon of “American” theater.
Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.