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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Arthur Miller's Lessons

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page A17

Facing grave new threats from demonic forces, we can't be as exacting as we used to be about our rights and traditions, can we?

"Though our hearts break, we cannot flinch," a prominent clergyman declares. "There is a misty plot afoot so subtle we should be criminal to cling to old respects and ancient friendships."

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The clergyman in question is the Rev. John Hale, a character in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," set at the time of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. Miller's death last week at 89 will, one hopes, lead to a new engagement with the work of a playwright who knew the impossibility of sharply dividing the political from the moral and the public from the personal.

Miller instructed us on the individual's obligation to stand up to frightened, and thus dangerous, majorities. But he also offered a withering moral critique of an empty individualism that saw no connection between personal actions and a common good that Miller devoutly believed existed. He preached against selfishness because he knew its strong tug on our souls. He was a moralist deeply suspicious of how moralism is used.

To say that "The Crucible," first produced in 1953, reads as if it were a response to today's headlines is just to repeat what has been said for half a century -- by former dissidents in post-communist Eastern Europe no less than by American liberals during the McCarthy period. "I can always tell what the political situation is in a country when the play is suddenly a hit there," Miller wrote in his autobiography. "It is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past."

For our own moment, consider this speech by Deputy Governor Danforth defending the role of Salem's witch-hunting court. "But you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time -- we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it. I hope you will be one of those."

"The Crucible" was seen as an allegory to the anti-communist crusade of the 1950s. Miller's critics argued that the Soviet threat was real in the way that witchcraft wasn't. Much the same might be said today of terrorism.

Miller pointed to the dangers of drawing too facile a line between good and evil not because he denied evil but precisely because he understood its power to affect the righteous. Few theologians had as rich an understanding as Miller of man's fallen nature. In "After the Fall," one of Miller's characters asks: "God, why is betrayal the only truth that sticks?"

Yet Miller's genius in appreciating the dark side is precisely what enabled him to celebrate the human struggle against it. And Miller's understanding of human frailty created one of the great ethical imperatives of his work: the demand that respect be offered to other human beings despite their shortcomings.

Miller set his face against the world's tendency to write off large parts of humanity as losers. If Miller was aware of the corruption of the strong, he was also insistent upon the dignity of the weak. This inspired the storied soliloquy in "Death of a Salesman" from Willy Loman's wife, Linda: "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention finally must be paid to such a person."

Or as Willy himself put it, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit."

Miller never lost the old-fashioned social commitment he learned in the theater of the 1930s. Yet even in his most political work -- including his first successful play, "All My Sons" -- his characters were never simply mechanical representatives of a class. Human beings, not some abstract, undifferentiated humanity, were the stuff of Miller's drama.

Commenting on the 1950s, Miller once said: "We were all going slightly crazy trying to be honest and trying to see straight and trying to be safe. Sometimes there are conflicts in these three urges."

There still are.


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