Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and Arthur Miller are the Romulus and Remus of post-war Amencia drama: if they hadn't existed you'd have had to invent them.

Williams was the son of a salesman; Miller wrote a great play about one. Both writers denied that they were realistic writers; both wrote 'memory' plays. Both were children of the Depression; both wrote about failed dreams. Both had a powerful public sexual persona - Williams through his unconcealed homosexual promiscuity, Miller through his all-too conspicuous marriage to Marilyn Monroe. And both denied an explicit political dimension to their work - as Miller said (and Williams would have agreed): "There are no public issues; they are all private issues."

Subjects, issues & Sons

It's characteristic of Arthur Miller to express his 'subjects' as 'issues' - a leaning towards advocacy of moral conceits. That's his legacy of Ibsenism along with his accumulation of an Ibsenesque technical arsenal and a leaning towards construction that, like Ibsen's, is often almost too neat - in sharp contrast to Williams' unpruned and often unweeded garden. The 'issue' that most concerns Miller is America's lack of a sense of its own history, and of the connective tissue between the past, the present and the future. But he's a playwright - he knows that the shortest route to bad plays is to write plays ballasted with the baggage of big themes.

His first successful play was All My Sons - the story of Joe Keller, a manufacturer of aircraft engines, who allows defective parts to be fitted to planes. Fatal crashes result, and he lets his business partner take the blame for them. His corruption is the original sin that corrodes everyone he's connected to - leading to the suicide of one son, the shame of his family, and eventually his own suicide.

All My Sons appears to be a linear moral equation, an Ibsenesque fable, but that's a superficial resemblance, even if it is concerned with the impact of private morals on public and vice versa. Miller is not a political writer, nor is he a moralist; and he is only a realist in the sense that he is concerned with the forces that affect people's lives rather than the superficial appearance of reality.

The real subject matter of All My Sons is not a moral conundrum but a question of whether we take responsibility for each other - are we social animals? Miller is concerned with how you reconcile the individual with society and, if there is a touch of the evangelist in Miller, his message is that he refutes Margaret Thatcher's noxious axiom - he asserts that there is such a thing as society.

Born of immigrants & The Great Depression

Arthur Miller (1915-) was born in New York - his father a first-generation Austrian-Jewish manufacturer of women's coats, his mother, born in New York, a schoolteacher.

Although not orthodox, the Millers could speak Yiddish, observed Jewish customs, and taught their children Judaism. The 1929 crash and the Depression provided Miller's sentimental education: the family business was destroyed, and the family was reduced to relative poverty. "America ... was promises, and for some the Crash was in the deepest sense a broken promise ... I knew that the Depression was only incidentally a matter of money. Rather, it was a moral catastrophe, a violent revelation of the hypocrisies behind the facade of American society."

Miller worked with the Federal Theatre Project until it was closed down in 1939, went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and started to write for radio. His first stage play (and his first collaboration with Elia Kazan) - The Man Who Had All the Luck - was a failure but it did nothing to weaken his conviction "that art ought to be of use in changing society". It's hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry, or sways votes, but Death of a Salesman comes as close as any playwright can get to art as a balm for social concern.

Death of a Salesman

Miller's original title for Death of a Salesman was The Inside of His Head - 24 hours in Willy Loman's life ending in his death, compressed into subjective action which jumps fluidly from the present to the real and the imagined past. It was a uniquely theatrical notion that exploited the theatre's poetic capacity to move between place and time, to make the present and the past co-exist in a compound metaphor. The designer and director of Salesman - Jo Mielziner and Elia Kazan - used a single setting for Willy's house and played all other scenes on various areas of the forestage, combining expressionism with detailed minimalist realism.

When he was writing Salesman, Miller saw A Streetcar Named Desire. Inspired by Williams, in Death of a Salesman, Miller created a new verbal language and a new theatrical one - even if the emblematic American profession of salesman was familiar to theatregoers from Hickey in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Miller provided Willy with a vocabulary and syntax that blended the clich6 of everyday life with self-deluding aphorisms - "America is full of beautiful towns and fine upstanding people," with immigrant parables -"Why, boys, when I was 17, I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21, I walked out," and with slogans for success - "Be liked and you will never want."

These are repeated by Willy like a catechism for success, and are bound together by Miller's own vivid poetry - "The woods are burning, boys" - and his sinewy rhetoric: "The play is unarguably an indictment of a society that repressively puts financial success at the heart of the American Dream and presumes that there is nothing of value that can't be quantified..."

Death of a Salesman is not a play that reveals an infinity of meanings, but it is a remarkable play about the death of a salesman - less about the corrosive effect of capitalism than about the destructive nature of dreams. Each scene of Death of a Salesman is charged with feeling and theatrical energy, and it is the parable of 20th-century America. As an audience member observed after the recent New York revival: "It was like looking at the Grand Canyon"- an indelible part of the American landscape.

Heroes & witchcraft

The struggle in Miller's plays is about the difficulty and the possibility of a man - and until Broken Glass, it is invariably a man - taking control of his own life, "that moment when, in my eyes," said Miller, "a man differentiates himself from every other man, that moment when out of a sky full of stars he fixes on one star". It's a search for meaning in life that is resolved only in death. In The Price, this debate becomes an explicit one between two brothers, between self-sacrifice on one side, and self-interest on the other: "It's as though," says the selfish brother, "we're like two halves of the same guy. As though we can't quite move ahead - alone."

Miller's heroes - salesmen, dockers, policemen, farmers - all seek a sort of salvation in asserting their singularity - their 'name' - and redeeming their dignity, even by suicide. Willy Loman cries out, "I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman ... !". Eddle Carbone in A View from the Bridge, broken and destroyed by sexual guilt and public shame, bellows: "I want my name," and John Proctor in The Crucible, in refusing the calumny of condemning his fellow-citizens, declaims, "How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" In nothing does Miller show his Americanism more than in the assertion of the right and necessity of the individual to own his own life.

Miller set The Crucible in the town of Salem in Massachusetts, where in 1692, 19 adults and two dogs were hanged for witchcraft, and one man was pressed to death for refusing to plead, but the play was inspired by the events of the McCarthy era, by the actions of the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s, in front of which Miller was invited to give evidence, in effect to betray his friends.

Oddly, for all that it was engendered by specific events, The Crucible seems less of its time, and more enduring, than any of Miller's other plays. For it, he invented an entirely successful language - a coinage of 17th-century biblical cadences, pastoral poetry and regional English dialect, fused with potent theatrical rhetoric, and the play is a gloriously inspiring assertion of the individual dissenter against the latent tyranny of a repressive society.

It's a deeply romantic - and deeply attractive - account of the nobility that we all aspire to and would wish we were capable of achieving in the face of having to make an absolute moral choice: as it were between betraying one's friends or one's country.

Two playwrights, two big questions

To a society intoxicated by sexual liberation, whirled in the vortex of the Vietnam War and the implicit civil - racial - war, Miller came to be seen as a ponderous moralist, and Williams as a peddler of nostalgia - his preoccupation with female dependency and homosexual guilt being insufficiently liberated for the age. Miller's response was not to become more public and political but to write more about the past, as if to remind the country that history - like sex - had not been invented in the 1960s. He reclaimed the past as a means of understanding the future and his recurrent subjects were the Holocaust and the Depression, betrayal in private and public life, guilt, and loss of innocence: Cain wandering in a spiritual wilderness.

Arthur Miller asks the question: "How are we to live our lives?" and Tennessee Williams asks: "How do we get through the night?" Both write about human fallibility - Miller trusting in its potential for improvement, Williams believing in its essential and irrevocable weakness. Together, they chronicle the curable and the incurable aspects of the world; paradoxically, it is Miller who is the romantic, Williams the realist.

As Miller's and Williams' reputations began to decline in America, their international stature rose, and they have both enjoyed more honour and success in recent years in Britain. This is partly because the British theatre, sustained as it is by subsidy, generally feels confident (or complacent) about its present, hopeful of its future, and conscious of its past, whereas American theatre has been robbed of continuity. It's partly, too, that the British theatre has the virtuous habit of treating yesterday's classics as if they were contemporaneous. And it's partly that the British - fed on Shakespeare - have an appetite for theatre that uses such sinewy and passionate language with such unembarrassed enthusiasm.

The above has been extracted from Changing Stages (Bloomsbury paperback, £16.99) by Richard Eyre, whose new book about his ten years as artistic director of the National Theatre, National Service, will be published by Bloomsbury in October 2003. For further information or to order copies, visit the Bloomsbury website.

Arthur Miller was voted the 'Greatest Living Playwright' - winning out over British dramatists including Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and David Hare - in Whatsonstage.com's recent Big Debate. For full poll results, click here.

Following the conclusion of its limited return season at north London's Tricycle Theatre, Sean Holmes' acclaimed revival of Miller's The Price - starring Warren Mitchell, Des McAleer, Larry Lamb and Sian Price - transfers to the West End's Apollo Theatre, where it reopens on 11 September 2003 (previews from 9 September).

DON'T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to THE PRICE on Wednesday 24 September 2003 - including a FREE drink & an opportunity to meet the cast after the show - all for only £22.50!!
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