To hear that Arthur Miller had died was for theatre people something like what learning that the Old Man of the Mountain was now dust had been for New Hampshire residents. He had been there for so long and until the end appeared so indestructible. The same calm, unsmiling eyes that peered at us through dark-framed spectacles in the '40s were still stoically sizing us up in 2004. Miller never stopped thinking about his world. Every production was another chance to connect. And like E.M. Forster ("Only connect"), he felt that, above all things, was the preeminent goal.
For those covering the theatre, interviewing Miller was first a daunting and ultimately a comforting prospect. Daunting, because the man—tall, bulky and sharp even in old age—looked like a walking monument. And that's just what he was: the living embodiment of American life (which is to say, to a certain extent, world life) since World War II. Cultural life (his landmark plays), political life (his opposition to the McCarthy hearings), celebrity life (a marriage to Marilyn Monroe), intellectual life (his essays and unceasing examination of existence as it was played out on Yankee soil). Few people have contained so many worlds in one lifetime. Few lives have touched so many others in so many ways.
After a number of meetings, however, one could shake off the nervousness. For Miller was a refreshing testament that one could be Arthur Miller and still be, well, Arthur Miller. He answered all questions in his unreformed Brooklyn growl, refused to become ruffled or annoyed by any query, and stayed serious without becoming self-serious. Some writers of his stature or less would have excused themselves from media dialogues long ago, retreating to a distant mountaintop. Not Miller. Into his 80s, he was still engaged with life and art, which is to say he was engaged with other people, wherever they might come from and whatever age.
Throughout Miller's life, critics delighted in comparing and (more regularly) contrasting his art to that of Tennessee Williams. And why not? They set each other off deliciously. Williams was as romantic and fantastic and unreal as his manufactured name; Miller, meanwhile, was likewise an apt reflection of his handle: working-class, simple, straightforward, unironic; toiling, like a miller, at an elemental, but deeply important task. As director Robert Falls said, not realizing his play on words: "This is a man who saw the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the fall of Communism—All these events were grist for his mill."
Falls also said, "He always wrote about these things with a moral sense. He lived the way he wrote." Today's playwrights can be said to also live the way they write. Only, sadly, what most of them write about is not the globe, but themselves, or other selves as small and limited. Ninety percent of the scripts produced on today's stages address the very American question of personal unhappiness, as opposed to the universal question of "What's wrong with the way we live." In that sense, it's arguable that Williams won the battle of influence. Tony Kushner and Jon Robin Baitz are constantly cited as inheritors of Miller's moral fervor. But it's difficult to think of many others among the younger generations of writers. (What playwrights today bother to actually write essays about their ideas, as Miller often did?) Intellectualism and political engagement are not what they were during Miller's heyday, even with the ample provocation of our current roiling social environment. Miller was always a living reminder of what it was possible to accomplish as a person and an artist. His legacy will have to do from now on. It's a strong one. It will provide a sturdy foundation, should anyone wish to build.