TIMEBENDS: A Life By Arthur Miller Grove. 614 pp. $24.95

ARTHUR MILLER has written an autobiography that not surprisingly is of a piece with his plays: earnest and passionate, but also ponderous and artless. It is an interesting book but a strange one; in some respects Miller tells a great deal about himself and those with whom he has been intimately connected, yet in other respects he tells nothing at all. His life has been more active and public than most writers', so there is a bit more drama in his tale than in theirs; but in describing his life's work he gets no closer than has anyone else to explaining the inner sources of his art.

There are of course those who would deny that Miller's work can in fact be characterized as art. He has always had his full measure of rivals and detractors -- he complains that "aside from Death of a Salesman every one of my plays had originally met with a majority of bad, indifferent or sneering notices" -- and not without reason; though few dispute his good intentions, there are many who feel that the dramatic form in which he expresses them is too often devoid of subtlety or humor or stylistic grace. It often has seemed that he is one of those writers of whom it can be said that nobody loves him except the people.

To which Miller would add: and the actors and directors who have enthusiastically performed his work. He seems determined to prove in Timebends that whatever the critical response to his plays, they have enjoyed a continuing popularity and respect within the theater itself -- especially, it seems, the theater in countries other than this one. He argues that the plays for which he is less-known in the United States -- The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, The American Clock -- have been staged in England and elsewhere with great success, but that they have suffered in his native land not merely because of the critics but because of the absence of a "theater culture" in which work of varying quality is encouraged and given continuing life.

In this no doubt Miller is correct, though he may have been blinded by the greed and glitter of Broadway to the lively theater that thrives in what Manhattan dismisses as the provinces. Be that as it may, he is certainly justified in looking back fondly to the '40s and '50s, "when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff," when "the playwright's challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America" and when "serious writers could reasonably assume they were addressing the whole American mix, and so their plays, whether successful or not, stretched toward a wholeness of experience that would not require specialists or a coterie to be understood."

It was an atmosphere for which Miller was perfectly suited. He had absorbed the passionate introspection of Eugene O'Neill and the political commitment of Clifford Odets, and he shaped them into plays that precisely mirrored the mood of a country at once proud of its new might yet powerfully troubled by questions of national identity and character. These plays spoke, as he quite rightly recognizes, to what was as close to a mass audience as the theater is ever likely to reach in this century, an audience that recognized in them both its own private torments and the larger public controversies of the postwar years. It was not then and is not now an intellectual audience, but that is just as well; Miller is not an intellectual playwright, but a simplifier and a popularizer.

This is not a pejorative judgment but a simple statement of fact. Though Miller grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York, he has never been a member of the tiny crowd that once clustered around the Upper West Side and Partisan Review; though he once had a prolonged flirtation with Marxism, his world view is that of middle-class liberalism. His political and artistic courage is not to be underestimated, but he has always expressed it within acceptable bounds; in attacking Joe McCarthy, for example, he made not a frontal assault but a flanking maneuver, by using the Salem witchcraft trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism in The Crucible. For this and other reasons Miller has earned the contempt of the intelligentsia, who dismiss him as middle class and middle brow; but they fail to understand that the middle class is the heart of America, and that Miller's plays touched this heart in lasting, positive ways.

MILLER WRITES less in Timebends about specific aspects of these plays than one might expect, but he writes quite openly about his desire to deal with "universal emotions and ideas." The Jewish boy from New York set out quite determinedly "to identify myself with mankind rather than one small tribal fraction of it," to be "mediator between the Jews and America, and among Americans themselves as well"; he wanted "to hack out a road that would penetrate to the American center, to the point of creation beyond which there was nothing." Like Thomas Wolfe, he quite unembarrassedly saw himself as the embodiment of things American, and thus saw playwriting as "an act of self-discovery from the start."

Narcissistic though that sounds, there is remarkably little self-absorption in Miller's plays; there is rather more of it in Timebends, wherein he devotes a fair amount of space to defending himself and his work and to quoting others' lavish judgments about that work. A friend called Death of a Salesman "the best play ever written," a comment which "I dare repeat because it would be said often in the next months and would begin to change my life"; that is all well and good, but Miller seems to want us to take his friend's opinion more seriously than it should be. Miller, so modest and self-effacing in his public persona, herewith reveals a self-congratulatory side that is something less than attractive.

He also reveals a curious reluctance to write candidly about his private life. His first wife and the two children of that marriage might as well be ciphers for all the attention he gives them, though at one point he volunteers that he was named Father of the Year. As for his famous marriage to Marilyn Monroe, it is treated at length but with a marked absence of intimacy. Like others who have written about Monroe from a far less familiar vantage point, Miller is reduced to the fatuous and the inane: "Beneath all her insouciance and wit, death was her companion everywhere and at all times, and it may be that its unacknowledged presence was what lent her poignancy, dancing at the edge of oblivion as she was," or, "She had no common sense, but what she did have was something holier, a long-reaching vision of which she herself was only fitfully aware: humans were all need, all wound."

A little of that goes a long way, and there's a lot of it in Timebends; Miller is quite within his rights in choosing not to write openly about his private life, but pontification is a poor substitute for intimacy. To which Miller's most severe critics doubtless would say that pontification has always been his stock in trade, but there is more to him than that. For all its faults, Timebends reminds us that his earnestness and passion are as important as his ponderousness and artlessness; his eye has always been on the universal, and the courage and commitment with which he has explored it cannot be taken lightly. His plays will be performed long after his critics have been forgotten.