Miller Time

THEATER CRITIC WALTER Kerr once warned Arthur Miller that he would drive audiences out of the theater. Suffice to say that the crowd for Miller's discussion with Joe Dowling last Sunday at the Guthrie jammed Lyndale Avenue all the way back to Franklin. It's hard to believe that on a blissful spring afternoon such a big chunk of humanity would sit down in the dark to listen to an 82-year-old man ramble on about the dismal state of the theater--much less pay 15 bucks for the experience. Nevertheless, I think we could have stayed in that theater for hours.

Sitting cross-armed at a table on the set of The Price, the white-haired Miller spoke thoughtfully on his own work as well as the theater scene. He gives off a remarkable aura: seen-it-all, relaxed, sharp-witted, full. When you write a play, he said, you discover that "you believe a little of what you disbelieve, and you disbelieve a lot of what you believe." You also discover, sometimes well after the fact, what it was you were trying to say. Take Death of a Salesman, which Miller intended as a character study. But Willy Loman's socioeconomic circumstances kept seeping through. The lesson? "Economic man," said Miller, is like a fish. "The fish is in the sea, but the sea is in him."

The same can be said of the theater--what goes on outside shapes what goes on inside. Film, for example, "has pressed theater to the wall... [At one time] we could hope to entertain people visually onstage. It's ridiculous now--we can't do it." (I would have loved to hear Dowling's answer to that, in light of his music-video Midsummer Night's Dream.) Miller's said in the past he sees theater as a fifth wheel of entertainment, and he has no solution for that.

But the real problem, in his view, is the price of the ticket. "People feel they have to take out a second mortgage," he said, pointing out that the Guthrie charges up to $40 to see his own play, The Price. After a burst of applause, Dowling brought up the issue of government arts funding, to which Miller responded, "It's the problem: 'If the people want to see it, they'll pay.' This simplistic idea, worthy of a baboon, governs the discussion." Clifford Odets's work barely made a dime, he pointed out. The masses don't want to see Hedda Gabler. Does that mean it should be shelved?

Listening to Miller and the sharp audience members who asked questions, it occurred to me that there's a deep sense of comfort in hearing bad news told honestly--the sense that, if we can tell the truth and talk about it freely, we still have reason to hope. Miller's always believed in that, which is no doubt why, in these days of creeping media control, this old geezer seems pretty damn fresh. (Kate Sullivan)

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