Arthur Miller's Integrity and Influence Remembered at Broadway Memorial

News   Arthur Miller's Integrity and Influence Remembered at Broadway Memorial
Arthur Miller had no great love of critics during his lifetime, and the May 9 memorial held in his honor at Broadway's Majestic Theatre bore out that aversion. No space in the auditorium was reserved for the press, as is usually the case at such events, and photography was expressly forbidden. Nonetheless, reporters—understanding the lasting importance of the playwright—found their way in, standing in line with the many other members of the public who wished to pay Miller their final respects.

Bill Coffin, a friend of 35 years, set the tone for the respectful and reverent presentation when he quoted the late Igne Morath, Miller's third and final wife, as saying she fell in love with her husband because of "the integrity of his mind." It was this aspect of the dramatist's make-up that seemed to attract, to fascinate, to inspire every speaker and performer present.

Many of those gathered were, indeed, not only performers by profession, but performers in their function at the tribute. Joan Copeland, Miller's sister and an actress of estimation, performed a scene from her brother's The American Clock, the Broadway premiere of which she acted in 1980. "I must go to the library," she said, playing Rose Baum, a character based on Arthur and Joan's mother, the wife of a man who lost his fortune in the stock market crash. "I must start taking out some good books again; I must stop getting so stupid. I don't see anything, I don't hear anything except money, money, money..."

Estelle Parsons read Linda Loman's famous graveside speech in Death of a Salesman. Ross Miller read a note from Bill Clinton praising his father. Robert Miller read a letter Miller sent to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, explaining his refusal to name names in the McCarthy hearings. Rebecca Miller delivered a poem penned by her father. Daniel Day Lewis, husband of Rebecca, read "A Boy Grew in Brooklyn," an essay from Miller's 2000 collection "Echoes Down the Corridors." It concerned the future writer's childhood job of delivering bagels, onion rolls and rye bread at dawn to the residents of his Brooklyn neighborhood. Day-Lewis' skilled and simple reading illustrating the author's gifts as a storyteller, while also exhibiting Miller's little-sung sense of humor. "Give a bagel man an onion roll by mistake," he read, "and you've ruined his entire day."

Naturally, a couple playwrights came to pay tribute. Tony Kushner, a writer whose moral temperament is often compared to Miller's, was the most voluble of the speakers. In between observations of Miller's political mindset, he remembered his first encounter with his idol. It was while sitting behind him at the 1994 Tony Awards. "I spent the evening looking at the back of his head, which was more interesting than anything that transpired on stage that night." In that head, he explained, a play and a character (Salesman and Loman) that had stimulated playwrights for 50 years had been hatched. "I wanted to touch the head, but thought the owner might object."

Edward Albee, meanwhile, said that Miller, like the best dramatists, held a mirror up to his audience. "Here is how you behave," Albee said Miller seemed to be stating. "If you don't like it, it's your responsibility to change." He ended by saying simply, "Some playwrights matter. Arthur Miller mattered. A lot." Honor Moore recalled an unfamiliar story from Miller's childhood. One day when she asked her friend why he became a writer, he replied, to her surprise, "I was a terrible kid. I drove my mother crazy. So one day my parents took off for a vacation at the shore, taking my brother, who was the good one, and leaving me behind. They had made believe it was only for a day. But they left me alone with the Polish maid. Because of that, I had to start learning to use my imagination."

Miller's memorial was one of the few in memory to boast a politician among its speakers—a fitting circumstance given his fierce political convictions. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, had seen Death of a Salesman in Chicago as a young man and the play had a lasting effect on him—so much so that he titled a campaign speech in Milwaukee "Attention Must Be Paid." Shortly after, he went on to win the Wisconsin primary. He recalled joining Miller on a series of campaign events through Miller's native Connecticut. At one of them, McGovern had said, "I'm sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in," referring to the conflict in Vietnam. He added: "I'm sorry to see that the government continues in this way today."

Coffin appeared again to close the memorial. He told of speaking to Miller in the hospital a few days before he died. "I told him, `I know you think you're on your way to nowhere, but I've got better information than you do. They've got a special seat up there for you. As one of God's favorite atheists, your sole duty is to keep the Christians honest. What you do with the Jews you have to figure out on your own time.'"

The event closed with clips from various television interviews featuring Arthur Miller. In one he said, "Imagine if you didn't die. What a horror that would be! You'd have nothing to measure you life against."

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