Rehearsing the American Dream: Arthur Miller’s Theater
By Harry Ransom Center
As the first exhibition organized from Arthur Miller’s entire archive, Rehearsing the American Dream: Arthur Miller’s Theater offers new insights on the author of such plays as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. The exhibition reveals Miller’s active engagement with his era and examines his politics, his plays, and his legacy.
Curator Charlotte Canning, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin, conducted a curator’s tour of the exhibition. Below you can listen to audio excerpts from the tour by clicking on the icon above each section.
“The [Harry Ransom Center], as I mentioned, approached me a couple years ago, asked me if I would be interested in doing this exhibit for them, and of course I jumped at the chance. Miller has been, or had been, depositing his work here since the mid-1960s. However in his death in 2005, they received the sort of bulk of the collection, and none of those items were ones that any scholars had ever seen; they were ones that Miller had held personally in his home, in his own sort of private archive. So it was this extraordinary opportunity to see much of this stuff for the first time—in fact my students and I were the first scholars to have access to this work, and there were times when it literally took our breath away, to be seeing this stuff for the first time.”
“So, we were faced with this task of taking a massive amount of material, winnowing it down, and giving it some kind of organizing idea, some kind of story. What we decided were a few things [that] were really, really important to us that we wanted to emphasize. One was simply the work of Arthur Miller. We weren’t that interested in creating a kind of biographical exhibit, we weren’t that interested in telling the story of his life, but we were all really committed to telling the story of his work. It was his work, we felt, that was the most important, that had had the greatest impact, and that we really wanted to find ways to illuminate that work for people coming to the exhibit.
We also were very compelled by his incredible reputation as a public intellectual. Miller, I think, was known throughout his life for someone who championed the rights of artists, who championed freedom of speech; and not just in this country, but around the world. And one of the things that was so compelling to us about that is that his primary mode of doing so was through the theater. That for him—theater and being a public activist were not discreet spheres of his existence, but simply the same thing done in different ways, in different places. So we really wanted to show the ways in which Miller understood theater as an important place for intellectual ideas, as an important place for people to come together, to debate and understand the major issues facing their culture, their historical moment, their politics. And we really felt that that idea of theater was one that we really wanted to bring out, and in fact, one of the things we’ve done throughout is to document how deeply his work affected people. And throughout are letters he received from people all over the world telling him about the impact his work had on them.”
“So, what we ultimately came up with is four sections and they’re— I will walk you through them, but first off let me just outline. The first is “A Playwright Emerges.” That section deals with his emergence as a playwright. So we’re looking specifically there at his dramaturgy, at the work he did in the theater, and we particularly focus on his early work, stopping around 1949 with the production of Death of a Salesman, which really established him among the first tier of American playwrights. We look at how he came to do his work, the kinds of things that inspired it, and a sort of begin—, we see him begin to articulate the ideas and passions that will remain consistently important to him across his entire career.
“The second section is called “A National Activist.” What is it? “Activism on the National Stage.” Is that right? The titles came a little later, so they’re not as fresh in my mind as some of the other stuff. We are looking particularly at how he found himself in a position to speak very strongly to the political moment of his time. And while the exhibit is not strictly chronological, that section deals mostly with the 1950s and his struggles with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and we have some specific items really speaking to how he emerged from that as the kind of signal voice speaking out against the kinds of oppression and activities he saw as being particularly inhibiting to artists and inhibiting to free speech.
“The third section is “Activism on an International Stage,” so we look at the ways in which he translated that work that he had been doing within the U.S. into the world. We do that in a couple different ways, one is productions of his plays abroad. Another is plays that he began writing that were set abroad. So most of the plays up to through 19—, the mid 1960s had been set in the United States, and he begins writing plays that are set outside the United States after that. And then of course, also his work as an activist particularly through the organization PEN, in which he served various offices and became an important presence in fighting for the rights of writers around the world.
“The final section is “A Global Legacy,” and through letters he received, we document his impact across the world and the ways in which people came to honor and find connection and illumination in his work.”
“But it’s interesting that the first one we hear about, and the one that probably is most common is [The] Crucible. In fact, [The] Crucible is one of the few American plays still routinely taught in most high school curriculums, and it’s the one that most people have read or seen. And, of course, it was Miller’s primary response to the hysteria surrounding the McCarthy Era. He felt very moved to find a metaphor that would allow him to explore the ideas and the impact on people without getting too caught up in topicality and actual personalities, but I think this may be one reason why his work is so compelling is that, he doesn’t, he’s not depicting the actual events, but the meanings that those events have. And so [The] Crucible keeps reoccurring, although in fact its initial production was something of a flop, and it wasn’t until a later production that people began to embrace the play and see it as a truly great work.”
“One of the things, for example, and this I have to say was an item I kept saying “I don’t want this in, I don’t want this in, I don’t want this in.” My assistant curators kept saying, “You want it in, you want it in, you want it in.” And it’s a letter, or notes from his translator about how to translate certain idioms that would not read in, if translated literally into Chinese would be meaningless. And so his translator was suggesting specific Chinese idioms. Our favorite was that instead of saying “I won’t take the rap for this,” which apparently is in the play, he says “I will not carry this black cooking pot on my back.” And Miller kept saying, “Is that going to read, is that going—?” and they kept having to reassure him.
“And that, in some ways, is a very sort of mundane example, but I think very telling about the difficulties of working internationally, of translating work from one cultural context to another, and yet Miller remained committed to this. And he, he wrote a beautiful book, I highly recommend, called Salesman in Beijing, that is as much about the production as it is about his own struggle to understand whether or not his play has any meaning outside the United States. And ultimately he decides it does, but in part because those artists had made it their own. Not so much that he had written some sort of, you know, inter-, you know, transcendent classic with universal values, as the fact that those artists were able to take it, own it, and give it back to their audiences as something that had meaning for them, and I just think that this is an extraordinary production. Obviously I didn’t see it, but—. It also had many of China’s leading actors. So it was also a production that had great cultural resonance for the Chinese audiences who came to see it. And it talks back afterwards, it became clear to Miller that indeed, his Chinese audiences had gotten the play, and had some, found something of value, and a connection to it. In fact, he documents throughout his book of how he had various sort of cryptic discussions about the Cultural Revolution with the actors where they felt that in some ways [that] Willie’s struggle spoke to the struggles that they had had during that time. So it’s really an amazing account, an amazing work, an amazing moment that he was able to do it.”
“The last letter and the last thing I want to share with you tonight, I think was the thing that stopped us all in our tracks when we were going through the files. This is a letter from Professor Majeed Hameed who was at the university in Basrah during Operation Desert Storm. And he writes to Miller, and he says that because of the sanctions, they lack food, they lack medicine, it’s hard to get clothing, but the thing that they at the university were most struggling with was that they couldn’t get books. And he writes to Miller, and he says, “Could you please send us your plays? We want to be reading your work at this time, we want to connect—, we feel that is the work that will sustain, that will help us through.” What’s amazing about this letter, of course, I mean there are obvious things that are amazing, but the thing that moved us was clearly he didn’t even have access to an envelope. And the reason, unlike the other letters, we include the envelope, is that he made it himself out of paper and a little bit of tape. And he wrote Arthur Miller, we can’t see what he wrote, but it was something like, Arthur Miller USA, and somewhere along the lines, someone figured it out and put a sticker and put the correct address so that it would actually reach Miller. We didn’t have a record of his response, but we all found this incredibly moving that in the moment, when in a sense, his country is at war with the country in which Miller is a citizen, he’s still reaching out to this artist to say your work, the things you argue for in your work, are the things that are sustaining us right now. Of course we don’t know anything about him, or—, or if he’s still at the University of Basrah, but it was for us a kind of extraordinary testament to the power of theater, to the power of arts to sustain people in the face of even the most horrendous crises.”