Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2
Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron
I always assumed that underlying any story is the question of who should wield power. See, in Death of a Salesman you have two viewpoints. They show what would happen if we all took Willy’s viewpoint toward the world, or if we all took Biff’s. And took it seriously, as almost a political fact. I’m debating really which way the world ought to be run; I’m speaking of psychology and the spirit, too. For example, a play that isn’t usually linked with this kind of problem is Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It struck me sharply that what is at stake there is the father’s great power. He’s the owner, literally, of an empire of land and farms. And he wants to immortalize that power, he wants to hand it on, because he’s dying. The son has a much finer appreciation of justice and human relations than the father. The father is rougher, more Philistine; he’s cruder; and when we speak of the fineness of emotions, we would probably say the son has them and the father lacks them. When I saw the play I thought, This is going to be simply marvelous because the person with the sensitivity will be presented with power and what is he going to do about it? But it never gets to that. It gets deflected onto a question of personal neurosis. It comes to a dead end. If we’re talking about tragedy, the Greeks would have done something miraculous with that idea. They would have stuck the son with the power, and faced him with the racking conflicts of the sensitive man having to rule. And then you would throw light on what the tragedy of power is.
I still believe that when a play questions, even threatens, our social arrangement, that is when it really shakes us profoundly and dangerously, and that is when you’ve got to be great; good isn’t enough.
You need a certain amount of confidence to watch tragedy. If you yourself are about to die, you’re not going to see that play (Death of a Salesman). I’ve always thought that the Americans had, almost inborn, a primordial fear of falling, being declassed—you get it with your driver’s license, if not earlier.
This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part III will post next Wednesday.)