Saturday, February 12, 2005

Professor Bill Kovacsik Writes About Arthur Miller

It is both a blessing and a curse to follow one’s passion in professional life. The blessing is that one experiences sheer bliss far more often than those who tread in more conventional paths. Then, there is the other side – the dark moments of failure, rejection and despair that can crush you unless you develop a pretty hard shell.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the presence of giants in one’s chosen field is also a double-edged sword. Those who possess real originality and genius show us the heights to which we can aspire. The fact that they can give us glimpses of life that go beyond what we imagine in our more quotidian existence provides a reason to keep striving. If you are a practitioner of their art, however, the very quality of their work can also be crippling; you live with the constant recognition you will never really measure up to the vision they have revealed.

A couple of years ago, someone paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received: they compared one of my plays to the work of Arthur Miller. They were speaking of the moral dimension of one of my scripts, of course, and not of its inherent dramatic qualities. I am not, and never will be, a dramatist on that level. Still, to be mentioned in the same breath by someone whose judgment I respect was a kind of validation.

Before I started acting, I wasn’t much of a theatregoer. Nevertheless, I have vivid memories of a TV presentation of Miller’s The Price on the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. I had no idea at that time that I would ever be involved in the theatre. I did know, however, that I was in the presence of an artist in complete touch with his conscience. I also knew he wrote roles that great actors, like George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst (who appeared in that version of The Price) would die to play.

Several of you mentioned the revival of Death of a Salesman with George C. Scott and Martin Sheen; how I wish I had seen it. My own memory of that play is of a regional production in Pittsburgh, where I saw a performer named Darren Eliker inhabit the part of Biff in a way I do not expect to experience again. The longer I live, and the harder I work for a living, the more I understand and appreciate what that play has to say.

Yet for me, Salesman – which is a revolutionary script in the way it uses time, a genuine landmark of dramaturgy – is not the play for which I will remember Arthur Miller. What I call conscience, or a moral voice, is in such short supply these days that it is scarcely possible to put a real value on it. If you want a full appreciation of what Miller was trying to tell us, go back and read All My Sons.

There is a moment in that play when Chris, a character who has fought in Europe during World War II, speaks to his girlfriend and describes the sacrifices made by the soldiers who served under his command. He tells of one private who gave him his last pair of dry socks – a priceless commodity in that time and place. He says that the men he served with gave their lives for one another. He tells his girl that he expected those sacrifices to have made some sort of difference to the people at home – but that when he arrived back in America, he found a country where petty material things ruled out any real understanding of what had his soldiers had done for their sake. When he finds out that his father was not only a war profiteer, but that he knowingly sold defective engine parts to the Army Air Force, the family is shattered. His father, destroyed by the contempt his son feels for him, is driven to commit suicide.

I need hardly mention how relevant that play, now sixty years old, feels at this moment. Except now, of course, it is apparent that some of us have lost our capacity for shame. It’s not really possible to imagine the draft-dodging war profiteer Dick Cheney feeling pangs of remorse powerful enough to upset his dinner, much less drive him to put a bullet through his brain. And George W. Bush telling us to fight terrorism by shopping for consumer goods is a sickening reminder that for some, the almighty dollar will always triumph over any decent instinct we may harbor for our fellow men and women.

As a playwright, I value the things Arthur Miller taught me – about setting up the things you want to pay off, about building a play to an authentically shattering climax – but the real truth is that I knew why Miller was important long before I cared about writing scripts. It goes back to something my old mentor and dear friend Arthur Giron once said: people go to the theatre in order to learn how to live. In all of his plays, Miller demands that we set the bar for our moral conduct at the highest level. He never lets us off the hook. He requires that we live as part of a community, rather than for the sake of our puny selves.

At this juncture in history, when there are so many evil people who tempt us by playing to our worst fears and our most selfish impulses, all we can say is that Arthur Miller will be desperately missed.