Arthur Miller is widely perceived to be serious, solemn and Lincolnesque. Yet “Conversations with Miller,” brilliantly crafted and compiled by New York Times writer Mel Gussow, points out that the playwright’s humor is often overlooked. Elia Kazan, director of “All My Sons” and “Death Of a Salesman,” has referred to him as “an amusing man.” Gussow illuminates every facet of the author’s personality — his dry wit, innate fairness, fearlessness when fighting for his convictions and above all, his honesty.
What keeps Miller going, even in his upper 80s, is “trying to bring order to this chaos,” though he admits that “success is the great man eater. Surviving it is as hard as attaining it.” He was always alert to socially significant stories, and his breakthrough 1947 hit, “All My Sons” centered on the evil of war profiteering. The show, developed from an idea by his former mother in law, was vigorously championed by New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson and won a Drama Critics Circle Award.
Legendary success followed with the Pulitzer prize winning “Death Of a Salesman” in 1949, although Miller was deeply disturbed that Lee J. Cobb, the definitive Willy Loman, abandoned the show after four months to pursue inferior film roles.
In 1984, Dustin Hoffman did his own, distinctive take on the Willy Loman part. Miller expresses tremendous admiration for Hoffman’s “cocky little guy” interpretation of a character generally portrayed by much larger men, applauding Hoffman’s meticulous, detailed and original approach.
Inevitably, the playwright’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe is analyzed, and Miller speaks with refreshing directness. Although he talks of her “devastating charm,” he regards her as a totally tragic figure who aroused mass protectiveness but was beyond help. Monroe’s unhealthy, paralyzing dependency on Lee Strasberg is delineated, as well as her hostile relationship with “Prince and the Showgirl” co-star Laurence Olivier. Some of the facts are familiar, but the beauty of Miller’s remarks lies in his realistic, movingly affectionate portrait of a woman who brought him so much joy and pain.
Miller takes pride in the veracity of his 1987 autobiography, “Timebends,” as opposed to Lillian Hellman’s tendency to “write fiction and call it fact.” Defining Group Theatre colleague Harold Clurman, he calls him “a spieler” who enchanted performers with acting lectures even though nobody could repeat a word he said.
Gussow highlights Miller’s generosity when the playwright is quoted as saying he hoped rival Tennessee Williams would have big hits. Unexpected details are included, such as the writer’s stint as pop singer with his own radio program. Gussow draws out frank political comments (“Now that I see Bush, I think Reagan was a genius”) and elicits unguarded observations such as Miller’s estimate of the Actor’s Studio: “I always felt it was a training ground for television and movies, if that.” One priceless anecdote concerns a Pennsylvania congressman who promised to call off Miller’s HUAC hearing if Marilyn would take a picture with him.
Acknowledged classics — “View From the Bridge,” “The Crucible,” “The Price” — are covered, along with “After the Fall,” “Incident at Vichy” and “The American Clock.” Asked whether he regrets writing any of these plays, Miller offers the reader eloquent insight into an artist’s nature when he says, “It’s like regretting you lost your hair. They’re part of my life. I can’t possibly think of not having written one of them.”