Let’s play a familiar parlor game: Is so-and-so, indisputably Jewish by birth, a “Jewish writer”? The subject this time is Arthur Miller, who was born in New York City one hundred years ago this week. Miller almost never wrote Jewish characters and had a faint, uninformed disdain for both Jewish observance and traditional Eastern European Jewish culture. So, what’s the point of calling him a Jewish writer?
A new Yiddish-language production (with English supertitles) of Death of a Salesman, Miller’s most famous play, argues that Miller should be added to the canon of Jewish literature. But though the New Yiddish Rep’s Toyt fun a Seylsman is a fine, better-than-workmanlike production, there’s still little reason to see Salesman as a Jewish play. The truth is rather the opposite: To win his place on the stage Miller had to cast aside “Jewishness” and become as American as he could be. With few exceptions, his characters don’t look or sound like Jews. There’s the nebbishy, studious Bernard in Salesman, but he’s just a minor foil for the enormous pathos of Willy Loman and his son Biff. Miller’s leftism and his anguished response to the Holocaust were typically Jewish, but these political feelings aren’t the core of his work—in contrast to his red-flag-waving rival Clifford Odets, whose rudderless common-man lyricism Miller disliked.
Miller’s plays focus on deluded American dreamers who are utterly alone in the world. Like Gatsby, they come from nowhere. Like Charles Foster Kane, they accuse the world even while they shake with self-doubt. They lie to themselves out of neediness. With their enormous thirst to be loved, Miller’s men and women are just as fragile as they are grandiose.
Miller’s true precursor, then, was not any Jewish writer but that maniacal, depressive genius Eugene O’Neill. Willy Loman clearly descends from O’Neill’s salesman Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, with his savage unquenchable assault on “pipe dreams.” But Hickey was a master manipulator, while Willy is soft, tenuous. Miller called Willy “a joker, a bleeding mass of contradictions, a clown,” but no one laughs much anymore at Willy’s jokes. He knows that the gods have stranded him, that his charm has run out.
Still, any Willy Loman worth his salt will have a glimmer of the old magic about him. In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller wrote about meeting Lee J. Cobb, the first actor to play Willy, a big man whose cheerful hail-fellow laugh echoed with a deep unhappiness. In a diner, Cobb looked up and smiled at the young waitress as if, Miller said, she had to be seduced into bringing him his turkey sandwich. Above all, Miller said, when he met Cobb he was moved by “so large and handsome a man pretending to be thoroughly at ease in a world where he obviously did not fit.”
In the current Yiddish production, Avi Hoffman has the battered dignity of a classic Willy Loman, but it’s hard to think of him as a charmer, even a depleted one. When he yells “I’m Willy Loman!” he doesn’t measure up to the giant forms of the greatest Lomans, Brian Dennehy, Dustin Hoffman, and Cobb. But these are tough boots to fill, and this Hoffman is probably wise not to try. He has his own more modest authority, as does Suzanne Toren’s Linda, who is a strong, even stark presence on stage in the way Miller intended. The two climactic confrontations between Willy and his son Biff (played with fine masculine heft by the klezmer musician and actor Daniel Kahn) are a little rushed and so are not as painfully unsettling as they should be. Still, the New Yiddish Rep’s Salesman would be worth seeing even in English. Which raises a question: Why are we seeing it in Yiddish?
In 1951 the Yiddish actor Joseph Buloff made an unauthorized Yiddish translation of Salesman and put it on in Buenos Aires to a large audience. Miller, who knew no Yiddish, approved Buloff’s translation for a later Brooklyn production. The translation, now revived by the New Yiddish Rep under Moshe Yassur’s direction, has its enjoyable turns for those who know their way around Yiddish, and the actors give their roles some properly heymishe kinks. Willy’s boss Howard, played by Adam Shapiro, is a fussy nudnik. Shane Baker’s Charley has the Jewish businessman’s brisk realism: “Shpil vi a mentsh,” he tells Willy, slapping down another hand of pinochle.
A few years ago, Baker translated Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with ingenuity and profound wit. In Baker’s version Didi and Gogo became Eastern European Jews waiting for the end of their endless exile. Their resilient Jewish humor brought out something in Beckett, who after all wrote into Endgame a classic Jewish joke about a tailor and a pair of pants. Under Yassur’s direction the New Yiddish Rep’s Vartn af Godot made its mark.
Godot’s morose vaudeville turns lent themselves in Baker’s treatment to the melancholic playfulness of a Talmudic nusach and to old gibes about waiting for moshiach. But Willy Loman doesn’t play with words: Miller’s most brilliant move was to make him fumble in his speech. Willy doesn’t love to listen to himself—this was Miller’s shrewd swerve against O’Neill’s influence. Willy’s “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit” might be Salesman’s most famous line, and it is deliberately blunted and ineloquent. Willy is too wounded to come up with a really good metaphor, so he grabs at one that seems more or less right.
Full disclosure time: My own father, before finding his decades-long job adding up numbers in Accounts Receivable, was a salesman for a while. He never learned to exploit his genial personality to win clients, nor could he ever match his clients drink for drink. Death of a Salesman, like Mamet’s American Buffalo, brings back bad memories, and I avoided the play for many years. When I finally read it, I found to my relief that Willy Loman resembled my father not at all. Miller’s cruelest, most effective twist was to have Willy pretend, and even halfway believe, that there’s no success like failure, and so killing yourself for insurance money is a winning stratagem. Like most of us, my father mercifully lacked Willy’s strenuous fantasy-fed heart.
Miller’s Willy fathered untold numbers of postwar American fiction’s stuck-at-home drifters, legions of men and women so deeply and vaguely dissatisfied that they can’t even properly describe their anomie. From Salinger to Ann Beattie to Jonathan Franzen, they march on, this endless line of poor-in-spirit kvetchers. At least Willy had real financial problems to point to. For most of his successors, the problem is a happiness defect, a sort of vitamin deficiency of the soul. “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself”: Miller once said that Willy Loman’s line summed up his own feeling about his life. For better or worse, it also sums up much of current American literature.
Miller grew up in Jewish Harlem in the twenties, the son of the country’s leading ladies’ coat merchant. First Miller’s father became hugely rich and then dead broke after Wall Street crashed, so that young Arthur had to work a series of menial jobs to keep the family afloat. The elder Miller rose to his peak from an inauspicious start: Suspected of idiocy as a child, he had been left in an orphanage in Poland while the rest of his family escaped to America. Isidore Miller remained a functional illiterate throughout his life and so ignorant of basic science that he was surprised to learn the earth wasn’t flat. “I simply did not belong to this family,” Miller remembered thinking at the age of about 12, shortly before sleepwalking through his bar mitzvah.
As a child, the young Arthur Miller dreamed of escaping his family, just as his father had. “In pulp novels and movies and comic strips,” Miller recalled in his autobiography Timebends, “boys left home with a notched stick from which hung a napkin containing all their earthly goods plus, probably, a sandwich.” Many years later the boy, wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, would visit his parents and forgive them for his dreary childhood. This was a classic American fantasy, and Miller drank it down eagerly, Huck Finn-style. The teenage Miller, like Biff Loman, became something of a star athlete in high school. In those days, he didn’t much care for books. With no attachment to Jewish customs, estranged from family life, he was in all ways an American kid more than he was a Jewish one.
Death of a Salesman is not all there is to Miller. We can leave aside the grade-school preachiness of Miller’s anti-McCarthy allegory The Crucible, still vastly popular, and his first hit, All My Sons, which was badly damaged by its moralizing conclusion. A View From the Bridge, based on the playwright’s observations of the Italian longshoremen in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is also being revived this month, at New York’s Lyceum Theatre, and it’s top-rank Miller. The play is a dead-pure piece of verismo, the most restrained thing Miller ever wrote, but full of fury too as it hurtles toward its violent ending. But A View From the Bridge is not, finally, Miller’s full testament as an author. That place must go to the movie The Misfits, which Miller described as his “gift of words” to his wife, Marilyn Monroe.
When Miller was writing the script for The Misfits, the story of a few rodeo cowboys who plan to capture some wild horses and sell them for dog food, his marriage to Monroe had already begun to crack up. (Fittingly, the story takes place in Nevada, where Monroe’s character goes to get divorced, and where Miller had gone to divorce his first wife.) The marriage wouldn’t survive the making of the movie, which was touch and go due to Monroe’s cracked psyche and lack of self-confidence. The director, John Huston, had to stop filming for a while so that Marilyn could go into rehab for barbiturate addiction. She came back and finished the movie brilliantly.
Marilyn shakes up The Misfits’ viewer, who realizes that her fluttery nerves are all too real. Sometimes she floats a little out of focus, a tremor in her voice and gestures, only to snap back with a straight shooter’s grace and pass sentence on life, love, and men. Surrounded by three distinct icons of manliness—Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach—Marilyn spars superbly, but she is also dangerously exposed. Part of us wants to look away, because we know how much she is risking just by being there.
Marilyn’s performance in The Misfits reveals that she had replaced Willy Loman as the real emblem of America for Arthur Miller. Marilyn could be “street-tough one moment” and then a minute later show the naiveté and directness of a child, Miller wrote in his autobiography, and he added, “She was a living rebuke to anyone who didn’t care.” Yet she knew that caring would never redeem people. At the end of the fifties, Miller said, “Pointlessness was life’s principle, and it spread its sadness.” Because Marilyn had the sadness so deep inside, because it infected her happiness even more than it did Willy Loman’s, she became Miller’s American muse, a bleeding contradiction. Willy was too worried and guilty to ever be innocent. But Marilyn was pure, she had the unbleached virgin soul of a Hester Prynne—though Hawthorne’s heroine always kept her guard up, a skill Marilyn never learned.
The true marvel—Monroe’s gift to Miller—was in the dialogue he wrote for The Misfits. Under Marilyn’s influence, Miller invented for her a perfect noir style, crackling with hard-as-nails wit, but shot through with great tenderness too, in a way almost never seen in American film noir. On her ex-husband, Marilyn’s character Roslyn says, “He wasn’t there; you could touch him, but he wasn’t there,” and you can tell she is genuinely wondering, not just cracking an easy joke. Then she adds, “If I’m going to be alone, I want to be by myself,” and she wraps her soul around Miller’s deadpan line.
“Honey, nothing can live unless something dies,” Gable’s cowboy Gay Langley says, melting a little, to Roslyn in The Misfits. What Miller had of Jewish culture died so he could find his true voice in Reno, Nevada, a place full of blue jeans, bucking steers, whiskey and, best of all, saddest of all, the most American woman who ever lived.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.