The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Arthur Miller’s Art of Theatre interview

Posted on: May 25, 2007

I wasn’t sure about how things would go at the start. Half of the introduction was devoted to minute observations on the interior design of his country abode and the various bric-a-bracs that reminded me of those awful InStyle celebrity home spreads. The other half was more similar to the introductions done under Gourevitch’s hand, a casual mention of the moments immediately before the participants settle down to chat; under Brigid Hughes’ they were more of a detailed time line of the interviewees literary career up to that point. Unlike either we are given no overview of Miller’s.

Anyway you can imagine my relief when the interview gets going and I realise it’s going to be all about the work. (Hooray!) It’s one of the best interviews I’ve read so far, for Miller shared interesting views with an authoritative tone that was quite mesmerising. It’s also great to read his takes on radio plays, the faults of the younger generation of playwrights and the potential of television drama.

Simply, it’s hard to get good movies, it’s hard to get good novels, it’s hard to get good poetry — it’s impossible to get good television because in addition to the indigenous difficulties there’s the whole question of it being a medium that’s controlled by big business. It took TV seventeen years to do Death of a Salesman here. It’s been done on TV in every country in the world at least once, but it’s critical of the business world and the content is downbeat.

Another intriguing part of the interview is that Miller spent some time on current problems of the theatre world, specifically a controversy with a permanent repertory group that had been trying to get off the ground but was rejected by most of the acting community. Miller explained that few actors wanted to commit themselves to a contract for a number of years in case they missed their big Hollywood chance. I don’t that the PR interviews ever do that now except in the most general way.

Did you know that The Crucible had anything to do with McCarthyism? I did not. I  had borrowed it from a friend in 6th form, vaguely recalled something about a film starring Winona Ryder (did she?) and was intrigued by the fact that it involved witches.

Overall I got the sense that this was a very interesting, exciting time in the literary establishment and Miller seemed to have so many links with theatre, with Hollywood, that he was in the middle of it all and could tell you so much about it; and on a larger scale, the political landscape with the changing ideas of politics in relation to one’s personal life. You should read it: it’s freely available at the website. (PDF format)

I’ll leave you with Miller on “Method” acting taking over and whether it was right for theatre. He just discussed the reasons for the failure of the permanent repertory company and the interviewer asked him if Lee Strasberg, a director, had influenced the actors.

MILLER

He’s a great force, and (in my unique opinion, evidently) a force which is not for the good in theatre. He makes actors secret people and he makes acting secret, and it’s the most communicative art known to man; I mean, that’s what the actor’s supposed to be doing. But I wouldn’t blame the Repertory Theater failures on him, because the people in there were not Actors Studio people at all; so he is not responsible for that. But the Method is in the air: the actor is defending himself from the Philistine, vulgar public. I had a girl in my play I couldn’t hear, and the acoustics in that little theatre we were using were simply magnificent. I said to her, “I can’t hear you,” and I kept on saying, “I can’t hear you.” She finally got furious and said to me, in effect, that she was acting the truth, and that she was not going to prostitute herself to the audience. That was the living end! It reminded me of Walter Hampden’s comment — because we had a similar problem in The Crucible with some actors — he said they play a cello with the most perfect bowing and the fingering is magnificent but there are no strings on the instrument. The problem is that the actor is now working out his private fate through his role, and the idea of communicating the meaning of the play is the last thing that occurs to him. In the Actors Studio, despite denials, the actor is told that the text is really the framework for his emotions; I’ve heard actors change the order of lines in my work and tell me that the lines are only, so to speak, the libretto for the music — that the actor is the main force that the audience is watching and that the playwright is his servant. They are told that the analysis of the text, and the rhythm of the text, the verbal texture, is of no importance whatever. This is Method, as they are teaching it, which is, of course, a perversion of it, if you go back to the beginning. But there was always a tendency in that direction. Chekhov, himself, said that Stanislavsky had perverted The Seagull.

INTERVIEWER

What about Method acting in the movies?

MILLER

Well in the movies, curiously enough, the Method works better. Because the camera can come right up to an actor’s nostrils and suck out of him a communicative gesture; a look in the eye, a wrinkle of his grin, and so on, which registers nothing on stage. The stage is, after all, a verbal medium. You’ve got to make large gestures if they’re going to be able to see it all. In other words, you’ve got to be unnatural. You’ve got to say, “I am out to move into that audience; that’s my job.” In a movie you don’t do that; as a matter of fact, that’s bad movie-acting, it’s overacting. Movies are wonderful for private acting.

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2 Responses to "Arthur Miller’s Art of Theatre interview"

I love what he says about the difference between stage acting and movie acting. I feel that I can usually tell when a movie actor I’m unfamiliar with has previously been a stage actor. And it’s always interesting to watch movies in which the actors are playing stage actors. Sometimes, like in Chicago or Cabaret, it really works — that stage feel comes across even in the movie medium. Other times, it’s just a flop.

I’ve never really paid attention to the differences before and what must require of actors: especially in Britain where its more common, it seems, for actors to do both and excel at both. It’s done in the US too but American actors don’t seem to do so well in the crossover of screen to stage these days. So it looks to me.

I love Cabaret! I’ll have to watch it again.

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