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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Sunday 7th December 2008

Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby

Orion, £30.00, pp.739

When Arthur Miller died in 2005, aged 89, the reaction was not as respectful as he would have wished. True, the lights were dimmed on Broadway and one newspaper cleared its entire front page, but amidst the ritualised outpouring of praise there were several dissenting voices. The Wall Street Journal's obituary was headed "The Great Pretender: Arthur Miller Wasn't Well Liked -- and With Good Reason", while the Criterion dismissed him as "Arthur Miller, Communist Stooge". It was a reminder that critical opinion has always been divided about the most famous American playwright of the 20th Century.

Christopher Bigsby, the Director of the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia, is one of the playwright's most staunch defenders so it is no surprise that he has written the first authorised biography. Weighing in at 739 pages, it covers the years 1915-62, ending with Miller's divorce from Marilyn Monroe. It is thorough, well researched and, in its wealth of detail, unlikely to be surpassed. Unfortunately, it is a little too one-sided, even for an official biography.

No doubt there will be a second volume, but Bigsby's decision to end the story when Miller was 48 certainly makes his task easier. It absolves him of the need to defend After The Fall, Miller's 1964 play that was widely perceived as an attempt to cash in on his ex-wife's suicide, and it enables him to make the playwright's testimony before the House of Un-American Activities the climax of the book. For Miller loyalists, this is Exhibit A in the case for the defence.

Miller was summoned before HUAC in 1956 and refused to name names. It is easy to overlook just what a courageous decision this was. Many of Miller's friends -- men who had been members of various radical groups in the 30s and 40s -- buckled under the pressure, including the actor Lee J Cobb, the writer Bud Schulberg and the playwright Clifford Odets. From Miller's point of view, the most significant of these informants was Elia Kazan, the director of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. But Miller stood firm. "I am trying to, and I will, protect my sense of myself," he told the Committee. "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him."

Miller's opposition to McCarthyism found its most potent expression in The Crucible, his 1953 play about the Salem witch trials that drew a clear parallel between the anti-Communist paranoia of the period and the hysteria that had prompted the hunt for witches in 17th Century Massachusetts. In the eyes of the far left, this play made him a hero, a man of principle standing up for freedom of conscience. But in the eyes of the right -- and, more importantly, the anti-Communist left -- it revealed him as a patsy of the Soviet Union. After all, by making an analogy between witches and Communists, wasn't he saying that the so-called "Red Menace" was a figment of McCarthy's imagination? These critics weren't slow to pounce when the opening up of Soviet archives in 2000 revealed that there were several Communist spies operating in America in the 30s and 40s.

Miller's stance on this issue angered many liberal intellectuals who were anxious about being perceived as anti-patriotic -- and he was accused of being a "fellow traveller" in publications like Encounter and the Partisan Review. Inevitably, these attacks were accompanied by an uncharitable assessment of his plays and Bigsby does a good job of discrediting these critics, pointing out that several of them were in the pay of the CIA.

Bigsby is less convincing when it comes to defending Miller the man, not least because some of his behaviour was indefensible. During his first marriage, Miller was a serial adulterer, eventually leaving his wife after embarking on an affair with Marilyn Monroe. Not only that, but his third marriage to the photographer Inge Morath resulted in the birth of a son with Down Syndrome whom Miller immediately disowned. He was placed in an institution days after being born and Miller never visited him. His autobiography, Timebends, contains no reference to the child.

In a sense, Bigsby has saddled himself with an impossible task since any exhaustive account of Miller's life will inevitably leave his reputation tarnished. His wives and children always took second place to his career and the best that can be said of him is that, had he been a more devoted husband and father, he would not have produced such great work. Graham Green once referred to "the splinter of ice in the heart of the writer" and the overwhelming impression left by this biography is that Arthur Miller possessed this ruthlessness in abundance.

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