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Arthur Miller, Center Stage

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2001; Page C01


After 55 years of writing epochal plays, thoughtful essays and books, and an enduring reputation for a stern moral rectitude, Arthur Miller is a cultural giant. Yet he still throws himself back into the fray, continually submitting new work to the vicissitudes of public approval.

There is no one alive who has been more important to the American theater -- "America's greatest living playwright," pronounces more than one reference text. "He believes that life has a meaning," the critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in 1970. "He is a concerned citizen; he takes an active part in political and professional causes, and he is a persuasive polemicist. . . . He was also a moralist with a broad vision of the theater as a social institution."

He is also a realist, and willing to engage in the ritual of The Interview as one of the transactions artists must make. The impetus for this interview is the 30th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which Miller is to deliver Monday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Consider this visit sort of like a play. Not one by Arthur Miller, like "The Crucible" or "Death of a Salesman," but perhaps by David Mamet, full of halting half-sentences, repetition, and the occasional uncomfortable pause.

The scene is Miller's New York apartment on East 68th Street, a one-bedroom pied-à-terre furnished simply and decorated with theater posters for his plays and large colorful paintings by his youngest daughter, Rebecca, who is married to the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The living room is neither tidy nor messy, but littered with the casual detritus of the intellectual -- piles of books and papers and objects. The furniture is modern and simple.

There are two characters. The Playwright is 85, balding and bespectacled. He is tall and walks a bit stiffly and slightly bent, like a tree that has been tilted over time by the pull of gravity. His striped long-sleeved shirt covers a slight potbelly. He is placid and undemonstrative, neither unfriendly nor particularly welcoming. Being hard of hearing, he asks often that a question be repeated. He has a pronounced New York accent.

The Reporter is a woman of middle age. She has dressed with some care, trying to look a bit artistic in a wine-colored raw silk vest. She is nervous and somewhat overanimated and has prepared for The Interview by going over other newspaper stories about The Playwright, rereading parts of his 1987 autobiography, "Timebends," and his most recent collection of essays, "Echoes Down the Corridor." At one time or another she has seen most of his plays. She turns on a small tape recorder and places it on a coffee table in front of her, then takes out a pad of paper and a pen, propping her foot on the table so she can rest the pad on her leg.

Reporter (trying to break the ice with a few inconsequential questions): Do you come into the city often?

Playwright: It depends, if I'm working here I come in. But I'm mostly in Connecticut.

R (jokingly trying to show she knows he spent his early years in Harlem before his family moved to Brooklyn): I rather expected you to be on the West Side instead of the East --

P: It's immaterial. I'm not here that long. I'm here because a friend of ours lived in this building. Harrison Salisbury -- and there was an apartment they knew about, so we took it. [The Playwright's wife is photographer Inge Morath.] That's basically why I'm here. It's all right. It's a good building. . . . They take care of it well. I have no complaints. It's quiet.

R: Have you decided what you're going to talk about in Washington?

P: I have a speech I'm going to read. It's called "Politics and the Art of Acting." It's observations about the acting talents of the various main people.

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