Printer Friendly

Arthur Miller's sojourn in the heartland.

The history of midwestern drama is one of identity masking and regional cross-fertilization. Quintessentially midwestern playwrights like Susan Glaspell and William Inge made their way East to pursue theatrical opportunities. In Glaspell's case, despite a staunch loyalty to her home region, fame came largely through her association with the Provincetown Players. In Inge's case, his four Broadway hits of the 1950's, three located in Kansas and one in Oklahoma, marked the playwright so strongly as midwestern that his surprisingly witty Manhattan comedy Where's Daddy? (1966) has been ignored.

Many mid-American playwrights conscientiously masked their regional origins, seeking to become simply "American." William Dean Howell represents one of the earliest, an author who emigrated to the Northeast, wrote some three dozen plays, but never set one in his home region. Mark Twain's Missourians are flamboyant in their outsider status, operating as cunning showmen in a hostile environment. For two decades on Broadway, Rachel Crothers set her plays in the Northeast, and mostly in new York. But late in life, with years of success under her belt, she began to "come out," first with midwestern characters and themes (Expressing Willie, 1924) and finally with a play set in Dubuque, Iowa (As Husbands Go, 1931). David Rabe, himself born and raised in Dubuque, is an extreme case of a Midwesterner who almost entirely masks his regional upbringing, with the barest hint appearing in the central characters of his Vietnam trilogy.

Arthur Miller offers a fascinating case-study for the cross-fertilizing influence of the Midwest. Born and raised in a Jewish neighborhood in New York, he was one of the earliest to reverse the typical Midwest-to-East migration, traveling to Michigan to study from 1934-38. Maxwell Anderson had spent a year studying at the University of North Dakota, his play White Desert (1923) resulting from that experience. Miller's experience was more foundational: he spent four years in Ann Arbor, won his first drama prizes, and discovered his theatrical voice in a part of the country not commonly thought to be dramatic. Before returning his focus to the Northeast, the early plays of Arthur Miller offer an enlightening glimpse into the Midwest's influence on at least one individual writer in his formative period.

In Timebends: A Life (1987), Miller reminisces fondly about his college days: "In the thirties Ann Arbor was regarded as a radical enclave in the heart of the Middle West" (94). In 1953, he was asked to "go back to Ann Arbor to report the changes since the thirties" (94). He returned again in the late sixties "to speak at the first teach-in: the whole university had closed down for three days to discuss the war and how to protest it" (99). Clearly, Miller has maintained an ongoing affection for and connection to his midwestern alma mater, a clear counterpart to the urban New York environment he grew up in.

In discussing the plays he wrote while a student at the University of Michigan, Miller mentions "using members of my family as models" and spending "many weekends visiting Jackson State penitentiary" for another (Timebends 91). In The Great Disobedience, the "first {play} I had ever researched," "I wanted to get out of myself and use the world as my subject" (93). According to Christopher Bigsby, "the rhetoric {of the student plays} lacks the control of his later work," and "there is also plainly a good deal more than a whiff of melodrama" (21). Yet they "bear the imprint of his Jewish identity as none of his published plays were to do until the 1960s" (Miller, Golden 212). Dominik asserts that the student plays "are, in essence, versions of the same story" of "trying to maintain their homes and their work in a futile situation" (110). These plays have not been published, but Miller clearly felt strengthened in his "conviction that art ought to be of use in changing society," having imbibed the environment of social activism around him as he discovered his playwriting voice (93).

Among the published works, The Man Who Had All the Luck, first produced in New York in 1944, and All My Sons, which opened in 1947, are the most prominent set in the Midwest. (1) Miller called The Man Who Had All the Luck "A Fable," as if to account for its outsized realism. He credits "the evolving versions of this story" with beginning "to find myself as a playwright, and perhaps even as a person" (Timebends 88). In this early but strikingly assured and characteristic play, Miller's dramatic conflict pits Jewish archetypes against a midwestern setting in a way seen in none of his other plays. It has been revived with success several times since the late 1980s, most recently in 2001.

The Man Who Had All the Luck is so conspicuous in its midwesternness that the setting appears deliberate and iconic In fact, at first glance, the play shares features common to plays written by native Midwesterners. To Welland, "the stage is cluttered with a superfluity of minor characters who moved in from Winesburg, Ohio, and lost something in the process" (92). The setting is studiedly rural and egalitarian; fewer gender differences manifest themselves than in other areas of the country, and artifacts of a working life such as "wrenches, screwdrivers, other tools" litter the scene (114). The play begins with the central character, David Beeves, "filling a can from an alcohol drum.... He has the earnest manner of the young, small-town business man ..." (114). In Scene Two, David is shown working under a car as an Austrian immigrant named Gus arrives. The scene seems quintessentially Ohio, as Miller indicates in the introduction (7). Yet as the second and third acts unfold, the central action spins away from these midwestern moorings into a moral world of Miller's own making.

The markers are subtle but unmistakable to anyone familiar with midwestern habits of living. Although Act II opens in a farm house room "brightly done over" (152) some three years after Act I, relatively little attention is paid to the rhythms of working, cleaning, or eating typical of other plays from the region. Instead, the drama shifts to ideas and discussion, ruminations about being a man, being lucky or unlucky, and pursuing the American dream. This is a talkative world of men who assess and critique in a manner atypical of midwestern social intercourse. Although David's wife Hester tries to ready everyone for a social call by a scout for the Detroit Tigers, the real conflict occurs on the level of ideas. The author's predilection for discussion of moral issues gains ascendancy over the midwestern milieu, reaching a crisis in Act III which is dramatic yet revealingly cultural.

Near the climax of the play, after Hester has given birth--against her husband's dour expectations--to a healthy boy, David goes out to tend "his mink," into which he has sunk all his assets. After a cataclysmic thunderstorm rolls in, we learn that Hester received a call earlier that evening warning that the feed for the mink contained a fatal silkworm. Yet out of spite, Hester refused to tell her husband, resenting his neglect of her emotional needs. David has gone out to tend the mink with the defective feed, potentially leading to ruination of his entire operation. It seems unlikely that a person raised on a farm in the heartland could resort to such actions without apocalyptic repercussions. The family herd not only represents livelihood and sustenance, it also embodies the family itself, connection to the earth, the symbiosis of self and nature. A midwestern wife who would choose to betray the family stock would essentially have to kill herself and her children. Although a farm wife might well kill her husband, she would not poison the creatures entrusted to her family; that act would represent a ruination of self and the tearing apart of a world view.

Miller clearly is not focused on such conceptions. Instead, the conflict exposed here arises out of fundamental Old Testament archetypes working on the level of guilt and retribution. Hester's betrayal must be seen not as a midwestern response to land and livelihood but as the potential wrath of Jehovah against the sinful. In a pattern seen later in both All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, the conflict between two sons, one virtuous and the other feckless or damned, plays out in a moral universe starkly colored by Miller's Jewish heritage. The Man Who Had All the Luck thus reveals a deep tension between midwestern realism and darker retributive forces. It is hard to read of brothers Amos and David without immediately thinking of Cain and Abel, or Esau and Jacob. Amos is not killed, or only in spirit and not in body, and not by his brother, who remains relentlessly virtuous and almost contemptible, to the others as to himself, in his good fortune. The kind of sacrifice David longs to make--his first-born son--recalls the story of Abraham and Isaac. He clings to the notion that "a man has a right to get what he deserves" (169). Whereas Gus still believes in America, where "you are not a worm, a louse in the earth; here you are a man," Shory repeats his refrain that "a man is a jellyfish.... About what happens to him, a man has very little to say" (192,134). We witness a stark moral world in this play.

Of course the presiding animus of the action is Job, whose trial by affliction is inverted by the author in order to study the seemingly arbitrary connections between virtue and divine reward and punishment. This is not a midwestern conception rooted in the emblematic rhythms of practical survival on the land, dealing only with what is "enough." The kind of tormented self-reflection at the heart of The Man Who Had All the Luck represents Miller's encounter with the comfortable yet often fanciful materialism of the midwestern culture. At its core, the play radiates a cosmic wrestling between Old Testament questioning and a midwestern setting of potential fulfillment and bounty.

This fundamental ideological struggle tormented Miller and resulted in his having "rewritten {the ending} twenty times over the past half century" (9). Bigsby provides a helpful comparison between the play and the earlier unpublished novel of the same title, abandoned in 1941. Among the various endings are three basic paradigms. In the fictional rendition, David moves "to insanity, from a life-centered energy force to death" (Miller, Golden 223). In the Broadway version of 1944, which Miller recalls had not "the slightest connection between the production and the play I imagined I had written," the lighting was "in reassuring pink and rose, a small-town genre comedy" (6).

The published version of 1989 essentially splits the difference, as David closes the play saying, "Yes, I'm here.... For now" (208). Brenda Murphy rightly sees in this outcome Miller's rejection of both "divine justice" and "random choice," placing "his faith in the efficacy of praxis--willed action.... This play was an early statement of the basic humanism that Miller has spent a long career examining and developing" (39). The Man Who Had All the Luck maintains "a certain optimistic undercurrent," despite "veering pretty close" to tragedy (6). As the author admits, this play wrestles "with enormous themes," and the tussle rather interestingly reveals the playwright's moral building blocks.

The Man Who Had All the Luck won the Theatre Guild National Award in 1944, but the opening of All My Sons in 1947 fully announced Miller's arrival as a major dramatist, receiving the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and a variety of accolades. Whereas the midwestern and Judaic elements jostle uncertainly in the earlier play, in All My Sons they appear seamlessly fused. The evocation of middle America is more authoritative and convincing, while the impulse from sin and guilt to retribution is thoroughly imbedded in domestic realism. All My Sons is Miller's signature midwestern play, in which he infuses regional predispositions with his own moral purpose.

Action in All My Sons takes place "in the back yard of the Keller home in the outskirts of an American town" (5). The house is "nicely painted, looks tight and comfortable," with an open porch and planted poplars to one side (5). This typical midwestern setting takes on symbolic dimensions with a mangled apple tree toppled by a storm the night before, during the birthday month of son Larry who died in World War II. References made to Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus--"seven hundred miles west of New York"--indicate the location is somewhere in Ohio, or perhaps Michigan, where Keller runs his plant that now produces "pressure cookers, an assembly for washing machines" (23, 68). This location is more urbanized, however, than in The Man Who Had All the Luck, as Bert mentions "the kids from Thirtieth Street" and neighboring houses nestled on both sides (13). An air of comfort and nostalgia governs the scene: "It's lovely here. The air is sweet" (35).

Of course this comfortable setting hides darker secrets, but the environment is convincingly middle-American. Much of the conversation and action is imbedded in daily rhythms: waking up, reading the newspaper, drinking tea or juice, breaking beans, dressing for dinner, going to sleep. Unlike in The Man Who Had All the Luck, Miller utilizes these conventional elements as emblematic placement for his investigation into the Old Testament themes of sin, guilt, and retribution. Moreover, the primary symbolism--the storm, the damaged apple tree, the fallen rose petals, the streaking wind--all grows naturally out of the midwestern environment without calling undue attention to itself as in the earlier play.

At the same time regional characteristics are less exaggerated and more naturally integrated in All My Sons, typically Jewish concerns are imbedded in a broader context where they seem to belong. Again we see the central triangle of a conflicted father with two sons, but this time with less moral dichotomy between them. Older son Larry has been killed in the war, but Chris has also served honorably. Although Chris chafes at being in the shadow of his brother, he is by no means feckless and certainly not evil. Moreover, the Mother plays a critical role in All My Sons; whereas the females in The Man Who Had All the Luck seem largely peripheral, the women in this play are complex, multi-layered, strong, engaging, and distinct from one another. The triangle of the men operates firmly within a configuration of other triangles involving Ann's relationship to Jim and Sue as well as George's connection to Lydia and Frank. Thus the central thrust to atone for past sins takes place within a web of tightly connected romantic and familial relations, both male and female.

The sin at the core of the play involves the manufacture of faulty jet engines during the war at Joe Keller's plant. Both Joe and his partner Steve went to jail, but Steve, father of Ann and George, is still incarcerated while Joe has managed to get out early and is already thriving in his new business. Underlying much of the play is a tension between health and disease. Joe appears outwardly healthy, but Mother suffers from a headache that eludes medication, seemingly a product of her efforts to avoid facing a truth she cannot admit. Neighbor Jim, a doctor, responds to a number of phantom medical conditions that seem to grow out of a need for intimacy or emotional connection. Underneath this picture-perfect small-town facade, mental and physical health struggle with dark forces.

It turns out that the deaths of twenty-one war pilots who died as a result of the faulty engines have not been "paid for," nor has the family faced the fact that favorite son Larry committed suicide when he discovered his father's perfidy. The apple tree planted in the back yard to honor Larry's memory, or to hold out vain hope for his return, must be sawn down. The "voice of God" inserts itself unnervingly (58). Finally, Joe's shotgun suicide at the end brings closure to the cycle of sin and guilt, and Mother exerts a benediction on her remaining, cradled son: "Don't take it on yourself. Forget now. Live.... Shhhh ..." (90).

Thus All My Sons ends as it began with a seamless weaving of Jewish and midwestern elements that in The Man Who Had All the Luck wrestled to an uneasy draw. In the latter play Miller effectively integrated his encounter with the heartland, resulting in a satisfying dramatic work that remains one of his best. Steven Centola argues that "much of the success of All My Sons has to do with Miller's complex vision of the Kellers' shared guilt and complicity in the family's collapse" (55). This effort may have freed him to move beyond his apprentice years in Michigan to issues located more definitively in his native Northeast, as in Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View, from the Bridge, or the conflicts of Jewish history dealt with in Incident at Vichy, The Price, and Broken Glass. Though the plays following Death of a Salesman exhibit few midwestern characteristics, Miller's wrestling with the Midwest, like Jacob's with the angel, seems to have spiritually transformed him.

Death of a Salesman (1949) has been studied with intensity and insight from a variety of perspectives. However, no one has examined it through the midwestern lens, which is not surprising given the play's New York setting. Stephen Marino argues that Miller "describes Brooklyn as if it were a rural, frontier outpost ... emphasizing the rural and pastoral" (,87-88). A more convincing argument is that the regional features dominating The Man Who Had All the Luck and All My Sons have been conspicuously inverted in some places and transmuted in others, so that the heartland functions in Death of a Salesman as "not-New York" to which some characters escape and for which others long. In important respects--most notably in Willie's desperate gardening late in the play--the Midwest as pastoral represents what has been left behind and rendered impossible.

In Timebends, Miller details his mindset going into the writing of Death of a Salesman: "With All My Sons more and more firmly established, the question was, as always, what to do next" (143). "For the slow dread was descending on me that I might have nothing more to say as a writer.... All My Sons had exhausted my lifelong interest in the Greco-Ibsen form" (144). Matthew Roudane credits the success of Death of Salesman to Miller's greater linguistic precision and simplicity (74-75). But the most obvious difference in the new play is Miller's use of jagged, what might even be called "exploded" realism with overlapping scenes from different time periods, creating a dream-like effect. Originally, the author imagined the play taking place inside a man's head rather than in the world of reality, "in direct opposition to the method of All My Sons" ("Introduction" 23). The "exploded" form nonetheless has its basis in the realism of earlier plays, against which Death of a Salesman reacts.

The description of the setting begins conventionally enough: "Willy Loman's house and yard and in various places he visits" (93). But formal action commences with flute music "telling of grass and trees and the horizon" (95). This evokes nostalgic context for a midwestern landscape, creating a sharp contrast for the stifling urban environment that follows: "towering angular shapes behind it {the house}, surrounding it on all sides" (95). There's "an angry glow of orange" and "a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming house" (95). "No other features are seen except a kitchen table with three chairs.... The entire setting is wholly, or in some places, partially transparent" (95). The combined effect is dream-like, disconnected, angry, and frustrated, altogether different from the comfortable environments in The Man Who Had All the Luck and All My Sons.

Yet early on, Willie invokes nostalgia for a kind of midwestern past: "The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows. Windows and bricks.... There's not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don't grow any more, you can't raise a carrot in the backyard" (100). This description recalls the contrasting "sweet air" of All My Sons and foreshadows Willie's desperate attempt to plant carrot seeds in his backyard at the end. His rhetorical questions, "Remember those beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?," suggest the sawing down of Larry's tree in All My Sons (100). Yet this time no poplars remain along the property line and developers are the cause: "They massacred the neighborhood.... This time of year it was lilac and wisteria.... What fragrance in this room!" (100).

The sweetness of this past reality has been obliterated by an oppressive urbanity that foments alienation and reduces human dignity to Lo-Man status. Biff's arrival on stage reinforces this construct as he denounces the rat-race: "all I've done is waste my life" (105). His discussion with Happy reinforces the major theme of frustrated or ruined masculinity. Happy deflowers the prospective brides of his bosses and competitors; although he loves the sensation of conquest, he finds the whole process devoid of meaning. The flashback scenes, by contrast, feature Biff and Happy proudly admired by their father for being "both built like Adonises" in a comfortable, middle-American setting (114). Willie proclaims, "Be liked and you will never want," while the neighborhood boys all obey Biff (114). These glowing characterizations of young, athletic manhood set us up for the great deflation at the end.

Salesmanship is not a characteristically midwestern talent, being so strongly allied to the rhetoric of inflation and exaggeration. Salesmen hype and insinuate themselves into the graces of their prospective customers. The predominant tropes of the heartland, by contrast, are understatement and litotes as well as a reluctance to make quick judgments divorced from action and commitment ("I'm from Missouri: show me!"). In Salesman, such laconic tropes appear most often in the language of Linda and, late in the play, of the newly-conscious Biff, contemptuous of pretense. Guerin Bliquez highlights the contrast even more: "Like the house and garden, she {Linda} must be constantly secured, maintained, planted, and cultivated.... Willy of course is unaware of this" (384). Death of a Salesman thus enacts a fundamental struggle between creative or mythic lying versus hard truth-telling. In establishing this dichotomy, Miller makes use of regional constructs to pit the Northeast and West against the Midwest.

We find out that Ben and Willie's father played the flute, "driving through Ohio, and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states" (127). Ben recalls a time when he and Willie, aged three years and eleven months, were in South Dakota together; Ben was "going to find Father in Alaska" (127). The regional dichotomy is sharpened by Biff's linkage with cattle ranching in the West, where Happy longs to "raise cattle, use our muscles. Men built like we are should be working out in the open" (105). The midwestern truth-telling, however, punches home at the end, as Biff explains in the climax, "You know why I had no address for three months? I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail" (200). The salesmanship of the Northeast that dreams of escaping to the unfettered, romantic West thus founders on the harsh realities of the Midwest.

The desperation Willie feels after being fired and abandoned by his two sons leads him to attempt a final act of midwestern recovery: planting seeds in the backyard. This is of course a fruitless gesture, as Biff explains, "Because we don't belong in this nuthouse of a city! We should be mixing cement on some open plain, or--or carpenters. A carpenter is allowed to whistle!" (138). Ben likewise admonishes Willie, "Get out of these cities, they're full of talk and time payments and courts of law" (159). But talking big is Willie's stock-in-trade and he can't escape his urban environment. Willie can't even see the packets of seeds in the blue light, let alone insert them into the earth. Biff essentially ridicules his efforts: "There are people all around here. Don't you realize that?" (197).

Yet if any hope remains in the final requiem, it resides in Charley's sensible humanism and Bill's insistent truth-telling and hard-won self-knowledge. Throughout most of the play, Willie mocked Charley's distrust of sports and especially Charley's son, Bernard, whom he derided as "anemic" (113). But Bernard studied hard, did well in school, and later on leaves to argue a case before the Supreme Court. His kind of boring, dedicated accomplishment brings success while all the myth-making of Willie, Biff, and Happy leads to disillusionment and despair. In the closing requiem, Happy is still dreaming Willie's dream, but Biff opts for honest assessment and a new start.

In Death of a Salesman, the Midwest serves as a kind of barometer to measure what went wrong. Willie and his family have lost their close connection to nature, to comfortable rhythms, honest work, plain speaking, and a sense of community. Moreover, they can't find in their out-sized dreams any means of sustenance, emotional or financial, let alone renewal. Life circumstances have deteriorated to such a degree that getting back to the prior balance has become impossible: those elm trees have been chopped down in the threshing-machine of progress. In All My Sons, the culprit for rupturing the social fabric is Joe, whose willingness to let bad workmanship slide leads to disaster. In Death of a Salesman, Miller indicts the larger economic system and the social structure that supports it. Willie fails not so much out of perfidy but because he believed the national hype, the rhetoric of triumphant male posturing that occludes the more mundane reality of steady, unheralded accomplishment.

In Death of a Salesman, the Midwest represents a world left behind, replaced by high-rise buildings and dehumanizing greed that leaves a barren, seedless place where nothing can truly grow. The heartland serves to mark the road no longer passable; reality has become the oppressive northeastern city, where talk has replaced meaningful work and men have been eviscerated and alienated from themselves. Miller confides in Timebends that "I seem always to have known that I was a carpenter and a mechanic" (120). In Salesman, Miller places some of his defense of the working-class in the mouth of Biff, who has the great revelation at the end brought about by a brutal confrontation between myth and reality. But clearly, the comfortable world of All My Sons has been transcended; while it may be paid homage in Death of a Salesman, more pressing economic dynamics have rendered it irrelevant and essentially irretrievable.

In The Crucible (1953), set in late 16th-century New England, only a few vestiges of the author's earlier midwestern influences remain. Proctor is described as "a farmer in his middle thirties" with a reputation for simplicity and truth-telling: "In Proctor's presence a fool felt his foolishness instantly ..." (227). The rustic setting of Act II recalls the similar farm-house in The Man Who Had All the Luck, and Proctor enters having just seeded his crops. He seems to blend restrained understatement with a kind of Old Testament intensity seen in the earlier play. Overall, however, The Crucible strives for and achieves a stylized version of early American experience during the Salem Witch trial period. The dialogue is simple yet strikingly different from the previous plays, incorporating just enough archaic markers to seem convincing without caricature.

By the time of A Memory of Two Mondays and A View, from the Bridge, both performed and published in 1955, earlier midwestern elements are totally absent. Instead of iconically "middle-American" dialect, characters are sharply differentiated by ethnic linguistic patterns. In A Memory, Gus "speaks with a gruff Slavic accent," while Kenneth impresses Bert with his lilting Irish poetry. This play offers a smorgasbord of dialects signaling differences of rank, gender, class upbringing, ethnicity, and level of education. In A View from the Bridge, Italian-American experience is highlighted through immigrant street language derived from Miller's own explorations along the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts and from visiting Italy. Jewish dialect is more emphatic in both plays, less flattened than Joe Keller's language in All My Sons, which occasionally tilts toward Yiddish-based inflection and humor while remaining imbedded within the middle-American setting. No one would guess, on hearing Bert's bittersweet good-byes in A Memory of Two Mondays, that this central character, based on the author's youthful experiences working in New York warehouses, could be leaving to attend college in the Midwest. Miller no longer evokes the heartland as contrast or even as memory. The New York of these two plays is exuberant, multi-cultural, jaded, no longer iconically "average."

A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge thus bring Miller fully back to his New York upbringing and signal closure on his encounter with the American heartland. So what legacy remains from the playwright's formative four years in the Midwest? Certainly he found his calling as a playwright at the University of Michigan, receiving accolades and turning from fiction to drama. His predisposition for truth-telling and interest in the "everyday working man" were reinforced in a new region skeptical of fast talking and out-sized promises. The Midwest seemed to offer a more substantive, perhaps even transcendent form of quietly addressing reality that Miller made good use of in The Man Who Had All the Luck, All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible.

In stylistic terms, the Midwest gave Miller an introduction to domestic realism and quotidian patterns of life rooted in the environment. Yet the kind of emblematic or choric dimension of these daily rhythms apparent in more fundamentally midwestern plays, like Moody's The Faith Healer (1909), Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959), or Lanford Wilson's 5th of July (1978), does not emerge in Miller's midwestern plays. The difference can be found in the way typically midwestern characters take for granted and act within the daily contours of material life in a pattern that informs and reinforces a larger moral imperative. Miller remains a visitor to the Midwest--sharp-eyed, stimulated, absorbent, but nonetheless not fully grounded in the region as a native would be. This dual quality of evoking the Midwest without being fully representative of the region surfaces also in the homes Miller depicts in these plays and the feelings his characters have or don't have toward them. Typically, the midwestern home is not ancestral, not burdened by history as in the Northeast or South, nor fleeting as in the transitory habitations of the West. No ghosts or witch trials or slavery bedevil the midwestern home, which generally seems comfortably rooted in the struggle of here and now and the practical dimensions of everyday life. The home of this region is firmly grounded in the environment; when rural, it has a symbiotic relationship to the land, living off its fruits, even breathing with its seasons. Even the urban home of A Raisin in the Sun seems imbedded in its place, not easily displaced, grounded.

The settings Miller depicts in The Man Who Had All the Luck and All My Sons manifest some of these qualities, yet a key ingredient is missing: the homes remain fragile, uncertain, apt to break apart. The traditional midwestern homestead offers solace and security, a foundation in daily rhythms; hoeing, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting take on satisfying spiritual dimensions that transcend this year's abysmal hog or corn prices and feel somehow inevitable. The characters in The Man seem particularly uncomfortable and insecure in their changing locations, while the grown children in All My Sons, who feel a special kinship to the Keller backyard, see it in a vanishing harmony. In neither play do the characters appear to enjoy that symbiotic, if often delimiting connection between self and house and ground frequently evoked in the heartland. Miller's contrapuntal use of the rural Midwest in Death of a Salesman underscores a fragility and barrenness of the Northeast and serves his thematic purpose but eviscerates the characteristic groundedness of midwestern experience.

These facts do not diminish Miller's remarkable achievement in these plays but help demarcate the extent and depth of his absorption of the Midwest as a region. By the time he published A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge, Miller had been living in New York for over fifteen years. Clearly, once re-immersed in this familiar context, he turned his attention to a multi-cultural, edgy, urbanized environment. What we see in these early plays is an arc of midwestern themes and aesthetic forms which rises in The Man Who Had All the Luck, achieves a kind of fulfillment in All My Sons, and then recedes again in Death of a Salesman as a memory no longer viable in a dehumanized urban context.

In his introduction to Collected Plays, Miller sees a definite connection between the three plays: "the crux of All My Sons, which would not be written until nearly three years later, was formed" in The Man Who Had All the Luck, "and the roots of Death of a Salesman were sprouted" (15). "Far from being a waste and a failure this play (The Man Who Had All the Luck) was a preparation, and possibly a necessary one, for those that followed, especially All My Sons and Death of a Salesman ..." ("Question" 7). Dennis Welland sees a recurring theme of "destroyed sons" in all three plays (93). Miller also made use of his experience of small-town life in Michigan for imagining key scenes in The Crucible. One of his major lessons from the heartland involved welding Old Testament issues smoothly with domestic realism in a way that concretized and intensified the moral imperative.

Arthur Miller cannot be regarded as a midwestern playwright in the way that Twain or Glaspell, Inge or Lanford Wilson can be regarded as midwestern. However, his years in the heartland proved catalytic for his own playwriting vocation and stimulating for plays set in the region that remain important. More than probably any other American dramatist, Miller's life-changing turn in the Midwest offers a textbook example of cross-fertilization from the heartland back to the dominant literary culture of the East. Miller's sojourn in an area of the country thought to be undramatic and "ordinary," frequently overlooked, provided fertile ground for discovery and transformation which later served to invigorate American drama.

WORKS CITED

Bigsby, Christopher. "The Early Plays." The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Ed. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 21-47.

Bliquez, Guerin. "Linda's Role in Death of a Salesman." Modern Drama 10 (1968): 383-386.

Centola, Steven R. "All My Sons." The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Ed. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge UR 1997. 48-59.

Dominik, Jane. "A View from Death of a Salesman." "The Salesman Has a Birthday." Ed. Stephen A. Marino. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2000.

Marino, Stephen A. "'It's Brooklyn, I know, but we hunt too': The Image of the Borough in Death of a Salesman." "The Salesman Has a Birthday." Ed. Stephen A. Marino. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2000.

Miller, Arthur. Arthur Miller: Eight Plays. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1981.

--. The Golden Years and The Man Who Had All the Luck. London: Methuen, 1989.

--. "Introduction." Arthur Miller's Collected Plays. New York: Viking, 1957.

--. "The Question of Relatedness." Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

--. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove, 1987.

Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Revised edition. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Murphy, Brenda. "The Man Who Had All the Luck: Miller's Answer to The Master Builder." American Drama 6:1 (Fall 1996): 29-39.

Roudane, Matthew. "Death of a Salesman and the Poetics of Arthur Miller." The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Ed. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 60-85.

Welland, Dennis. "Two Early Plays." Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

NOTES

(1.) In the "Introduction" to the Collected Plays, Miller describes the catalyst for The Man Who Hall All the Luck: "I had heard the story of a young man in a midwestern town who had earned the respect and love of his town and great personal prosperity as well, and who, suddenly and for no known reason, took to suspecting everyone of wanting to rob him, and within a year of his obsession's onset had taken his own life" (14).
COPYRIGHT 2007 American Drama Institute
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Radavich, David
Publication:American Drama
Date:Jun 22, 2007
Words:6055
Previous Article:Real Women Have Curves: a feminist narrative of upward mobility.
Next Article:"Moments" the fade, love that abides in Tina Howe's Painting Churches.


Related Articles
Taking the high road: in Texas and Oklahoma, citizens are showing that the NAFTA Superhighway Goliath can be taken on and stopped by fearless Davids.
CITY STATUE TURNS SIMPSON YELLOW.
Ex-Ducks in the spotlight as Chargers beat Vancouver.
FOR THE RECORD.
OBITUARIES.
S.O.S.: polluting boat ahead.
Rationalizing the "decentered" white male in Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue.
POLICE INTENSIFY SEARCH FOR CHILD MOLESTER.
THE SMALLEST OF THEM ALL NEW SMART FORTWO REVS UP FOR THE U.S.
'MOVE' FOR REAGAN LIBRARY COMMISSION APPROVES STEP TO ANNEX PRESIDENTIAL SITE TO SIMI VALLEY.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters