Arthur Miller, Selling the U.S.A.

By David S. Broder
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 15, 1989; Page C01

NORWICH, ENGLAND_ -- While the sunlight and windblown clouds dappled the green fields nearby, American playwright Arthur Miller sat in a windowless gray cinder block room in one of the University of East Anglia's stunningly ugly factory-replica classroom buildings, swapping horror stories with three dozen British and American theater people.

"Two years ago," he said in his hoarse voice, "this group in New York decided to do a production of 'The Crucible' that would be, as they put it, 'purposefully incomprehensible.' They read the lines as fast as their tongues could pronounce them ... a kind of riff on the play, with all the emotion drained from the text.

"Well, I told them I wanted it stopped," Miller said, as actress Susannah York, critic John Lahr and playwright Arnold Wesker nodded sympathetically. "And they said the play was so well-known now that it was rather a 'found object.'

"And I said, 'It's a found object that hasn't been lost, thank you.' And eventually they stopped. They kind of dribbled away ..."

Edward Petherbridge, the actor who played Lord Peter Wimsey on public television's "Mystery!" production, told of his recent battle with the director of a revival of Molie`re's "The Misanthrope," who insisted for weeks that Petherbridge read the iambic pentameter couplets in his native North Country accent. Petherbridge then read the company the rather lengthy protest poem he had composed to shake the errant director from his folly.

The gripe session Saturday morning began a day-long seminar on the state of theater on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the opening event of the weekend's inauguration of the Arthur Miller Center for American Studies at the 25-year-old university on the outskirts of this northeastern city where thousands of American airmen played while serving at East Anglia bomber bases.

Last night, in the Theater Royal, actors from half a dozen London shows were to join Petherbridge and York in scenes from three Miller classics, "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," and in onstage conversations with the author, for patrons of a $100-a-ticket fundraiser. Today, an exhibition of photographs by Miller's wife Inge Morath is to open in the Norwich cathedral.

The Miller Center is an act of defiance, a challenge to the accelerating decline and destruction of American studies in British universities. At a reception for Miller and Morath held Friday at the U.S. Embassy in London, Robert A. Burchell of the University of Manchester, the head of the British Association of American Studies, cited the sad statistics.

In the past decade, the number of chairs (endowed professorships) in American history, American literature and American studies has declined from 26 to 13. Scheduled retirements could drop the number to seven by the middle of the 1990s.

The specialty is being wasted by a combination of forces. The postwar generation of American studies professors has hit retirement age just as the Thatcher government is drastically reducing university subsidies. In the budget crunch, the relatively new American studies are losing out to older disciplines and to the business and science courses the prime minister says should have top priority.

Manchester, which had the first American studies department, is now the most worrisome example of the trend. "In 1981, our chair of American literature became vacant and was never filled," Burchell said. "Now the chair of American history has come vacant, and it's not been filled for next year. We'll learn at a meeting Thursday whether we'll continue as a separate department or be dispersed to the other faculties."

Already many of the lions of British scholarship have crossed the Atlantic to take jobs at American universities. Marcus Cunliffe left Manchester for George Washington University; Paul Kennedy quit East Anglia for Yale.

The continuing loss of the prestigious professorships at the peak of the academic hierarchy is worrisome. As Charlotte Erickson, the first occupant of the Paul Mellon chair of American history at Oxford, said in an interview, "Once you don't have a chair, you don't have anyone to speak for you in university battles. And the bright students turn away from doing their graduate studies in your field. Since Mrs. Thatcher came in, it's been much safer to do British or European or even Third World history or politics."

The irony of American studies' being a victim of the most ostentatiously pro-American prime minister since Churchill is not lost on anyone, especially since the undergraduate student demand for courses in American politics, culture, history, literature and film has never been stronger. There are five or six applicants for each available class space, and those who are selected at universities like East Anglia must have higher "A Level" scores than chemistry or physics majors.

Two years ago, East Anglia's Howard Temperley, then head of the British association of Americanists, convinced Ronald Clifton, the U.S. Embassy cultural officer, to bring over Jack Salzman, the director of Columbia University's center for American culture studies, to review the picture. Salzman reported that "the situation is a dire one indeed. Despite the friendly relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ... the current British government seems at best to be indifferent ... Within 10 years {it} may no longer be a subject of serious study."

American cultural products are omnipresent, of course, especially on television. In the words of Chris Brookeman, director of the American studies resource center at the Polytechnic of Central London, "Asking our students how they feel about American culture is like asking a fish how he feels about water."

Brookeman, like many others who teach in the field, has no patience for those who put down the value of U.S. contributions to the arts. An Oxford roommate of Rhodes scholar Richard F. Celeste, now governor of Ohio, Brookeman argues that "a John Ford movie has a structure every bit as complex as 'The Tempest.' Our teachers love to teach Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. F. Scott Fitzgerald is very popular. As I tell my students, 'When you finish here, I'd like you to be able to handle both 'The Golden Bowl' {a Henry James novel} and the Super Bowl.' "

Miller has more qualms about the export of American pop culture. He told the embassy reception, "It isn't enough to know 'Dallas' if you want to understand the United States. It helps, but it's not enough."

In an interview, he added, "What worries me is that at home as well as here, we're turning to popular culture not just for entertainment but for education. Superficial stereotypes dominate so many people's thinking, and they lead to serious misunderstandings." That is one reason why Miller, whose latest film, "Everyone Wins," with Debra Winger and Nick Nolte, is being edited in London, decided to lend his name and his presence to the launch of the new center.

"I agreed to this," he said, "because I feel this whole bottom-line idea of culture is a disaster, not just for Britain but for the United States. We have to break the grip of business and technology on our education system."

Even the troubles of the theater may be sending a signal of the risks of overcommercialization, he said. "Broadway is not a theater anymore. It is just a lot of shows ... Nothing originates in New York anymore. No sane producer will open a play on Broadway for the first time ..."

The vitality of American theater, he told the seminar, is found off-Broadway and in the residential theater companies scattered in increasing numbers around the country. "It may be that theater is being thrust back to where it belongs, with actors playing to 200 people at a time. Maybe we got too big for our own good."

That may partly explain why America's most eminent living playwright was closeted for a weekend with a few people in a provincial British university. But, as always, the real reasons are personal.

"Britain has been marvelous to me," he said, "and not just to me. To every American playwright from O'Neill on. My plays are better played here -- and far more often." The Young Vic last year did a pair of one-acters, "Elegy for a Lady" and "Some Kind of Love Story," that neither New York nor Washington has seen.

Chris Bicksby, the engaging academic entrepreneur behind the Miller Center, began his friendship with Miller with a series of get-well notes when the playwright was hospitalized with hepatitis in Britain in 1965. A onetime Fulbright scholar at Kansas State University, Bicksby has written extensively on Miller's plays.

He's also arranged to rescue some of Miller's work from threatened oblivion, convincing BBC radio to give a first production of a play "I discovered in an archive in Texas that had never been produced anywhere," and more recently, arranging a London production of "The Archbishop's Ceiling," a play that in another version flopped at the Kennedy Center in the early 1970s.

Even with the boost the playwright has given Bicksby's new academic enterprise this weekend, it's a gamble whether the Miller Center will get off the ground. Bicksby speaks of raising almost $2 million from multinational corporations, foundations and philanthropists in both the United States and the United Kingdom to underwrite a research center with exchange programs, visiting lecturers and a broad program of seminars, serving a national audience.

"I'd like to bring former presidents and former prime ministers together, as well as people from the arts, journalism and other fields," he said. But so far, he has only "small beer" money, supplied by a couple of Fulbright and U.S. Information Services grants, a bit of help from his university and the proceeds of tonight's theatrical benefit.

"We're trying to send a signal that American studies are not in decline," Bicksby said. "At the moment, all the incentives are to bail out -- to find another field of study or to move to an American university, as I've been tempted to do. We're trying to give people a reason to stay."

© 1989 The Washington Post Company