In His Own Words: Arthur Miller on Theatre


"The production of a new play, I have often thought, is like another chance in life, a chance to emerge cleansed of one’s imperfections. Here, as when one was very young, it seems possible again to attain even greatness, or happiness, or some otherwise unattainable joy. . . . At such a time, it seems to all concerned that the very heart of life’s mystery is what must be penetrated.”

— "American Theater," Holiday, January 1955

 

“For the fact is that art is a function of the civilizing act quite as much as is the building of the water supply. American civilization is only recently coming to a conscious awareness of art not as a luxury but as a necessity of life.”

— “The Family in Modern Drama," Atlantic Monthly, April 1959

“To me the theatre is not a disconnected entertainment, which it usually is to most people here. It’s the sound and the ring of the spirit of the people at any one time. It is where a collective mass of people, through the genius of some author, is able to project its terrors and its hopes and to symbolize them. . . . I personally feel that the theatre has to confront the basic themes always. And the faces change from generation to generation to generation, but their roots are generally the same, and that is a question of man’s increasing awareness of himself and his environment, his quest for justice and for the right to be human. That’s a big order, but I don’t know where else excepting at a playhouse where there’s reasonable freedom, one should hope to see that.”

— “The Contemporary Theater,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 1967. (From a speech delivered at the University of Michigan, February 28, 1967)

“In place of a social aim, which called an all-around excellence — physical, intellectual, and moral — the ultimate good, we have set up a goal which can best be characterized as 'happiness' — namely, staying out of trouble. This concept is the end result of the truce which all of us have made with society. And a truce implies two enemies. . . There is a kind of perverse unity forming among us, born, I think, of the discontent of all classes of people with the endless frustration of life. It is possible now to speak of a search for values, not solely from the position of bitterness, but with a warm embrace of mankind, with a sense that at bottom every one of us is a victim of this misplacement of aims.”

— “On Social Plays,” The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. New York: Viking Press, 1978

“The actor brings questions onto the stage just as any person does when we first meet him in our ordinary lives. Which of them a play chooses to answer, and how they are answered, are the ruling and highly consequential imperatives which create the style of a play, and control what are later called the stylistic levels of its writing. In a word, the actor’s appearance on the stage in normal human guise leads us to expect a realistic treatment. The play will either be intent upon rounding out the characters by virtue of its complete answers to the common questions, or will substitute answers to a more limited group of questions which, instead of being 'human,' are thematic and are designed to form a symbol of meaning rather than an apparency of the 'real.' It is the nature of the questions being asked and answered, rather than the language used — whether verse, ordinary slang, or colorless prose — that determines whether the style is realistic or non-realistic. When I speak of style, therefore, this is one of the relationships I intend to convey.”

— “Introduction”, Eight Plays, 1981

“I think people go for tags for any writer; you don’t have to think about what he’s doing any longer, especially if he’s around a long time. But then simply you know what you think you want to expect. It may or may not have much to do with what he’s doing. But, they find whatever in the work fits that expectation, and the other is simply not dealt with or is rejected.”

— “The Will to Live,” an Interview with Arthur Miller, Modern Drama, September, 1984

“Watching a play is not like lying on a psychiatrist’s couch or sitting alone in front of the television. In the theatre you can sense the reaction of your fellow citizens along with your own reactions. You may learn something about yourself, but sharing it with others brings a certain relief — the feeling that you are not alone, you’re part of the human race. I think that’s what theatre is about and why it will never be finished.”

— Quoted in Peter Lewis, “Change of Scene for a Mellow Miller,” The Sunday Times, November 3, 1991

“Life is not reassuring; if it were we would not need the consolations of religion, for one thing. Literature and art are not required to reassure when in reality there is no reassurance, or to serve up 'clean and wholesome' stories in all times and all places. Those who wish such art are welcome to have it, but those who wish art to symbolize how life really is, in order to understand it and perhaps themselves, also have a right to their kind of art.”

— “The Good Old American Apple Pie,” Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, 1993

“I suppose that to me a play is the way I sum up where I am at any particular moment in my life. I’m not conscious of that when I’m working, but when I look back at what I’ve written, it’s quite clear to me that that’s what I’m doing, trying to find out what I really think about life. Like everybody else, I think I believe certain things, and I think I disbelieve others, but when you try to write a play about them, you find out that you believe a little of what you disbelieve and you disbelieve a lot of what you think you believe. The dramatic form, at least as I understand it, is a kind of proof. It’s a sort of court proceeding where the less-than-true gets cast away and what’s left is the kernel of what one really stands for and believes.”

— Address at the Guthrie Theater Global Voices, Forums on Art & Life, March 23, 1997, printed in the Guthrie Theater Introductory guide to the 1997-98 Season

“My plays are always involved with society, but I’m writing about people, too, and it’s clear over the years that audiences understand them and care about them. The political landscape changes, the issues change, but the people are still there. People don’t really change that much.”

— Quoted in “Arthur Miller: A Dramatist for the Ages,”
Dan Hulbert, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 2000

“It is necessary to employ the artificial in order to arrive at the real. More than one actor in my plays has told me that it is surprisingly difficult to memorize their dialogue. The speeches sound like real, almost reported talk when in fact they are intensely composed, compressed into a sequential inevitability that seems natural but isn’t. But all this, important though it may be, is slightly to one side of the point. Experimental or traditional, the real question to ask of a work is whether it brings news, something truly felt by its author, an invention on his part or an echo.”

— “Notes on Realism,” Echoes Down the Corridor, 2000

“The director and critic, the late Harold Clurman, called theatre 'lies like truth.' Theatre does indeed lie, fabricating everything from the storm’s roar to the fake lark’s song, from the actor’s calculated laughter to his nightly flood of tears. And the actor lies; with all the spontaneity that careful calculation can lend him he may nevertheless fabricate a vision of some important truth about the human condition that opens us to a new understanding of ourselves. In the end, we call a work of art trivial when it illuminates little beyond its own devices, and the same goes for political leaders who bespeak some narrow interest rather than those of the national or universal good. The fault is not in the use of the acting arts but in their purpose.

“[Art] has always been the revenge of the human spirit upon the short-sighted. Consider the sublime achievements of Greece and her military victories and defeats, the necrophilic grandeur of the Egyptians, the Romans’ glory, the awesome Assyrian power, the rise and fall of the Jews and their incomprehensible survival — and what do we have left of it all but a handful of plays, essays, carved stones, and some strokes of paint on paper or the rock cave wall — in a word, art? The ironies abound. Artists are not particularly famous for their steady habits, the acceptability of their opinions, or their conformity with majority mores, but whatever is not turned into art disappears forever. It is very strange when you think about it, except for one thing that is not strange but quite logical – however dull or morally delinquent an artist may be, in his moment of creation when his work pierces to the truth, he cannot dissimulate, he cannot fake it. Tolstoy once remarked that what we look for in the work of art is the revelation of the artist’s soul, a glimpse of god. You can’t act that.”

— “On Politics and the Art of Acting,”
The 30th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, March 26, 2001


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