Arthur Miller On Playwriting VIII

Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

(Senator Joseph) McCarthy (was) actually saying certain lines that I recall the witch-hunters saying in Salem . . . . For example, his holding up his hand with cards in it, saying, “I have in my hand the names of so-and-so.” Well, this was a standard tactic of seventeenth-century prosecutors confronting a witness who was reluctant or confused, or an audience in a church which was not quite convinced that this particular individual might be guilty . . . . It was a way of inflicting guilt on everybody, and many people responded genuinely out of guilt; some would come and tell him some fantasy, or something that they had done or thought that was evil in their minds. I had in my play, for example, the old man who comes and reports that when his wife reads certain books, he can’t pray. He figures that the prosecutors would know the reason, that they can see through what to him was an opaque glass. Of course he ends up in a disaster because they prosecuted his wife.

I had made a lot of statements and I had signed a great many petitions. I’d been involved in organizations, you know, putting my name down for fifteen years before that. But I don’t think they ever would have bothered me if I hadn’t married Marilyn (Monroe). Had they been interested, they would have called me earlier. And, in fact, I was told on good authority that the then chairman, Francis Walter, said that if Marilyn would take a photograph with him, shaking his hand, he would call off the whole thing. It’s as simple as that. Marilyn would get them on the front pages right away. They had been on the front page for years, but the issue was starting to lose its punch.

I was indicted for contempt for having refused to give or confirm the name of a writer, whether I had seen him in a meeting of communist writers I had attended some eight or ten years earlier. My legal defense was not on any of the Constitutional amendments but on the contention that Congress couldn’t drag people in and question them about anything on the Congressman’s mind; they had to show that the witness was likely to have information relevant to some legislation then at issue. The committee had put on a show of interest in passport legislation. I had been denied a passport a couple of years earlier. Ergo, I fitted into their vise. A year later I was convicted after a week’s trial. Then about a year after that the Court of Appeals threw out the whole thing . . . . It was all a dreadful waste of time and money and anger, but I suffered very little, really, compared to others who were driven out of their professions and never got back, or who did get back after eight and ten years of blacklisting.

I’m in deadly fear of people with too much power. I don’t trust people that much any more. I used to think that if people had the right idea they could make things move accordingly . . . . In the thirties it was, for me, inconceivable that a socialist government could be really anti-Semitic. It just could not happen, because their whole protest in the beginning was against anti-Semitism, against racism, against this kind of inhumanity; that’s why I was drawn to it . . . . I’m much more pragmatic about such things now, and I want to know those I’m against and who it is that I’m backing and what he is like.

I have . . . a psychic investment in the continuity of life. I couldn’t ever write a totally nihilistic work.

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 IX will post next Wednesday.)

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