Documenting The Offstage Life Of Playwright Arthur Miller (AKA Dad)

Apr 8, 2018

Arthur Miller is a giant of the American theater. He's renowned for classics like Death Of A Salesman and The Crucible, which premiered in the '40s and '50s yet continue to be read in school and performed to this day.

Miller lived a long time — he died in 2005 at the age of 89 — so it might be easy to forget that for much of his adult life he wasn't just accomplished. He was also a major celebrity: He made headlines with his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and for his testimony before Congress during the McCarthy era.

A new documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer reminds us of that history. But it also digs below headlines and gives us a very personal view of the playwright, through the eyes of his daughter Rebecca Miller — a filmmaker and writer by trade. She narrates the film along with interviews she recorded over the course of 25 years.

"The reason I made the film is I felt as though I wanted people to feel that they'd spent the weekend with Arthur Miller, and yet knew more than they would know about him if they'd spent a weekend with him," Rebecca Miller says. "I just want you to feel like you know him, and then you can go back to his work and see it in a different light."


Interview Highlights

On the origins of this project

Well, it is my most recent film, but it's also my first film, because when I — I was a painter, and I realized that I wanted to be a filmmaker ... at that time, I was in my early 20s, and I realized that no one was going to be able to get the kind of interviews with my father that would show what he was really like, because he was quite closed-down in interviews, and really didn't show his personality. And I thought: Well, if I am going to be a filmmaker, you know, I better get some of this footage. And I didn't necessarily think that I was going to make a film about it. I just thought: Let me just start shooting.

On Arthur Miller's relaxed mood in those scenes

Yea, I think he was a really happy man at the time that I was shooting him there [at home in Connecticut]. I mean, he was a moody person in some ways. But yeah, I would say that that's part of — it was his humor, in part, that I felt was so missing from the way people saw him. Just his humanity.

On the deep emotional response that audiences had to Death Of A Salesman

I think at the heart of it there was a mystery even to him about the effect of that play, and he talks about that a little bit in the documentary. You know, it had a kind of almost mystical power over people. I think some of it had to do with the nature of the father-son conflict, and also the idea of a person — about failure, and about people being just thrown away when they're no longer of use in society. I also think that the play was composed with so much love for Willy as a character, that that love is everywhere in the play, and that people are just affected by it.

On Arthur Miller being called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, and how The Crucible was inspired by the McCarthy era

That play is about judges who come to a town where girls are accusing various members of the town of being witches. And they are getting more and more power through these accusations. These are girls who were completely powerless before, and the girls have themselves kind of gone mad. But people start using them for various purposes. So it's that alliance between the powerful and the mad, which — I mean, some people who have watched the film have equated with our own times.

And I do think that there's things about the documentary which really do evoke our time to a degree. You know, there have been fears about the state of our democracy, and the sanctity of our democracy, and whether fascism is a possibility in our time. And you just remember that they really did believe that there may be fascism in their time, in the 1950s — that was something that they genuinely thought could happen.

On Arthur Miller attaining celebrity status as a playwright, which — Lin-Manuel Miranda aside — is uncommon today

Yea, I think also Tony Kushner comes also closer to that as well. But I agree with that. It was also that the theater, I think, at that time had a different kind of importance. A new play — a great new play by a young playwright, or any kind of playwright, was a big deal, a big cultural deal. So it had a different — already, the theater had a slightly different status, I suppose, in our culture. Combine that with him then being with a very, very famous movie star [Marilyn Monroe]. That created a kind of combustion effect.

On her father's decision to institutionalize her brother Daniel, who has Down syndrome, and how audiences should feel about decisions that artists make in their personal lives

I would bring people back to the film for that. It took me a long, long time to figure out the most honest and, you know, correct, right way of approaching that. So I would say the way that I wanted to express it is expressed in the film, and I did it very carefully.

Regarding whether one should discuss these things, you know, there's a lot of questions about: This one did that, and so should we appreciate their art? I've been asked that a bunch of times recently and so on. You know, like, do we avoid people's art if they appear to have done one thing or another thing. And I actually — I think that we have to kind of separate those things out, because otherwise you're in a kind of vortex of judgment. Tolstoy beat his serfs, but he's one of the greatest writers that ever lived. And does that mean we don't read Anna Karenina anymore? Or do we look at him and say: He lived in a certain time? So regarding — I mean, this really has not very much bearing on our situation, but I would say that on a larger level, I think that that's sort of how I feel.

Marc Rivers and Martha Wexler produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, let's talk about Arthur Miller. He is celebrated as a giant of the American theater, renowned for classics like "Death Of A Salesman" and "The Crucible," which premiered in the '40s and '50s but which continue to be read in schools and perform to this day.

Now, Miller lived a long time. He died in 2005 at the age of 89, so it might be easy to forget that for much of his adult life, he wasn't just accomplished. He was also a major celebrity. He made headlines during his marriage to Marilyn Monroe and with his testimony before Congress during the McCarthy Era.

A new documentary, "Arthur Miller: Writer," reminds us of that history but also digs below the headlines and gives us a very personal view of the playwright through the eyes of his daughter, Rebecca, who recorded interviews with her father over the course of 25 years and narrates the film. When I spoke with Rebecca Miller, who was a filmmaker by trade, I started by asking her why she started filming her father.

REBECCA MILLER: At that time, I was in my early-20s, and I realized that no one was going to be able to get the kind of interviews with my father that would show what he was really like because he was quite closed down in interviews and really didn't show his personality.

MARTIN: He seems very relaxed. I mean, you show him at home and making furniture in his garden in Connecticut. He seemed like he was - I don't know - is enjoying himself the right word?

R. MILLER: Yeah, I think he was a really happy man at the time that I was shooting him there. I mean, he was a moody person in some ways. But yeah, I would say that that's part of - was his humor in part that I felt was so missing from the way people saw him.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the work. I mean, I think many listeners will associate Arthur Miller with "Death Of The Salesman," his 1949 play about this aging, I guess failing salesman, Willy Loman, and his family. It's been interpreted by, you know, many people. And I want to play a clip from your documentary, your father reading about the impact of the play upon its debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER")

ARTHUR MILLER: There was no applause at the final curtain of the first performance. Strange things began to go on in the audience. With the curtain down, some people stood to put their coats on and then sat again. Some, especially men, were bent forward, covering their faces. And others were openly weeping.

MARTIN: It's remarkable to consider that - isn't it? - in 1949. I mean, what do you think evoked that reaction? And I'd also love to know if you have a theory about this - what it is about your father's work that allowed him to tap into those feelings.

R. MILLER: I mean, I think at the heart of it, there was a mystery even to him about the effect of that play, and he talks about that a little bit in the documentary - you know, that it had a kind of almost mystical power over people. I think some of it had to do with the nature of the father-son conflict and also the idea of a person about failure and about people just being thrown away when they're no longer use - as use in society. I also think that the play was composed with so much love, for Willy as a character, that that love is everywhere in the play and that people are just affected by it.

MARTIN: He got a lot of attention also when he, like other artists, was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This was in 1956 during the McCarthy era and inspired "The Crucible" about the Salem witch trials. In your documentary, the playwright Tony Kushner sums it up this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER")

TONY KUSHNER: It's about a dilemma that every society comes to at one point or another, which is when the powerful make an alliance with the mad.

MARTIN: Do you want to expand on that a little bit?

R. MILLER: You know, that play is about judges who come to a town where girls are accusing various members of the town of being witches. And they are getting more and more power through these accusations. And these are girls who were completely powerless before. And the girls have, themselves, kind of gone mad, but people start using them for various purposes. And so it's that alliance between the powerful and the mad, which some people who watch the film have equated with our own times. And I do think that there's things about the documentary which really do evoke our time to a degree. You know, there have been fears about the state of our democracy and the sanctity of our democracy and whether fascism is a possibility in our time. And you just remember that - I mean, they really did believe that there may be fascism in their time in the 1950s. That was something they genuinely thought could happen.

MARTIN: One of the things I was most interested in talking to you about is this question of celebrity versus accomplishment. I mean, he is truly accomplished. The fact that you can walk into any high school - pretty much, I think - in this country and find one of his plays, the fact that most people know one of his plays, you know, says something about how large he looms in our kind of culture. On the other hand, he was this enormous celebrity. I mean, the fact that he was married to Marilyn Monroe, who was almost like a mythic figure because of her celebrity. I can't think of a playwright today other than maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda of "Hamilton" fame that a lot of people know.

R. MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think Tony Kushner comes also closer to that...

MARTIN: Yes, I agree.

R. MILLER: ...You know, as well. But I agree with that. It was also that the theater, I think, at that time, had a different kind of importance. And a great new play by a young playwright or any kind of playwright was a big cultural deal. So it had a different - already, the theater had a slightly different status, I suppose, in our culture, combined that with him then being with a very, very famous movie star - that created a kind of combustion effect.

MARTIN: There's another issue that I think emerged either late in your father's life or after his death that you touch on in the film, which was you have a younger brother, Daniel, who has Down Syndrome, and your father and mother, evidently, really much more at your father's insistence, placed him in an institution after he was born in 1966. And you say in the film, you wanted to film a segment with him about this decision but never did. And I'm interested in how you feel about all of that.

R. MILLER: Well, I mean, you know, I would bring people back to the film for that, you know? It took me a long, long time to try and figure out the most honest and correct - right way of approaching that. Regarding whether one should discuss these things, you know, there's a lot of questions about this one did that, and so should we appreciate their art? - I've been asked that a bunch of times recently - and so on. You know, like, do we avoid people's art if they appear to have done one thing or another thing? And I actually - I think that we have to kind of separate those things out because, otherwise, you're in a kind of vortex of judgment. Tolstoy beat his serfs, but he's one of the greatest writers that ever lived. And does that mean we don't read "Anna Karenina" anymore? So regarding - I mean, this really has not very much bearing on our situation, but I would say that on a larger level, I think that that's sort of how I feel.

MARTIN: Is there anything in particular that you want people to draw from this film?

R. MILLER: The reason I made the film is I felt as though I wanted people to feel that they had spent the weekend with Arthur Miller and yet knew more than they would know about him if they'd spent the weekend with him. I just want you to feel like you know him, and then you can go back to his work and see it in a different light.

MARTIN: That is filmmaker Rebecca Miller. Her latest film is about her father, Arthur Miller. It's called "Arthur Miller: Writer." You can find it on HBO GO, HBO NOW and on demand. And she was kind of to join us from our bureau in New York. Rebecca Miller, thank you so much for speaking with us.

R. MILLER: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: For Sunday, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'll be back next week. And in the meantime, please keep submitting your original poetry on Twitter with the hashtag NPR poetry. Our next guest curator will be Aaron Coleman. He is both a poet and a translator of poetry. Aaron we'll be keeping a special eye out for poems in Espanol. Thank you for sharing your poems, and have a great evening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.