Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore.
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.)
Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron
All experience is looked at now from a schematic point of view. These playwrights won’t let the characters escape for a moment from their preconceived scheme of how dreadful the world is.
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.)
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