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Arthur Miller's Global Theater
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2007 University of Michigan
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Arthur Miller's Israel and Israel's Arthur Miller
In September 1988, five months after Israel officially opened its fiftieth year of statehood celebrations, Ha'aretz, the Tel Aviv-based liberal daily newspaper, published "Waiting for the Teacher," a nineteen-stanza, free verse poem written by Arthur Miller to mark the occasion. The text is both personal and political, brief vignettes from the writer's experiences, described in colloquial language, interspersed among longer, lyrical passages, quasi-biblical in tone, touching on many of the themes and concerns that have been central to Miller's theater over the same half-century span. The poem is about Israel, but it is also about Arthur Miller.
It begins with Miller's presentation of his credentials, a Jewish writer addressing a Jewish country, a partisan in its history, pain, and triumph:
I quickly understand the Jewish dead, Know their shock at departing alone; See Jewish women at the blast Glancing back across the centuries As laughter of Goyim cracks the air; All this I see at the gunshot.
Less automatic but also imperative is his awareness of the need to understand and acknowledge the suffering of thePalestinians, who also lay claim to the same land:
I have to think about the Arab dead Before their leaving shocks me. I must Instruct my heart on how they grieve. And stare into the centuries, hearing Europe's laughter and contempt. All this I understand when I think about it.
This kind of knowledge does not come easily, Miller acknowledges. It takes an act of will to put oneself in another's place, but the effort must be made:
Justice must be wanted before it comes, Invited in from the desert Where it wanders about like a prophet Despised for his peaceful intentions In a time of war. For the heart knows its own blood best.
In the poem, Miller's "own" are Israelis. For example, he describes sharing the excitement generated on a snowy night at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, when Russian Andrei Gromeko came in from the cold, bearing the gift of public recognition for the new Jewish state. Now, it seemed "everything would change." A people who bore too long the mark of difference would be like everyone else. Miller quotes the voices dreaming of the normalcy about to happen:
"Now there'll be Jewish bus drivers, Jewish cops, street cleaners, farmers, garbage collectors, prime ministers, yes even Jewish whores. Imagine! We'll be a normal people, an ordinary country like all the others."
To this list, Miller provides a coda, "And on these few sandy acres Justice done!" Justice, capitalized and all pervasive, is the rock upon which he assumes the new society will be built, its plan based on Mosaic models rather than narrowly prescribed religious practice. Thus constituted, Israel will be a nation "like any other and like none."
And what of the dream fifty years later? Tellingly, Miller shifts from prophet to playwright, invoking imagery of the theater: "The applause has died away / Dry coughs in the audience, / Dusty odor of polite boredom." The plot has gone stale, done once too often, "the one where everyone is right / and all must share the wrong." What seems to have made "the well-known loss of high expectation" more acute this time is the fact that much more had been hoped. Miller explains:
For Israel was moral first and dreamed much, And now that she has merely joined the world, A nation no different than all the rest, The audience is reading its wrists, While the play's antagonists repeat The same old equality of claims.
He cites recent examples of the hatred that fanaticism has wrought, both in the Middle East and in America, enveloped in the cloak of Orthodoxy: "I have been trying these eighty years / to become an atheist, and with the help / of Orthodoxy have at last come really / close to succeeding."
And yet, it is not as simple as that. "The atheist" still finds a need to "address the Jews." The tone once more becomes personal; the pronoun of choice is first person plural.
Perhaps because we invented the promise, and in the end it may happen that we alone can call it finished, if so it must be. When it becomes too easy to be a Jew it is time to ask what has gone wrong.
Miller ends with the hope that a savior will come, not a judge to adjudicate conflicts or mete out punishment, but rather a teacher/prophet who will bring justice. Such a figure has not withheld his coming-he is not Godot-Miller emphatically states. He merely awaits the call:
For unless he is summoned He will not come. He is unable To idly enter the city; Unless he is called by those who love him, He will sit in the dust beside the gate ...
The call for justice and compassion, issued by Miller in the poem, is the same one he delivered for over fifty years in his role as playwright/ teacher/prophet. In other writing he also positioned himself both inside and outside the gates, as actor and observer. However, what gives "Waiting for the Teacher" particular power is the fact that he draws directly from his own feelings as a Jew to deliver his message. This connection to Jewish experience is based not on religion-a "dead history," he called it-nor on ethnic superiority, which has led to the sectarian divisions he describes, but rather on ethical precepts that present the doctrine "I am my brother's keeper" in the most universal sense. "Ethics, not ethnicity, became Miller's special forte," Enoch Brater rightly observes. However, in the poem and in many of his other writings, there are still those compelling, sometimes inexplicable, feelings of connectedness, which have little to do with moral precepts and everything to do with common history and memories.
In his short story "I Don't Need You Anymore," his most direct critique of Jewish religious practices, his young protagonist turns his back on inherited rituals he cannot understand and refuses to practice. But the adult Jew in "Monte Sant'Angelo"-the following story in the same collection-experiences a sense of pride, and even ecstasy, over his discovery of a man in a remote Italian village whom he assumes to be a Jew, someone who has somehow survived "the brainless crush of history" and without even being aware is still carrying out these same traditions, whose origins he does not recognize and cannot even name. "He's Jew," the protagonist, Bernstein, is sure. His bundle metonymically marks the man. "'The way he works that bundle. It's exactly the way my father used to tie a bundle-and my grandfather. The whole history is packing bundles and getting away. Nobody else can be as tender and delicate with bundles'" (68). The implied message of the story is the need for the heart to know its own, or create its own, seeking comfort in memories of family and history, in a world of strangers.
An anecdote Miller relates in Timebends points to a similar need. He describes sitting in an almost empty New York subway late one evening, when a white-bearded, elderly Orthodox Jew entered, carrying, again, the "inevitable bundle wrapped in brown paper and twine." Clearly nervous, exhibiting "all the anxious energy of the survivor," the old man scanned the faces of the few in the car and made his way over to the writer, sat down, and whispered furtively in his ear: "Are you Jewish?" When Miller answered yes, he repeated the question, just to make certain. "You're Jewish?" Receiving a second confirmation, he felt sufficiently relieved to ask, "Does this stop at Canal Street?" (285-86).
What underlies the short story and the humorous scene is Miller's awareness of the powerful sway of history and shared identity, which cannot be denied, much as one might like to yank out the roots of the past. The word goyim is part of Miller's inherited word-hoard. In fact, what seems to distinguish him from other American writers is precisely the significance that he places on the claims of the past in the present. The same cannot be said of Miller's characters. In his theater and fiction, sons know their fathers, and they embrace them, yet they do battle with what they represent. "The job of artists," Miller has written, is "to remind people of what they have chosen to forget." Here lies the nexus of the dramatic conflict, as he has defined it. If history consists of memories of the particular, how can individuals or countries ever escape the sectarian pull of "what was" as they attempt to act and react in a more humane, universal way to "what is"? "The untaught heart knows its own blood best, / but is this all the heart can know?" (5), Miller asks in "Waiting for the Teacher" and repeats in many of his plays. The question has no easy answer. A teacher/prophet may instruct about justice, as Miller tried to do in his plays by laying siege to "the fortress of unrelatedness," but the edifice is not easily breached. In addition, Miller knew that audiences had "a certain amount of resentfulness toward the presumption of any playwright to teach." Thus the "glazed glancing at watches" is a reaction courted by any playwright who dares to stage monumental confrontations in which "everyone is right / And all must share the wrong."
Even were attention paid, it is not easy to convey another's pain, or to feel it oneself. Even teachers sometimes turn away. Even Jews may stand unmoved by the plight of fellow Jews, as Miller graphically displays in Incident at Vichy and illustrates in Timebends, when he describes his own inability to identify with Holocaust survivors whom he encountered during his 1948 trip to Italy, which most likely also provided the inspiration in "Monte Sant'Angelo" for Goldberg's encounter with the mythical Italian Jew. Miller had gone to a safe house in an Italian coastal town, where Jewish survivors of the death camps were gathered, waiting to escape "the graveyard of Europe forever" and go to Palestine and a new beginning. He tries to make contact with them, explaining in his pidgin Yiddish-German that he, too, is a Jew. However, this time there is no solidarity established. "They were not interested in my problem and could see no help in me for their own." Instead his gesture is met with mistrust "like acid in my face." The experience stayed with him, he explains in his autobiography, written forty years later.
In coming years I would wonder why it never occurred to me to throw in my lot with them when they were the product of precisely the catastrophe I had in various ways given my writing life to try to prevent. To this day, thinking of them ... I feel myself disembodied, detached, ashamed of my stupidity, my failure to recognize myself in them. (166-67)
These were not Jews carrying bundles, who could be romantically associated with images of fathers and grandfathers; these were "burnt wood, charred iron, bone with eyes" (167). No wonder the heart recoiled at their presence, as the living recoil from the dead. And yet, in Miller's moral cosmology it is these survivors of the Holocaust who stand in the inner circle next to, but not mingling with, those other specters of a private and public Jewish past: the beloved businessman father, revered religious grandfather, and Jewish patriarchs of history and folklore. To be a Jew means connection with all these avatars of Jewish experience, Miller seems to indicate, not through a bond of ethnicity as much as through a shared history, which extends beyond familial ties and includes both images of comfort as well as abhorrence. The Jew is family and memory; he is also, as Miller explains in Incident at Vichy, "only the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction."
In "Waiting for the Teacher," Miller describes the special claims of Jewish identity, while at the same time arguing for the need to acknowledge the pain of others and the difficulty of doing so, even for one's "own others." It is a message that permeates all of Miller's writing. If the poem breaks no new ground in Miller studies, it does illustrate the ways in which the writer uses the case of Israel to wrestle once more with that central problem that he sees at the heart of all great theater:
How may a man make of the outside world a home? How and in what ways must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside himself if he is to find the safety, the surroundings of love, the ease of soul, the sense of identity and honor which, evidently, all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family?
If Arthur Miller found it convenient to use Israel as a way of drawing attention to the issues of family-one's own and the human family-the country has also found it convenient to use the playwright's theater as a means of waging its own battle to answer the questions, Who are we? and What do we believe? If for Miller Israel is iconic of the moral battles he needs must wage, his plays have become icons for Israelis of their own ongoing struggles with many of the same problems.
Over the last fifty years, Miller has been a constant presence in the Israeli theater, the teacher/prophet with the American Jewish accent, widely promulgated if not necessarily heeded. For him the gates have long been thrown open. After William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen, he is the playwright most produced in the six state-supported theaters in Israel. Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht are distant followers. There have been twenty-two major productions of his works over the past fifty years, and countless others have been presented in smaller, private venues. Death of a Salesman has been staged six times since its 1951 opening at Habima, Israel's national theater; All My Sons four times, since the original production at the Cameri Theatre in 1949; and almost all the plays written through the 1960s have been staged at least once.
He is enshrined not only in the dramatic repertoire of the country but also in the educational curriculum of the state. In 1975 Israel's Department of Education replaced Julius Caesar with All My Sons as a recommended text for all secondary students electing to take the advanced English curriculum required to enter university. Although there have been other options over the years and today teachers are free to select their own plays, most still choose it. That means that for the past thirty years, most Israeli students intending to go to college have studied and been tested on All My Sons. For most, it is their first exposure to drama; therefore the structure of the play, as well as its themes, have had a pervasive influence on the tastes, as well as the values, of the country. Israeli audiences even today equate theater with Ibsenesque realism, popularized in the country by Miller. Equally important has been the play's impact on language acquisition. In the period leading up to the late 1960s, when virtually no English television or radio was available in Israel, the reading of English language plays in high schools provided important examples of what "good English" should be. Students learned English literary culture through Shakespeare and language skills through parsing the speeches of Marc Antony and discussing the play in English language classes. Since the mid-1970s they have discovered America through Miller and proper speech through the conversations of the Keller family, abetted now, of course, by ubiquitous American television and music. Of course, Israel is not alone in embracing Arthur Miller and his theater, but it is difficult to think of any other country-not America or even Britain-where his influence has been so pervasive for so long. It is certainly the only country to have officially institutionalized All My Sons.
Excerpted from Arthur Miller's Global Theater Copyright © 2007 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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