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.

Hern, Miller & Bigsby

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 Chris Bigsby [Miller’s biographer] had alerted me to the fact that there were some unpublished plays that pre-dated All My Sons, which he, Bigsby, was seeking to persuade Arthur to allow to be published.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be at Methuen that if they stumped up for Chris and me to go on a transatlantic fishing trip, the catch might be some unpublished Arthur Miller.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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Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim , 1930–

In the fifth and final part of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim’s shows include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd,Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Assassins, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. I interviewed him in a hotel room in New York. He had a show in workshop—Wise Guys, later renamed Road Show [currently receiving its European premiere in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory]—so he was writing at night and rehearsing by day, but his energy seemed undimmed.

You met Oscar Hammerstein when you were around thirteen?
I was thirteen exactly. When I was fifteen he took me to the first night of Carousel in New Haven. He took me and his son Jimmy, who was a year younger than I, and it was during our spring vacation at school so we were able to do it. I don’t even remember when I saw Oklahoma!: it certainly wasn’t on the first night, and I’m not sure how close I was to the family by the time Oklahoma! opened. I was close but not as close as I was in Carousel, because I remember that one of the high points of my childhood was being asked for advice on Carousel, when he and Rodgers were writing it. They wanted the opening of the second act to be this treasure hunt on the island, and I was into treasure hunts, so I was the treasure hunt consultant.

He’d give you brilliant advice subsequently.
Yes, he—that dreadful word—he critiqued my work. I showed him everything I wrote from the age of fifteen on, and he treated it absolutely on a level with professional work. He never pretended for one second that I was a child: he just treated it seriously, and I learned a great deal very quickly. I’ve said before: as a result of Oscar I think I probably knew more about writing musicals at the age of nineteen than most people do at the age of ninety.

What was he like?
He was exactly the reverse of the image of his lyrics. He was a very sharp city boy, as opposed to somebody who sat on a porch with a stick of hay in his teeth and looked at the cattle. Which he also did. But he was a very good critic and very sharp-tongued. Not mean but sharp. He was in fact a sophisticated man. I once asked him why he didn’t write sophisticated musicals, and he said: you mean musicals that take place in penthouses with people smoking with cigarette holders? I said: well, yes, if you want to put it that way. He said: because it really doesn’t interest me. And in fact it didn’t: what interested him was quite the reverse of what his life was like. Not that he was a partygoer or anything like that, but he was a sophisticate. He was enormously kind and generous, and a true idealist and a true optimist. What he writes about often in his lyrics, that did fit him: he was an optimist. I won’t say he always looked on the lighter side, but he believed in the better part of mankind not in the worse. And he did not die a disillusioned man.

Did the book musical come into being as a result mostly of Oscar Hammerstein’s work?
Prior to Showboat, musicals were essentially collections of jokes and songs, and even after Showboat most of them were. Hammerstein virtually alone pioneered the idea of trying to tell a story through music, trying to meld the European operetta influence and the American freewheeling jazz musical-comedy influence—I shouldn’t say influence, but, he melded those two streams of presentation into one. Which resulted in a kind of American operetta. From Showboat to Music in the Air and through the 1930s, his star rose and fell, and he resuscitated it with Oklahoma! when he teamed up with Richard Rodgers, who brought a different kind of sensibility. Jerome Kern, with whom he did most of the shows, was very much a European composer. Rodgers was much more a kind of American vernacular composer. And the result of that was Oklahoma! And Oklahoma!, though today it seems very naive as a story and rather naive in terms of the depth of the characters, nevertheless, because of its enormous success, influenced musicals ever since. Innovative musicals mean nothing if they aren’t successful, because nobody pays attention to them. If, for example, Threepenny Opera had been a success in this country, musicals might have matured much more quickly. It was only when it was done off-Broadway in the early fifties that the Brechtian musical came into being. But the book musical really can almost solely be attributed to Hammerstein’s efforts.

Is it a question that can be answered with the book musical whether the music or the book comes first?
No, I think the book always comes first in this kind of musical. It has to be the story and the characters that propel both the song aspect and the need for song. Why should they sing? It has to be a group of characters and a story that you’re not just enhancing by adding songs but in which musical expression becomes intrinsic. I think any good musical starts with the book, the libretto, the idea, the story, the characters. I can’t work on anything until I’ve discussed for weeks and sometimes months with my collaborator what the story is, why is music needed, why is music intrinsic as opposed to decorative, and what will music do to the story. When I was writing Sunday in the Park with George, I was really frightened that the music would tear the delicate fabric of what James Lapine was trying to get at in terms of the creation of a painting. You must start with libretto, all the strong musicals have strong stories. One of the reasons that West Side Story attained its popularity—apart from the success of the movie, because it was not all that popular when it was done on the stage on Broadway—is that the story is such a good story. Something happens all the time.

With the exception of you taking the musical in a different direction, why did the book musical die?
Oh, it hasn’t died it’s merely gotten swollen. The so-called sung-through musicals… Les Mis is a book musical. If you’re talking about the musical in which there’s speech and song, speech and song, it didn’t die so much as become subsumed by the success of the sung-through musicals, mainly stemming from Britain. And audiences now are very used to the sung-through musical. But whatever you think of the book, the Disney musicals have books. And Ragtime is a book. It’s not dead: in fact, more likely, the sung-through musical is on the way to either being transformed or being dropped for a while.

It got disconnected from popular culture with the coming of rock ’n’ roll.
The effect of rock ’n’ roll on musicals is the equivalent of the effect of television on theatre or movies on theatre. It’s made both musicals and theatre in general—I don’t say a cottage industry, but you know, it’s no longer the only game in town, it’s not even the major game in town, theatre. It’s a—I want to avoid the word ‘elitist’—but it does appeal to and attract fewer people, at least in this country [USA] than it used to. I mean, what’s deplorable about the American theatre on Broadway is: you look at the list and it’s twenty-four musicals and two plays. And in London the last time I counted it was fourteen musicals and eight plays. That’s not good. Now the off-Broadway theatre and the fringe theatre is very much alive, and people are writing plays, but not an awful lot of people can fit into a two-hundred-and-fifty-seat house—two hundred and fifty people can fit in—for six weeks, which is what you have in London in the fringe theatres. So how many people are gonna get to see that play? Unless it transfers to the West End, which few of them do. And the same thing is true here. So I fear it’s not so much the death of the book musical as the gradual fade of theatre and musical theatre. I don’t think that we’ll ever fade entirely, because I think there’s always a hunger for live storytelling. But it’s never going to be kind of the central entertainment again, it just isn’t.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is the final instalment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre’ special, featuring edited extracts from Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People. The full interview with Stephen Sondheim is published in the new paperback edition of the book. To order your copy at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Alan Bennett

In Part Four of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews playwright and actor Alan Bennett. 

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett, 1934–

He has become part of the (quintessentially English) family, a familiar face, a national institution, adjectival: ‘Very Alan Bennett,’ people say. I interviewed him in the basement kitchen of my house. He wasn’t at his happiest when talking about his own work. He’s revealed a ‘self’ in his plays and his diaries, but when he was sitting in my kitchen uneasily facing the prospect of an interrogation, the ‘self’ couldn’t be disguised as a fictional persona. But he rallied generously and answered my questions with a practised ease.

What were your earliest experiences of theatre? When I was a boy in Leeds I used to go every Saturday matinée and see whatever it was that was on offer. Nowadays that would mean very little, because I think it’s mostly opera now and plays don’t tour in the way they did. But in those days you would get West End plays with their original cast coming round after their West End production. I saw a very peculiar collection of plays there. Of course, in my mind they weren’t distinguished one from the other; they were just things that turned up at the Grand every Saturday afternoon. They were all mixed together in my mind. I didn’t see them as school of this or school of that. They were just plays. I saw some Shakespeare, plays like Black Chiffon with Flora Robson, Daphne Laureola with Edith Evans, a play about a Labour colonial Governor with Eric Portman, His Excellency. And then I began to see plays like Waiting for Godot.

What impression did that make?
I didn’t find it at all mystifying, and I didn’t find it so plotless. I may have found it a bit dull, but then I often found plays dull. I found it quite funny as well.

But did you have any sense that it was a play about post-war Europe?
I was too young probably to think in those terms then. I just thought it was a play about very peculiar people, but then so was Black Chiffon in my view. They weren’t like people I knew.

In the fifties were you at all conscious of the Holocaust and the Bomb?
I remember in August 1945, when we were living in Guildford very briefly, coming back with the Evening News and reading about the first atomic bomb. And also in Guildford I saw the terrible newsreels not of Auschwitz, of Dachau, because I can remember it went up on the screen that children should be taken out of the cinema. And the trouble was in those days you had to queue for the cinema so long that nobody left—they didn’t want to lose their seats. So I saw that. But in a way the consciousness both of the Bomb and of the Holocaust occurred in a way ten, fifteen years after they happened. CND and so on. I once or twice went on CND marches.

When writing your plays, do you simply follow your nose with subject matter?
It seems to me what happens is that you’ve got something that niggles you, you’ve got something that you can’t resolve. In Forty Years On I think it was knowing that I was very conservative with a small ‘c’ and radical in other ways—knowing that these two feelings and concerns existed and not being able to reconcile them. And the play is an attempt to reconcile them. It’s also an attempt to write a funny play about a school. The plays about spies, I suppose, are an attempt to settle my ambiguous feelings about England. Of affection and identification, but at the same time feeling alienated from it. Every play I’ve written seems to me slightly to the side of the play I wanted to write. Maybe if you ever wrote a play that you actually intended to write then you won’t write any more plays. I always think that about The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s an absolutely perfect play, and I know it was Wilde’s last play because of the circumstances, but I think it probably would have been his last play anyway. Most plays are nearly completed circles and the production completes the circle, makes it a whole. The Importance of Being Earnest is completed there on the page; there’s nothing much you can do with it. It’s a wonderful play and absolutely perfect, but for that reason I think it marks the end of his artistic endeavour.

The thing that all your plays have in common is a view about class as the sort of engine of English society. Have you always felt that you’re imprisoned in it?
It’s never bothered me, I don’t long for a classless society. Since my strength is in dialogue, in the sense of hearing the cadences of people’s speech and so on, which is ineluctably bound up with class, you can’t separate the two. Of course, it would be disastrous if everything were flattened out. It used to bother me when I was younger; I’m still very awkward for some reason in the presence of the aristocracy—they reduce me to being seventeen again—but it’s not out of any undue respect for them. [laughs] I don’t know, but there’s something goes wrong there. But class doesn’t really bother me. I’m not a crusader anyway, but it’s not something that I’d want to see the end of. I can’t see how somebody of my generation writes as if one were outside it.

What did the 1945 election mean to you in the fifties? Did you have a sense that life was going to get better?
I was a terrible Tory when I was young. I was awful: conformist and censorious and full of religiosity. I was an awful youth, looking back. But I look back to the period 1945–51 as a kind of golden age. It’s absurd to say that, because it was the most drab and austere period. There was no colour in the world really, and there was no choice in the shops. Life seemed to be very simple then, and people very innocent. Again and again I find that period crops up. The pictures I like are often pictures from the late forties. And then, of course, at the end of the decade there’s this wonderful explosion of the Festival of Britain, when suddenly there was colour and design, and you thought that this was a vision of what the world was going to be like, when it wasn’t quite, of course. But it occurs in Getting On, my second play, where there’s a long speech about what life was like then and about the making of the Health Service. It’s deeply nostalgic, but it is something that I do feel strongly about.

What is it about theatre that attracts you?
I suppose I go to the theatre thinking anything may happen. I mean, quite apart from the play, somebody might collapse on the stage. I know that seems frivolous, but I think that’s an element in what an audience is there for—the possibility of disaster. And the possibility of triumph as well, but it’s the uncertainty. Having performed, I know the sheer terror of it: it is quite a perilous proceeding. If you’re in an audience and something goes wrong on the stage—you know, somebody dries, say, or whatever—the audience is like a cat suddenly seeing a bird: it’s on to it. There’s a huge tension in the auditorium. Quite frightening. I do think of an audience as slightly like a wild beast.

What is it that draws you to writing for the theatre?
I suppose it’s writing dialogue—I mean, plots are far harder to write for me than dialogue. And if you’re writing dialogue then obviously—unless you want to write like Henry Green, say, and write novels entirely in dialogue—you’re drawn to the theatre or to television. It’s as simple as that, really.

Is it also that whatever you do in the theatre it can’t be abstracted? There’s always going to be a human being.
There has to be a human being from my point of view, because they talk, and talk is what I’m interested in, and talk is what I deal in. It seems to me, when you talk about the future of the theatre and so on, it has a future so long as somebody’s going into a room and sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and trying to write lines that somebody else is going to say.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Alan Bennett. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW for the final installment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre special’. Tomorrow’s post will feature celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim pondering ‘the death of the book musical’…