Arthur Miller On Playwriting XII

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

After the Fall would have been altogether different if by some means the hero was killed, or shot himself. Then we would have been in business . . . . there’s nothing like death. Still, I just wasn’t going to do it . . . . I think Günter Grass recently has said that art is uncompromising and life is full of compromises. To bring them together is a near impossibility, and that is what I was trying to do. I was trying to make it as much like life as it could possibly be and as excruciating—so the relief that we want would not be there: I denied the audience the relief. And of course all these hard realists betrayed their basic romanticism by their reaction.

Look, I know how to make ’em go with me—it’s the first instinct of a writer who succeeds in the theater at all. I mean by the time you’ve written your third play or so you know which buttons to push; if you want an easy success there’s no problem that way once you’ve gotten a story. People are pretty primitive—they really want the thing to turn out all right. After all, for a century and a half King Lear was played in England with a happy ending. I wrote a radio play about the boy who wrote that version—William Ireland—who forged Shakespeare’s plays, and edited King Lear so that it conformed to a middle-class view of life . . . . He was an expert forger. He fixed up several of the other plays, but this one he really rewrote. He was seventeen years old. And they produced it—it was a big success—and Boswell thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, and so did all the others . . . . It’s what I was talking about before: the litmus paper of the playwright: you see, Ireland sensed quite correctly what these people really wanted from King Lear, and he gave it to them. He sentimentalized it; took out any noxious references.

(W)hat happened in Italy with Zeffirelli was—I can describe it very simply: there was a stage made up of steel frames; it is as though one were looking into the back of a bellows camera—you know, concentric oblong steel frames receding toward a center. The sides of these steel frames were covered, just like a camera is, but the actors could enter through openings in these covers. They could appear or disappear on the stage at any depth. Furthermore, pneumatic lifts silently and invisibly raised the actors up, so that they could appear for ten seconds—then disappear. Or a table would be raised or a whole group of furniture, which the actors would then use. So that the whole image of all this happening inside a man’s head was there from the first second, and remained right through the play . . . . You see in Italy the steel frame itself became the concentration camp, so that the whole play in effect was taking place in the ambiance of that enclosure. This steel turned into a jail, into a prison, into a camp, into a constricted mechanical environment. You could light those girders in such a way that they were forbidding—it was a great scenic idea.

I have always felt that concentration camps, though they’re a phenomenon of totalitarian states, are also the logical conclusion of contemporary life. If you complain of people being shot down in the streets, of the absence of communication or social responsibility, of the rise of everyday violence which people have become accustomed to, and the dehumanization of feelings, then the ultimate development on an organized social level is the concentration camp . . . . It is organized abandonment . . . one of the prime themes of After the Fall.

The last of the Arthur Miller series (part XIII) will post next Wednesday. 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.

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