Theatre: the most political art

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American playwright Arthur Miller, who died last week, once said he “imagined that with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do.” Was this the ego of an artist stuck in his genre? Would a novelist or poet say the same of a novel or poem?

I'd rather think he was arguing for theatre as the art that needs a live social reality — actors and audience — even as it represents things not real (death, the past etc.). Theatre is social, like human beings, while “literature” moves away from the social; it isolates writer, work and reader from each other. So theatre is not a branch of literature; it is literature's eternal foe. Even a play about the most isolated individual, such as a salesman who dies a sad death, is more inherently social and thus political than a novel about war or revolution. In this sense, theatre has more in common with rock concerts than with literature.

Arthur Miller was a leftist, his views formed in the 1930s, when those traditionally in power had discredited themselves by letting the economy rot while fascism rose. “For the first time,” he wrote, “unpolitical people began thinking of common action as a way out of their impossible conditions.” In a theatre, people already are a group with the potential for action. But when you read a book, you are immobilized, passive, cut off from others. For that reason, Jean-Paul Sartre called theatre the most political art. What Arthur Miller did was to individualize the social quality of theatre, without forgetting it.

He saw his play Death of a Salesman as a tragedy, though classical tragedies had noble heroes. Critic Nathan Cohen disagreed, not because salesmen can't be tragic but because Willy Loman is “enveloped in self-pity and resignation.” He “never questions the social values of his world” or challenges “nature and society.” In the end, he learns nothing, nor do we. It was trenchant criticism. But Arthur Miller had another issue in mind.

What he discovered in the Depression — and everywhere — was a deep human need to assert “a sense of personal dignity.” He considered this the “inner dynamic of all tragedy.” He saw it in revolutions and union drives, but also in the pathetic flailing of Willy Loman. It was often bound to fail, yet was inextinguishable. It has the nature of a biological drive. People battle on even when they know they won't succeed — collectively or alone. Here is Victor Serge, who fought for and was betrayed by Bolshevism: “Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray . . . massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us.”

Arthur Miller felt awe before this impulse and had the genius to depict it across the range of human experience. (As the son of a salesman, I still have trouble distinguishing some scenes in his play from events in my life.) His insight outlasts him.

What led to the loss of the NHL season? Not mere greed. The players felt they could go so far and no more, or lose dignity. I might even grant something similar to owners, though it hurts to say. Why else do Wal-Mart workers join a union and stick with it when they are almost certain to lose their jobs? What about suicide bombers, many of whom are not religious fanatics seeking a reward in heaven? Isn't that a claim to dignity, along with motives like hate and despair? What about kids in the Mideast who see soldiers burst into their homes and humiliate their parents, who for understandable reasons do not fight back? The need to assert dignity is, on the spot, transmitted to the next generation.

Arthur Miller suffered some posthumous indignity when he was widely described as Marilyn Monroe's ex-husband. A U.S. columnist compared our era unfavourably with his heyday, because Americans today “seem to have less tolerance for those who spend their time wrestling with important and complex matters.” I imagine Arthur Miller, often ridiculed as an “egghead” back in 1950s America, would have smiled his wry, dignified smile.

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