Nick Hern on his conversations with Arthur Miller

HernToday, 17 October 2015, marks one hundred years since the birth of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest playwrights: Arthur Miller. In this extract from Mel Gussow’s book Conversations with Miller, which is published in a new Centenary Edition to celebrate the occasion, publisher and NHB founder Nick Hern shares his own memories of Miller – of his fierce intellect, but also of tennis matches, a shared love of cars, and helping to keep his reputation alive…

‘But you can’t call it Timebends, Arthur. That makes it sound like a science-fiction novel!’ It was 1985 and we were, of course, discussing Miller’s autobiography, which, as drama editor at Methuen, I had commissioned him to write.

‘Listen, Nick,’ he answered in his implacable drawl. ‘No one much liked Death of a Salesman as a title either. They said nobody would come to a play with death in the title, and who was interested in salesmen anyway?’

Well, there was no answer to that, and the autobiography was duly published – as Timebends – on 5 November 1987. Arthur liked hearing that this was – appropriately – Fireworks Day, just as he liked other quirky British-isms. Once when he and Inge [Morath, Miller’s third wife] and I were playing hooky from a conference in his honour at the University of East Anglia, we came across a signpost to the Norfolk village of Great Snoring – which provoked Much Grinning. And he would insist on referring to my own place of residence as Chiss-wick, always accompanied by a twinkle in the eye and that grin that would split his face in half. The last time I saw him alive – in November 2003 at the 92nd Street ‘Y’ in New York, where he had just given a public interview to a packed and (for him) overly reverential audience – the first thing he said to me was, ‘Hey, Nick, do you still live in that funny place, what was it?’ ‘Chiss-wick, Arthur?’ ‘Yeah, that’s it, Chiss-wick!’ And that grin again, totally belying his eighty-eight years.

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From left: Nick Hern, Arthur Miller, Christopher Bigsby

I first met Arthur Miller in the winter of 1983. Chris Bigsby [Miller’s biographer] had alerted me to the fact that there were some unpublished plays that pre-dated All My Sons, which he, Bigsby, was seeking to persuade Arthur to allow to be published. I put it to the powers that be at Methuen that if they stumped up for Chris and me to go on a transatlantic fishing trip, the catch might be some unpublished Arthur Miller. To their credit, they duly stumped up – and eventually they got their money back. But it wasn’t as simple a decision as it must now seem.

The general perception throughout the seventies was that Miller had gone off the boil, had not written anything much since After the Fall, and that even that play was badly flawed, being a self-seeking justification of his treatment of Marilyn Monroe. Americans, I think, actually blamed him somehow for her death, however much that ran counter to the facts. In Britain he was admired – and endlessly prescribed on O and A level syllabuses – as the author of The Crucible and Salesman, but otherwise he was pretty much a blank, past his best, possibly even dead. Far from it, of course.

As I got to know Arthur better, it emerged that not only were there the forgotten plays from the thirties, there were also much more recent plays which had had largely unregarded premieres in the States in what we would call the provinces ­– and then slipped from sight. So, back in London and with Arthur’s very active co-operation, I was able to publish in 1984 – for the first time anywhere in the world – The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and a double-bill of one-act plays, Two-Way Mirror, which brought the Arthur Miller canon up to date and which led eventually to the British premieres of these plays at the Bristol Old Vic (1986), and the Young Vic (1989) respectively. The covers, at Chris Bigsby’s suggestion, were adorned with arresting Escher drawings, another of which appeared two years later on the cover of a second double-bill, Danger: Memory!, published in advance of its world premiere at the Lincoln Center. It is now difficult to credit a situation where the recent work of a writer of the stature of Arthur Miller could as it were be lying around unpublished and unperformed. But such was the slump in his reputation.

The money Methuen initially lost on these publications ­– as I’ve indicated, they weren’t exactly snapped up by an eager public – was partly offset by two paperback collections of his work, Miller Plays: One and Two. Miller’s London agent, Elaine Greene, who I think was having a bit of a spat with Penguin at the time, alerted me to the fact that paperback anthologies were not specifically covered in Penguin’s publication contracts for Miller’s plays. It was a loophole I was glad to exploit. Arthur and I discussed what to put on the covers. The series that the volumes were destined for had made a point of finding a correspondence between the writer and a particular painter. The covers of Pinter’s plays, for instance, all featured Magritte. For Arthur’s work, I suggested Van Gogh, whose Potato Eaters in particular seemed to capture some of the implicitly campaigning sympathy for ordinary people to be found also in Arthur’s plays. ‘Too gloomy,’ he pronounced. Somewhat floored, I suggested instead the painter he was most close to: his and Inge’s daughter, then barely in her twenties. And so it is that these editions carried original artwork by the now distinguished novelist and filmmaker, Rebecca Miller ­– probably her first ever professional commission.

I saw a lot of Arthur throughout the eighties. He would come over to London quite frequently – with or without Inge – to see various productions of his plays. I particularly remember driving him down to Bristol for the British premiere of his 1944 play, The Man Who Had All the Luck. It was a lovely day (we had the roof off the car), and we were ahead of schedule, so I turned off the M4 to show him one of my favourite spots, the stone circle at Avebury. Entranced by its magic, we lost track of time. With the result that we found ourselves careening down the motorway well in excess of the speed limit so as not to miss curtain up. Arthur loved it. He was a man’s man when it came to cars and had been emphatic in his approval of my upgrade from a Ford Orion to this BMW convertible. Whenever I turned up at his house in Roxbury, Connecticut, one of his first questions was always: ‘What car are you driving now?’

My trips to Roxbury became even more frequent than his to London. He and Inge (and Inge’s mother) were generous but unfussy hosts, and I would always stay over, sometimes for more than one night. Often there were dinner parties gathered round the huge oval cherry-wood table that Arthur had fashioned himself from trees grown on his own land. I never quite got used to finding Richard Widmark or Volker Schlöndorf or Martha Clarke also at the table. But informality was the keynote. Inge and her mother did all the cooking themselves, much of it again from produce grown in their garden – though ‘garden’ doesn’t really cover it. The only grandiloquence of which Arthur could ever be accused was his evident pride in the fact that he had gradually bought more and more acreage surrounding his home until he could say, standing on the hill on whose summit sat the rangy timber-built house, that he owned all the land he could see. As a boy from Brooklyn, whose parents had been devastated by the Depression, this provided an enduring sense of security.

Just down the hill was a pool: not the bright-blue, purpose-built job of American suburbia, but a natural depression in the hillside filled from an underground spring. It was the freshest water I’ve ever swum in, and I’m sure that regular immersion in it contributed to Arthur’s healthful longevity.

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Arthur Miller and his wife, Inge Morath, at their Roxbury, Connecticut house. Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

He also played a mean game of tennis well into his seventies. An enthusiastic but not very practised latecomer to the game myself, I remember facing up to his serve in a doubles game which happened to feature another playwright, A.R. (Pete) Gurney, as Miller’s partner. With his racket an improbable – and surely unfair? – nine feet in the air at the point of impact, Arthur would send the ball across the net at a frankly unreturnable angle and velocity. I wasn’t invited to play again.

But my most treasured memory is of the visits made during the writing of the autobiography. We fell into a routine. I would drive up from the city arriving in time for lunch, after which Arthur would produce the pages he’d written since my last trip. I would then retire to his study – which was a log cabin away from the house – and sit on its porch in the sunshine luxuriating in Arthur’s rich and multi-layered life story. After I’d finished I’d make my way back to the house and join in with whatever the family and that evening’s guests were doing until dinner time. Because the book was to be co-published with Harper and Row in New York and because they were going to employ an editor to work with Arthur on the detail, my role was the blissfully simple one of providing support and encouragement during the actual writing – and discussing the occasional ‘big question’ of structure or tone. But there was never anything I found problematic: the book seemed to flow from him fully formed. My memory is that what I read, episode by episode on the porch in Roxbury, was, apart from the odd correction of a date or a name, the book that was published as Timebends.

My lasting impression of Arthur Miller is of a man of impressive intellect and wisdom who was at the same time a ‘regular guy’. A conversation with Arthur was one of the most stimulating experiences life could offer. Because of his droll matter-of-factness combined with wide-ranging erudition, I constantly felt a step or two behind, but the effort to keep up made me a better, wittier, more articulate conversational partner. Or so it seemed at the time. Arthur ‘turned me on’ more than than anyone else I’ve met. Plus there was always his only slightly world-weary sense of the ridiculous. His accounts of his and Harold Pinter’s trip to Turkey to protest at the torturing of writers or of his ironic jousting in Lithuania with Tankred Golenpolksy (whom he suspected of working for the KGB and whom I had also encountered in Moscow the previous winter) were as full of laughter as of outrage. Everyone knows how seriously he took politics and world affairs, but he enjoyed pricking pomposity and nailing vanity. He had a good joke about Norman Mailer, who was apparently renowned for looking himself up in the indexes of other people’s books. Arthur told of one book where, anticipating Mailer’s attentions, the relevant entry read simply: ‘Mailer, Norman – Hi Norm!’

Though famous, Arthur was not so well-known that he was unable to move around without being recognised. He would and could take public transport when he wanted. He told a story of waiting for the scheduled bus to take him from the airport in New York to upstate Connecticut. He asked the young man at the desk to be sure to tell him when the next bus was ready to depart. The young man went back to his book. Time passed. It became clear the young man had become so engrossed in his book that the bus had come and gone without his noticing. Arthur went to remonstrate and saw the title of the engrossing book: The Crucible. ‘Isn’t that something?’ Arthur would say as he came to the punchline. And his face would fall in half with that infectious grin.

FormattedThe above is an extract from Conversations with Miller by Mel Gussow. The new Centenary edition, also featuring a Foreword by Richard Eyre, is out now.

Read a further extract from Conversations with Miller on the Guardian website.

This essay was first published in Remembering Arthur Miller, edited by Christopher Bigsby (Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2005).

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2011 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition

Today marks the launch of the third Bruntwood Playwriting Competition – the UK’s biggest (and most lucrative) award for playwrights.

It doesn’t matter where you come from in the UK, whether you’ve never written before (or you’ve written a hundred plays), or what you want to write about.

Royal Exchange Manchester logoYou’ve got until 3rd June 2011 to submit a play to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, who organise the competition. One first-prize winner will win £16,000 and the offer of a year’s attachment at the Royal Exchange; three runners-up will be awarded £8,000 each. Some of the plays will also receive full, professional productions at the Royal Exchange. In addition, four of the previous competition winners whose plays have gone on to premiere there have been published by Nick Hern Books – and we are delighted to be offering the same again for this year’s winners.

Publication of these new writers has been an excellent way for us to add four distinctive new voices, and their superb debut plays, to our list. And we think it’s helped promote the writers’ work in the wider world. As Sam Pritchard, the Royal Exchange’s New Writing Associate, says: ‘Publishing the texts of those Bruntwood winners that have been produced at the Royal Exchange has been a crucial element of what the competition has to offer writers. Nick Hern Books’ editions of the plays help launch the lives of these plays after they have been staged, and are an important landmark in the careers of winning writers.’

For the rest of this week, each of the four playwrights published by NHB will be talking about the prize and the effect it had on their careers. First up tomorrow, the winner of the first competition in 2007, Ben Musgrave, for his play Pretend You Have Big Buildings. So make sure to check back tomorrow to read his post!