An artist is just a bad propagandist

Arthur Miller was appalled by the reception of his legendary play, Death of a Salesman. In his autobiography, “Timebends,” the playwright wrote about his deep disappointment when he realized the public adored the play’s protagonist, Willie Loman, and confessed he had intended to use the Loman character to expose “this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.” Instead, audiences across the world saw right through Miller’s plot, and embraced the folksy loser, the frustrated small-time dreamer they wept in empathy with; to Miller’s fury, in Loman many saw their own hard-working, struggling, all-deserving fathers.

Miller’s failure to bend the masses to his will is typical of the high-achieving artist: it took decades before anyone perceived what Theo Van Gogh meant to depict in his paintings, or before audiences started to consider Alfred Hitchcock’s movies as something more than thrilling entertainments. Miller was indisputably a man of great talents; and yet he was unable to make his vision perfectly clear to the average theater-goer: as Miller tries to show the futility of the upwardly-mobile bourgeois grasping at the spoils of pyrrhic middle-classdom, the theater-goer sees the Everyman’s tragedy, as he gives his heart and soul to the cause of family advancement. Instead of being enlightened about his condition, the theater-goer then holds his breath in awe as Loman climbs on top of that refrigerator, inch by painful inch, and rises in applause of the Greatest Generation-era man.

Death of a Salesman premiered in 1949 to great acclaim, and brought the author a Pulitzer Prize. In 1951, he met (and slept with) Marilyn Monroe. In 1952, deep disquiet the intrusive methods of the House Un-American Activities Committee led him to research the 1692 witch trials of Salem; Miller stopped talking to his former friend Elia Kazan, who had denounced eight acquaintances to the Committee as Communist Party sympathizers, and in 1953 The Crucible opened in Broadway.

The Crucible offset all of Miller’s disappointment with the public reception of Death of a Salesman. After a tepid early reaction, it went on to become Miller’s most-frequently produced work. New stagings of the play come out almost every year all over the world. The Crucible has reached that most hallowed status: that of a mandatory work of art that children must sit through and teenagers must talk about in art classes. More than a play, The Crucible is part of American literature, and an important window into not one but two different parts of American history: the Puritan era, and the Communist witch-hunt era which it describes through its Puritan characters.

Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever doubted that Miller succeeded perfectly with The Crucible, in Henry James’ definition of artistic success: that of attaining exactly the goal that the artist set out to accomplish. Miller wanted to denounce the hunt for Communist sympathizers in the American democracy, and Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against those even mildly supportive of the Soviet Union project. He wanted to pour scorn on the entire McCarthyite movement, and turn it into a byword for horror, excess and medieval darkness, so that future generations could never see it as anything other than a colossal mistake that threatened America’s own foundations. Without a doubt, Miller accomplished all of those goals.

The problem with The Crucible is that perfect, overwhelming success. The play educates perfectly, but leaves very little room for the reader to engage and for the critic to work with. It’s not that the characters are badly drawn, or—to use that most damning definition in criticism—one-dimensional. The characters are finely described, they feel real, they sound real. The play works perfectly as intended: one comes out of a showing of The Crucible feeling that this is exactly how they dealt with Communists in 17th century New England.

That perfection, paradoxically, is an argument against the play as a work of art. Authors often urge the public to look at the work, and not the man or the woman who made it possible. In an extension of Ancient Greece’s fiction that the Muses are to be blamed, and not the poor scribbler that they temporarily took over to carry their message, writers strive to tell the public not to look at the finger pointing at the moon. With The Crucible, the moon is perfectly round and shiny. Like a suit that has been washed too many times: excessively so.

To craft all that shiny roundness, Miller took plenty of liberties with the real-life story of the Salem witch-hunt trials. Most notably, he made Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder in the 1996 movie version) a 16- or 17-year old, instead of her real-life eleven. This allows sexual desire, a beloved 20th century plot driver, to become a pivotal element of the story: she’s presented as a former servant in the house of John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1996 movie), where she supposedly slept with him.

It’s Williams’ thwarted desire for an older man—of around thirty in the play; older than sixty in reality–who won’t leave his wife for her that sets The Crucible in motion. It’s Proctor’s effort to protect his family from the witch-hunt, rather than his religious beliefs, that drives much of the plot, as The Crucible’s Proctor appears to be fairly non-religious. There is no actual evidence that the historical Williams ever met the historical Proctor before the witch-hunt begun; there are ample reasons to believe that the historical Proctor, like pretty much every Puritan of his era, was strongly religious.

Of course, this is no way weakens The Crucible’s power as a work of art. The problem is the opposite: Miller’s embellishments—and there are many others, albeit of lesser relevance—conjure to make everything fall tidily into place. The modern audience is thus presented with a version of 17th century disputes that makes perfect sense even for anyone who knows nothing about Puritanism: lust and jealousy set a political conflict in motion, and the Communists/innocent citizens of Salem end up the victims of a (political) witch-hunt. No need for complex discussion of obscure social trends and impenetrable theology; the high school student can go home satisfied that he knows his lesson well.

Oxford historian Diane Purkiss has been one of the most perceptive modern critics of The Crucible’s depiction and misuse of the history of witch-hunting. In her 1996 study The Witch in History, she notes that The Crucible had a key role in constructing the modern myth of witch-hunting, as an ahistorical reading of early modern religious struggles that works as an all-purpose metaphor for modern causes:

The myth (of ) has become important, not because of its historical truth, but because of its mythic significance. What is that significance? It is a story with clear oppositions. Everyone can tell who is innocent and who guilty, who is good and who bad, who is oppressed and the oppressor. It offers to identify oppression, to make it noticeable. It legitimates identification of oppression with powerful institutions, and above all with Christianity… This witch-story explains the origins and nature of good and evil.”

There is also one other important point: as Miller knew perfectly well, there may have been no-real life witches making love potions and casting spells; but there were real-life Communists. This doesn’t mean that McCarthy was right in chasing them: it simply means that the allegory is false at its very root.

And yet, the problem with The Crucible is not falsity. Death of a Salesman is much more false than The Crucible, since it’s entirely fictitious. There were witch trials in Salem, and they almost certainly involved the well-known, toxic mixture of women’s oppression, political imposition and social score-settling that The Crucible describes. The story is much embellished, but one can say that The Crucible contains, at the very least, a few grains of truth.

The problem with The Crucible is effectiveness. The play delivers exactly what it promises, and no more. All of the best literature, Death of a Salesman included, goes beyond the message intended by the writer—indeed, it all goes well beyond the writer as a creator, so that one doesn’t need to know anything about the writer, or his/her reasons to write, to appreciate the work. The Crucible doesn’t stand alone: it’s a perfect artefact of American, 20th century views on political inclusiveness. It’s a message from 1953 that critics living in the distant future will have no problem to decode: you see, Miller very reasonably disliked McCarthysm, and he twisted a story of witch-hunt a little bit to make a political point; nothing to be seen here, let’s move on.

The Crucible is doomed to remain mandatory, like so much of Mark Twain’s oeuvre, so that kids know what’s right and what isn’t. Death of a Salesman will remain optional–true literature, to be enjoyed in public or in secret by all those who wonder whether Willie Loman is a fool or a hero, a victim or his very worst enemy. The artist in Miller was in evidence only when the political activist failed to deliver the message as intended; literature came out of garbled propaganda.

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Bad Propaganda, Essays and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to An artist is just a bad propagandist

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  4. spottedtoad says:

    I’m glad somebody else had the same reaction to these two works as me: the Crucible was what we got dragged off to see as 5th graders, and there was no doubt the messages we were supposed to take away from it; Death of a Salesman I read sometime or another and then saw when two people I knew were performing in it, and it seemed a work of perfect anguish and sadness, each of the characters rising above themselves into something mythic and tragic.

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  5. David Roman says:

    The Crucible really feels mandatory,even when you choose to go see it; that’s the worst thing about it.

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