Veteran biographer Martin Gottfried has been hard on some of his previous subjects, but the edge that made his portraits of Bob Fosse and Danny Kaye seem gratuitously nasty is nicely tempered here by his evident respect for the man whose work helped form the framework for modern American theater.

Veteran biographer Martin Gottfried has been hard on some of his previous subjects, but the edge that made his portraits of Bob Fosse and Danny Kaye seem gratuitously nasty is nicely tempered here by his evident respect for the man whose work helped form the framework for modern American theater.

Gottfried’s less-than-reverential assessment of Miller’s character and some of his work provides a welcome balance to the occasionally ponderous solemnity of the playwright’s public pronouncements, without questioning his right to take himself seriously. “People who are as smart, talented and acclaimed as Arthur Miller are not likely to be endearing,” Gottfried sensibly notes, “but rather immodest, even arrogant and perhaps inevitably self-centered.”

Thinking of himself first and declining to solve other people’s problems — an important theme in his plays — probably saved Miller during his marriage to the increasingly self-destructive Marilyn Monroe. Gottfried’s nuanced account, fair to both parties, shows a man very much in love with his wife who nonetheless began to distance himself from her as he concluded she was beyond his help. A funnier, earthier side of his personality comes across in letters to Elia Kazan, Miller’s closest friend and best director of his work until Kazan’s HUAC testimony estranged them. (Miller himself risked jail and refused to give names.)

It’s to Miller’s credit that, although he declined as usual to be interviewed about his life, he gave the author access to and permission to quote from such revealing unpublished material.

Passages like these provide a human-interest counterpoint to Gottfried’s lengthy exegeses of Miller’s plays from the time he established himself with “All My Sons” in 1947 through the scandalous premiere of “After the Fall,” savaged by critics in 1964 as a mean-spirited portrait of the recently dead Monroe, and the American failure of subsequent works like “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” received far more favorably in England. His rejection on the commercial stage hurt Miller, who in Gottfried’s view was from the beginning of his career “poised between the academy and Broadway, respectful of one, in love with the other.”

Happily, the book closes with the playwright, now 87, securely established as figure of historic importance in the American theater and an honorable voice for political conscience as well. Without ignoring Miller’s private faults, Gottfried’s appreciative biography reminds us how substantial his public achievements have been.

Arthur Miller: His Life and Work

Da Capo Press; 496 pgs.; $30

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Martin Gottfried
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