The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Tragedy as the basic pillar

Posted on: May 24, 2007

INTERVIEWER

Which playwrights did you most admire when you were young?

 

MILLER

Well, first the Greeks, for their magnificent form, the symmetry. Half the time I couldn’t really repeat the story because the characters in the mythology were completely blank to me. I had no background at that time to know really what was involved in these plays, but the architecture was clear. One looks at some building of the past whose use one is ignorant of, and yet it has a modernity. It had its own specific gravity. That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in.

 

INTERVIEWER

You were particularly drawn to tragedy, then?

 

MILLER

It seemed to me the only form there was. The rest of it was all either attempts at it, or escape from it. But tragedy was the basic pillar.

 

INTERVIEWER

When Death of a Salesman opened, you said to the New York Times in an interview that the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we’re in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity. Do you consider your plays modern tragedies?

 

MILLER

I changed my mind about it several times. I think that to make a direct or arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the question of religion and power, which was taken for granted and is an a priori consideration in any classic tragedy. Like a religious ceremony, where they finally reached the objective by the sacrifice. It has to do with the community sacrificing some man whom they both adore and despise in order to reach its basic and fundamental laws and, therefore, justify its existence and feel safe.

 

INTERVIEWER

In After The Fall, although Maggie was “sacrificed” the central character Quentin survives. Did you see him as tragic or in any degree potentially tragic?

 

MILLER

I can’t answer that, because I can’t, quite frankly, separate in my mind tragedy from death. In some people’s minds I know there’s no reason to put them together. I can’t break it — for one reason, and that is, to coin a phrase: there’s nothing like death. Dying isn’t like it, you know. There’s no substitute for the impact on the mind of the spectacle of death. And there is no possibility, it seems to me, of speaking of tragedy without it. Because if the total demise of the person we watch for two or three hours doesn’t occur, if he just walks away, no matter how damaged, no matter how he suffers…

 

From “The Art of the Theater” No. 2 interview with Arthur Miller, Paris Review No. 38, 1966

 

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