Don't Look Back
America loves a winner. Even more, America appreciates a loser--not so much for the poignancy of his failure as for his role as lowest common denominator in the equation by which American lives are appraised. Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman offered us the American Dream as a grim calculus of profits and loss, has in his half century on the cultural stage become something like the nation's moral accountant, forever measuring the cost of ambition in the currency of the human spirit. But America, which has never suffered its moralists lightly, does not like to be reminded of the price of its material success, and Miller's unflagging indignation has often been dismissed by critics as dated and unreasonably righteous.
When I spoke to the playwright a few weeks ago, he was sensing renewed anxiety in his America. "I think it's evident in the shakiness in people's confidence--for instance, the stock-market crash last week. That fear of falling is still very much there.
"With the kind of life we lead now," he mused, "everything lasts for five minutes and disappears. There's a need of the human spirit for a stable center."
Less than a week after his 84th birthday, Miller was juggling a morning of phone interviews while getting over a sore throat. He was speaking from his farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he has spent most of his adult life in Frost-like seclusion. And judging by his tone, he was not particularly pleased by the prospect of what must have been another in an endless string of interruptions to some domestic tranquillity. "It's this cold," he squeaked. "I think I'm losing my voice."
Coming from an iconic figure like Miller, the statement seems pregnant with metaphorical possibility (and might seem even more so if it had not sounded as though it were coming from inside a wet paper bag). Yet in a metaphorical sense, Miller's voice has never been stronger. Death of a Salesman, which ranks among the most performed plays in history, was honored by Chicago's Goodman Theatre this past season with a 50th-anniversary production. The small but influential Signature Theatre recently devoted an entire season to the playwright's lesser-known work. Here in Minneapolis, the Signature's artistic director, James Houghton, is directing Miller's latest, Mr. Peters' Connections, which opens this Wednesday evening at the Guthrie Lab for its first run outside of New York.
According to Miller, the revival of interest in what he calls "straight drama" coincides with an anxious and profoundly unstable moment in American history. Yet even as America looks outward, Miller has turned his eye inward for a calculation of private fears and frustrated desires. Mr. Peters' Connections, he explains, is a "long departure" from what he once famously called "birds come home to roost"--the tragedy of outrageous fortune played in the key of Ibsen. Although the experimental structure is meant to mirror the "drift" of our current age, the play itself is a painfully personal reconciliation with the senses. "There's a musical element to it, almost like improvising on a musical instrument," Miller says. "What the play is, is a series of impressions and moods played out as experience. Usually you start with the action and get to the emotion. With this, we start from the emotion."
The emotion, in this case, is the existential panic of a middle-aged former pilot who spends an evening in a crumbling nightclub picking through the psychic detritus of a lifetime. As in many of Miller's other plays, memory and the present exist in concurrent streams, running together in a haunted meditation. "It's about a man looking back on his life and not having anything meaningful or significant to show for it," the playwright explains. "The anxiety comes from not being able to approach what it all comes to."
Miller, who once defined tragedy as "the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly," says that the play posits the sum of modern emotional life as a flood of disjointed details. "The man in the play is called upon by modern life to accept absurdities. He can't accept it, because these absurdities don't connect with what he knows to be true. He's testing his values against what he knows to be common human experience."
Like all of Miller's men, the worn-out hero of Mr. Peters' Connections learns that there is no loss so devastating as measuring oneself against one's youthful ideals and coming up a few dollars short.
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