I better grasp people of the distant past through viewing more recent people who are similar to them. I can grasp the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, a diplomat and administrator who mixed sadness with humor, by reading Henry Fielding, an English judge who fought crime on the London streets while mastering humor in the early English novels. I better understood the Roman orator Cicero through seeing an actor portray Clarence Darrow, another lawyer who was passionate about words and ideas.
And I came to better appreciate the Greek tragedian Sophocles by reading the plays of Arthur Miller. We are now celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of Miller’s birth. Through the connection of Henrik Ibsen, Miller wrote plays in the tradition of Sophocles. Sophocles, Ibsen and Miller all wrote plays that were both profound in subject matter and perfect in form.
Miller’s liberal views and activities are well known. But people pay scant attention to Miller’s work as a carpenter. Yet this avocation throws considerable light on the work that went into the creation of Miller’s plays.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman finds respite in gardening and carpentry. Long before he wrote this play, Miller had become involved in carpentry. He had built a shed on his land in Connecticut, and it was in this shed that he wrote Salesman.
This pursuit was life-long. Miller had a large workshop on his Connecticut land. In this he built most of the furniture in his house.
Interestingly enough, Miller referred to both Sophocles and Ibsen as master carpenters. But whereas Ibsen’s physical labor may have ended with his stint as a pharmacist’s assistant, Sophocles undertook work similar to that done by Miller.
Sophocles is well known to history as a man of varied talents. He was a star athlete and musician who went on to be, at various times, a diplomat, general and treasurer of the Athenian empire. He was a priest of the healing god Asclepius, and in this function helped to build the first public hospital in Athens. He founded a society for the advancement of music and literature.
But Sophocles also needed to work for a living. His father was an armorer. He owned a workshop in which armor, shields, spears and swords were made. It would have been customary for Sophocles to follow his father into this vocation.
As Alfred Zimmern noted in his book The Greek Commonwealth, the owners of ancient workshops were unlike many modern capitalists in that they actually participated in the physical labor. Sophocles, like his father, would have worked in making swords and spears. He gained from these labors the sense of workmanship that permeates his plays.
The case of Sophocles is similar, then, to that of Arthur Miller. But whereas Sophocles has stood at the pinnacle of drama for some twenty-five hundred years, Miller’s reputation had its peaks and valleys. In the 1940’s, he astonished the public with Death of a Salesman, one of the greatest American plays. Also early in his career, he added to his laurels with All My Sons and The Crucible.
Yet by the 60’s, Miller was no longer considered relevant. While his plays continued to be performed in Europe, his career languished for some three decades. It was not until the 1990’s that Miller’s plays again received frequent productions on Broadway.
Why such neglect for so major an artist? In the 1960’s critics such as Robert Brustein pushed for plays they considered relevant. What “relevance” has translated to is the following of trends. And this emphasis in playwriting has unfortunately come down to our present day.
Too many plays are written in appeasement of current trends. Precious few are created to have lasting value.
In contrast to this, Arthur Miller offered the theatre plays exploring serious social matters that also contained psychological and poetic depth. On a social/political level, Salesman is a condemnation of capitalism. On a psychological level, it is the study of a man brought down by his delusions.
Plays of substance require fine workmanship, and Arthur Miller brought to playwriting the same integrity and craft that he used in making tables and chairs. In his great essay on lyric writing, Oscar Hammerstein 2nd used an example of what he considered to be workmanship.
The Statue of Liberty was made in the 1870’s, long before the invention of airplanes and helicopters. Gassendi crafted this statue without ever guessing that people would someday be flying over the flame held by Liberty.
He could have left the flame area unfinished. Yet he chose to shape it, and people flying near Manhattan have since appreciated his work.
Hammerstein, in his musicals, upheld the highest values of workmanship, and so did Miller in his plays.