Arthur Miller

Writing biographies is a dangerous business. Autobiographies should be the easiest to write but end up as a pack of lies as authors want to present life according to their wishes instead of the truth. Unauthorized biographies don't have access to all the facts and end up gossip mongering and stating the obvious. And then there are authorized biographies which combine the worst of both the ones mentioned before.

Christopher Bigsby’s Arthur Miller was published by Weidenfield & Nicolson. The authorized biography of the American playwright covers the years 1915 to 1962.

Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89, and the reactions were not universally those of grief or even of loss. Lights were dimmed on Broadway and one paper cleared its front page. But many dissenters made themselves heard over the empty rituals of public praise for the dead. Arthur Miller had been the most famous of America’s playwrights and had always divide opinion. He called forth mixed reactions from critics and public all his life. Reactions to his death were in keeping with tradition.

It was the dissenters who made Arthur Miller famous. Their constant carping kept him in the public eye all his life, and now beyond. Only when able to produce work provoking enough to be both criticized and defended a writer becomes famous. Clashes between critics and fans made him interesting to publishers and newsworthy for media consumption. From a marketing point of view, Arthur Miller had done everything just right.

Author Christopher Bigsby is director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia. He was and still is a constant and staunch defender of Arthur Miller. That the biography would be penned by hum was no great surprise, therefore. Covering the years from 1915 to 1962, it ends with Arthur Miller’s divorce from Marilyn Monroe.

Arthur Miller had granted Christopher Bigsby access to his papers prior to his death. Its wealth of detail and data will make the biography a standard work for future scholars and students. As it was written by someone completely blind to all the negative points to Arthur Miller and his writing, it ended up completely one sided and uncritical. Future scholars will be able to use the book as a reference book and a timetable to work with, but any real work has still to be done.

Christopher Bigsby meanwhile has published the sequel covering the period from 1962 to 2005; I haven't found it in me to even start reading it yet. His decision to end the first book in 1962 was probably very wise. The play After The Fall dating from 1964 will prove to be a major stumbling block for him. Arthur Miller's play tried to cash in on Marilyn Monroe’s suicide; how does he intend to defend that?

Arthur Miller's behaviour as a private person was always indefensible. Christopher Bigsby tried to do just that. I think this is the major flaw of this biography. How to defend a serial adulterer during his first marriage? What positive points can be cited about cashing in on the second wife’s death? What does one say about the son with his third wife who was born with Down’s syndrome and shunted off to an institution and then conveniently forgotten? Arthur Miller’s autobiography doesn’t even mention the boy.

Wives and children played second fiddle to Arthur Miller’s career. By trying to defend him, Christopher Bigsby shows him up as cold and ruthless. It might be that the essence of his work would have been impossible to write if he had functioned as a husband and father. As it is, that question must remain open.

At the end of the book, Christopher Bigsby tries to bail him out with the happenings at the House of Un-American Activities Committee questioning. Arthur Miller’s refusal to name names before HUAC in 1956 may have been a major feat, even heroic. He stood against fascist McCarthy in a fascistoid American society. It was brave and is praiseworthy. But it doesn't redeem him.

Arthur Miller had got himself into these hearings all by himself with his play The Crucible, the 1953 play about the Salem witch trials. In it, he draws (rightly) a clear parallel between McCarthy's paranoid fear of Communists and the religious hysteria that led to the witch hunts in 17th century Massachusetts. In hind sight, there might be better parallels to draw on, especially if you follow the permanent shady dealings of the CIA and NSA.

The play angered some fascist critics so much that they regularly put down Arthur Miller’s plays as bad on the grounds that they had been written by Arthur Miller, rather than on their intrinsic merit. Christopher Bigsby has made his homework in this section rather well and names these critics plus showing them up as paid pawns of the CIA.

Further reading
Official Biography of The Queen Mother
Don't Speak Well of The Dead
Marquess of Bath Biography