‘Leave me my name’: Richard Eyre on the importance of Arthur Miller

Richard Eyre directed the first Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. With several major productions of Miller’s work opening in this, his centenary year, it’s a time to reflect on why plays such as Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge and The Crucible speak so urgently to us today. Here, in an article written shortly after the playwright’s death in 2005 and reproduced in What Do I Know? People, Politics and the Arts, Eyre recalls Miller’s wit and humanity… and what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman.

A large part of my luck over the past twenty years was getting to know Arthur Miller, so when I heard in interviews—or was asked myself—the question ‘Will Arthur Miller be remembered as the man who married Marilyn Monroe?’ I felt a mixture of despair and indignation. The motives of the questioners—a mixture of prurience and envy—were, curiously enough, the same as the House Un-American Activities Committee when they summoned Arthur Miller to appear in front of their committee. I asked Arthur about it some years ago. ‘I knew perfectly well why they had subpoenaed me,’ he said, ‘it was because I was engaged to Marilyn Monroe. Had I not been, they’d never have thought of me. They’d been through the writers long before and they’d never touched me. Once I became famous as her possible husband, this was a great possibility for publicity. When I got to Washington, preparing to appear before that committee, my lawyer received a message from the chairman saying that if it could be arranged that he could have a picture, a photograph taken with Marilyn, he would cancel the whole hearing. I mean, the cynicism of this thing was so total, it was asphyxiating.’

The question that lurked then—and lurks now—is this: why would the world’s most attractive woman want to go out with a writer? There are at least four good reasons I can think of:

By 1956, when he married Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller had written four of the best plays in the English language, two of them indelible classics that will be performed in a hundred years’ time.

He was a figure of great moral and intellectual stature, who was unafraid of taking a stand on political issues and enduring obloquy for doing so.

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC's production opening this week. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC’s current production. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

He was wonderful company—a great, a glorious, raconteur. I asked him once what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman when it opened on the road in Philadelphia. He must have told the story a thousand times but he repeated it, pausing, seeming to search for half-buried details, as if it was the first time: ‘The play ended and there was a dead silence and I remember being in the back of the house with Kazan and nothing happened. The people didn’t get up either. Then one or two got up and picked up their coats. Some of them sat down again. It was chaos. Then somebody clapped and then the house fell apart and they kept applauding for God knows how long and… I remember an old man being helped up the aisle, who turned out to be Bernard Gimbel, who ran one of the biggest department-store chains in the United States who was literally unable really to navigate, they were helping him up the aisle. And it turned out that he had been swept away by the play and the next day he issued an order that no one in his stores—I don’t know, eight or ten stores all over the United States—was to be fired for being overage!’ And with this he laughed, a deep husky bass chortle, shaking his head as if the memory were as fresh as last week.

He was a deeply attractive man: tall, almost hulking, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with the most beautiful large, strong but tender hands. There was nothing evasive or small-minded about him.

As he aged he became both more monumental but more approachable, his great body not so much bent as folded over. And if you were lucky enough to spend time with him and Inge Morath (the Magnum photographer to whom he was married for forty years after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe), you would be capsized by the warmth, wit and humanity of the pair of them.

It’s been surprising for me—and sometimes shocking—to discover that my high opinion of Arthur Miller was often not held by those who consider themselves the curators of American theatre. I read a discussion in the New York Times a few years ago between three theatre critics about the differences between British and American theatre:

first critic. Arthur Miller is celebrated there.

second critic. It’s Death of a Salesman, for crying out loud. He’s so cynical about American culture and American politics. The English love that.

first critic. Though Death of a Salesman was not a smash when it first opened in London.

third critic. It’s also his earnestness.

If we continue to admire Arthur Miller, it’s because we have the virtuous habit of treating his plays as contemporaneous and find that they speak to us today not because of their ‘earnestness’ but because they are serious—that’s to say they’re about something. They have energy and poetry and wit and an ambition to make theatre matter. What’s more, they use sinewy and passionate language with unembarrassed enthusiasm, which is always attractive to British actors and audiences weaned on Shakespeare.

In 1950, at a time when British theatre was toying with a phoney poetic drama—the plays of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry—there was real poetry on the American stage in the plays of Arthur Miller (and Tennessee Williams), or, to be exact, the poetry of reality: plays about life lived on the streets of Brooklyn and New Orleans by working-class people foundering on the edges of gentility and resonating with metaphors of the American Dream and the American Nightmare.

The Depression of the late twenties provided Arthur’s sentimental education: the family business was destroyed, and the family was reduced to relative poverty. I talked to him once about it as we walked in the shadow of the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge looking out over the East River. ‘America,’ he said, ‘was promises, and the Crash was a broken promise in the deepest sense. I think the Americans in general live on the edge of a cliff, they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t care who they are. It’s part of the vitality of the country, maybe. That they’re always working against this disaster that’s about to happen.’

He wrote with heat and heart and his work was felt in Britain like a distant and disturbing forest fire—a fire that did much to ignite British writers who followed, like John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker; and later Edward Bond, David Storey and Trevor Griffiths; and later still David Edgar, Mike Leigh, David Hare. What they found in Miller was a visceral power, an appeal to the senses beyond and below rational thought and an ambition to deal with big subjects.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge, currently in the West End. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

His plays are about the difficulty and the possibility of people—usually men—taking control of their own lives, ‘that moment when, in my eyes, a man differentiates himself from every other man, that moment when out of a sky full of stars he fixes on one star.’ His heroes—salesmen, dockers, policemen, farmers—all seek a sort of salvation in asserting their singularity, their self, their ‘name’. They redeem their dignity, even if it’s by suicide. Willy Loman cries out ‘I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman…!’, Eddie 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—and, beyond that, how you reconcile the individual with society. In short, how you live your life.

If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society, and art ought to be used to change it. Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern. When I saw the New York revival five or six years ago [the 1999 Broadway revival starring Brian Dennehy], I came out of the theatre behind a young girl and her dad, and she said to him ‘It was like looking at the Grand Canyon.’

A few years ago I directed the first production of The Crucible on Broadway since its opening nearly fifty years previously [Eyre’s production opened at the Virginia Theatre on 7 March 2002]. He loved our production and was closely involved with rehearsals. I never got over the joy and pride of sitting beside Arthur as this great play unfolded in front of us while he beamed and muttered: ‘It’s damned good stuff, this.’ We performed it shortly after the Patriot Act had been introduced. Everyone who saw it said it was ‘timely’. What did they mean exactly? That it was timeless.

‘There are things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth,’ is what Huckleberry Finn said of the author of Tom Sawyer. And the same could be said of Arthur Miller, which is perhaps why it’s not a coincidence that my enthusiasm for his writing came at the same time as my discovery of the genius of Mark Twain. And it’s not a surprise that what Arthur Miller said of Mark Twain could just has well have been said about him:

‘He somehow managed—despite a steady underlying seriousness which few writers have matched—to step round the pit of self-importance and to keep his membership of the ordinary human race in the front of his mind and his writing.’


This article is published in What Do I Know? People Politics and the Arts by Richard Eyre, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by John Haynes.

Antony Sher appears as Willy Loman in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Death of a Salesman. His book, Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries, is published by Nick Hern Books on 30 April 2015 – to buy your copy at a 20% discount, click here.

John Hollingworth on writing – and rewriting – his first play, Multitudes

John HollingworthWhen actor John Hollingworth started writing his first full-length play, he had little idea it would take so long to reach the stage. No bad thing, though, when the result is Multitudes, currently at the Tricycle Theatre – and ‘as urgent and immediate as the morning headlines’ (Guardian). How did he do it? In this interview, first published by IdeasTap, he explains how plays can benefit from the development process without losing any of their impact or relevance…

How did the commissioning process work with Multitudes?

I’ve been lucky. The process started at the National Theatre Studio in 2010 when the ever-generous Purni Morell [then head of the NT Studio, now Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre] offered me some space. I fashioned a very early draft from this writing time, tried it out on some friends and was rewarded by Purni with a two-day workshop slot. I approached Indhu Rubasingham [theatre director, now Artistic Theatre of the Tricycle Theatre] to direct it, having worked with her as an actor on Women, Power and Politics [a season of short plays staged at the Tricycle in 2010].

The script turned out to be mortifyingly underwritten and she released the actors for the first afternoon while she and I talked through the structure and what wasn’t working. I went home, drank a silly amount of coffee and stayed up until I had two new opening scenes.

When Indhu later took over at the Tricycle she said she wanted to support the project. A seed commission – where a few hundred pounds is paid to a writer as gesture of professional interest – led to a full commission – where an amount you can live off for a few months is advanced – and then confirmation of full production. All in all I’d say that the process took four years.

Do you have any advice for writers on getting their first full-length play commissioned?

Get your writing out there. I was fortunate: some of my short plays were performed at Miniaturists at the Arcola, a shorts night at Soho Theatre and at a Midnight Matinee at The Tristan Bates Theatre. None of these experiences led directly to a commission but the experience of testing and improving work through rehearsal and performance improved my writing. I sent plays to the Bush and the Royal Court and received rejections that spurred me on to better my work.

Multitudes is a play about a clash of values in multicultural Britain, focussing on a Muslim family in Bradford. How did you research the play?

Multitudes

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was working with David Hare when I started writing the play. I was inspired by his wrought verbatim method of taking things people have said and bending, hammering and bettering them into a sculpture that was definitively his.

I went back to Bradford, where I was at school, toting my dictaphone and door-stopped people. I had some interesting conversations but I was mostly just daunted and cold. Hunting down real things that people say was great ear-tuning for characters but I realised that I wanted to write a piece of fiction.

I began interviewing friends who are Muslim. The first person I sat down with was Asif Khan who has ended up being in the show. I got all my stupid questions out of the way and graduated from this to speaking to a couple of imams on increasingly-frequent trips back to Bradford.

I then went on to the tricky process of tracking down women who had accepted Islam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this proved difficult. I met with two women in person and spoke with a third on the phone but many women were suspicious of my motives – what I might say about them and their personal, private decision.

Perhaps the best resource was Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives [a report published by the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge in May 2013]. It’s brilliantly readable and can be downloaded for free. That and other books – the Qur’an most obviously – helped me to further understand the journey these female converts had been on. This understanding was deepened further by spending a day with new Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre at London Central Mosque.

Were you ever worried about writing about a non-white family?

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was anxious to begin with and I think that is entirely appropriate – if you’re putting words in people’s mouths then you have a duty of care that they are believable. The long development time on the play has allowed five workshops with different sets of actors – six including the cast – and each one provided a frank and invaluable forum to interrogate the play and identify what wasn’t credible or accurate. I’m grateful to the British Asian actors in those workshops – they corrected what was wrong and shared personal stories that went on to influence the play.

If writers like me – pink-white, middle class, university educated – write about pink-white people doing pink-white things then the dominant discourse of the last few hundred years inches inexorably onwards. It’s time to change that discourse.

Multitudes is set on the eve of a Tory Party Conference. Why?

The conference gives high stakes and a short, defined timeframe, which is useful. My brother-in-law has been a political advisor to various Conservative MPs for the past few years and that has afforded me a valuable insight into that world. Given that the Tories are the Establishment party and the play looks at notions of Britishness, there was a natural fit there too and I wanted to make Natalie – the female convert at the heart of the play – the daughter of the local Tory party chairman.

What was the hardest scene in the play to write? Why? And how did you overcome those challenges?

Technically the hardest scene to write has been the one right before the interval. It’s long and involved and combative and riddled with interruption points and I feel spoilt to have a fantastically-capable cast who have reacted so enthusiastically to my changes. There were a lot of rewrites, late nights and cold coffee at midnight, but to see the play come to life in the hands of such a great bunch of actors has been a gift well worth losing sleep for.


MultitudesThis interview was first published by IdeasTap.

Multitudes by John Hollingworth is out now from Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

The play is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until 21 March.

Author photo by Mark Douet.