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Party Line

Arthur Miller wrote communist theater criticism under the pseudonym Matt Wayne. The discovery may realign views of his life and politics.

Ron Capshaw
January 12, 2012
Playwright Arthur Miller Testifying to House Subcommittee, June 21, 1956.(Bettmann/Corbis)
Playwright Arthur Miller Testifying to House Subcommittee, June 21, 1956.(Bettmann/Corbis)

When Arthur Miller died in 2005, obituary writers saluted his standing as one of America’s greatest playwrights and praised his moral courage for refusing to name names of Communist Party members before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, or HUAC. The New York Times called Miller’s refusal “a courageous act in an atmosphere of palpable fear” and lionized him as a liberal casualty of the McCarthy era because he “never joined the Communist Party.” BBC News seconded the idea that Miller was an innocent bystander in the HUAC hearings when they reported that “it was his liberal views” and not any Communist sympathies that “caught him in the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt.” The Guardian stated that it was The Crucible, his anti-McCarthy metaphorical play, and not any party card, that brought him before HUAC. The Nation predictably hailed him as a heroic liberal resister against the thought control posed by HUAC, and so on.

In the rush to hammer Miller into a non-Communist liberal mold, and thus show that domestic anti-communism was really directed against New Dealers, the obituary writers missed a key opportunity to get at the more complicated truth of the period—and of the playwright’s own life and political allegiances. Had they read his “heroic” testimony before HUAC, they would have come across Miller’s recollection of an essay he had written 10 years previously for a Marxist audience. Calling it the “best essay I ever wrote,” he recalled its thrust:

Great art, like science, attempts to see the present remorselessly and truthfully. If Marxism is what it claims to be, a science of society, then it must be devoted to the objective facts more. … The first job of a Marxist critic is to tell the truth.

It is a pity that HUAC didn’t ask Miller to elaborate. Had they done so, they would have found out that in addition to being a playwright, he was also Matt Wayne, theater critic for the New Masses from 1945 to ’46.

Like one of those Soviet spymasters in an Ian Fleming novel, Matt Wayne was never photographed going in or out of the New Masses offices. No autobiographical information was listed at the end of his essays. When the historian Alan Wald questioned Wayne’s colleagues at New Masses as to whether Wayne was Miller, they were still so dedicated to keeping Miller’s identity a secret that Wald had to turn off his tape recorder before they would answer his questions.

This deliberate secrecy understandably led Wald to focus on connecting Miller to Wayne. But lost in this quest was what Wayne/Miller represented. Wayne was more than a party pseudonym protecting up-and-comers like Miller from later repercussions. Wayne/Miller represented a brief period of perestroika for the ’40s-era American Communist Party.

Toward the end of World War II, the party would briefly attempt liberalization under its leader, Earl Browder. Unlike in the previous decade, where the only good art was proletarian—Malcolm Cowley, a fellow traveler and New Republic editor, saw adherence to communist orthodoxy as the only way to “write good history” and “good tragedy”—Browder’s movement toward peaceful accommodation with capitalism in 1944 gave hope to the more liberal authors in the party. Isidor Schneider, the editor of the New Masses, characterized the new editorial policy of the magazine to be the following: “No writer need worry about being politically correct if he won’t be faithful to reality.”

Enter the mysterious Matt Wayne in a period when Miller had abandoned play-writing. On the surface, Miller would seem the least-likely candidate for being Matt Wayne. During the war he had been furious at the party’s portrayal of capitalists as “the salt of the earth.” Wayne, however, gave him the freedom to air his views about steering the cultural policies of the American Communist Party away from the rigid “Art as a Weapon” phase and into the mainstream rules for literature. In a 1945 article, Wayne/Miller wrote what might have been the essay the playwright recalled before HUAC: “The authentic theatre will rise again when a playwright comes along who will face the dirtiest corners of the earth and will set about cleansing with real characters.” Nothing must prevent the “artist’s search for the truth,” for the “truth itself is political.”

Wayne/Miller wrote two dozen columns for the Masses from 1945 to ’46 and then dropped down the memory hole. The reasons may have had to do with the infamous Maltz episode. Albert Maltz, one of the party’s more liberalized screenwriters, published an essay titled “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” which criticized communist orthodoxy as “a straitjacket.” Surveying his and other comrades’ output over the previous decades, Maltz cited American Communist Party artistic rules as “restricted, narrow” and “turned away from life.”

Maltz followed Miller’s thesis, and he suffered for it. The reason had to do with when he wrote it: February 1946. In June 1945, four months after Miller’s essay, Earl Browder was cast out of the party and replaced with the rigid ideologue William Foster. Suddenly, a heresy hunt for “Browderism” was on, and Maltz became the target. The onslaught on Maltz was so intense that he recanted and wrote a “second thoughts” essay stating that he had been in “total error.”

Ironically, Miller was one of Maltz’s initial supporters. He even met with two Communists to debate whether to go public with their support but backed down. With Wayne in the trash heap, Miller subsequently moved from liberalism to Fosterism. Rather than opposing ideologues like Howard Fast (whose Marxism was so rigid that even Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was repelled), Miller now signed petitions on his behalf against the HUAC. In a 1949 New Masses symposium titled “Should Ezra Pound Be Shot?” Miller typified what George Orwell criticized as the party’s inability to separate good literature from a writer’s politics. Answering in the affirmative, Miller castigated the literary establishment for recognizing Ezra Pound’s ability as a poet.

This orthodoxy continued in 1953 with The Crucible. In later years, Miller admitted that the inspiration for the play was his belief in the innocence of the Rosenbergs, which makes the Salem metaphor even more problematic. Children turning in elders—and husbands and wives committing adultery with politically unreliable people, thus assuring their executions—was more a feature of the Stalinist purge trials than McCarthyism.

In his testimony before the HUAC, Miller stated that he “had never been under Communist discipline.” But his behavior as Wayne and then as Miller shows otherwise. As Wayne, he followed the Browder phase of perestrokia in literature. When the tide shifted away, Miller followed the Fosterite policy that the only good literature was the politically correct kind. Miller was not only a party member, he was also an obedient one, who was willing to submerge his own ideas of good literature and politics to the shifting vagaries of the party line.

Ron Capshaw is a writer living in Midlothian, Va.

Ron Capshaw is a writer living in Midlothian, Va.