Arthur Miller, Looking for a Conscience

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Feb 23 08:54:07 MST 2003

NY Times, Feb. 23, 2003
Looking for a Conscience

Small thoughts about a large problem.

I'm not really sure the question is pertinent anymore, but I can't help 
wondering what the theater ought to be doing these days. It may be just an 
old man's silliness, but I do find myself wondering about Broadway's 
relevance to the life of this world now.

My friend, our local pharmacist, and her husband made the two-hour trip 
from Connecticut to the city with their boy to see "The Lion King" and just 
loved it, and I guess all the other shows must be amusing lots of folks 
from all over the country, but . . . well, might one ask nevertheless 
whether the possible end of the familiar world ought to have some 
reflection upon all this sheer delight called Broadway?

Musing about this as an admittedly unrealistic commentator on such matters, 
it does seem to me that while films and television are trying to grapple 
with the great themes that affect us all, the theater — or the Broadway 
pocket of it — has, with extremely few exceptions, just about succumbed to 
glorious, glamorous show business.

I don't see much theater, but the last thing I did see that seriously and 
beautifully impinged on our public fate was "Copenhagen." That was by an 
Englishman, Michael Frayn, however, and had a limited run.

The British theater has long since openly acknowledged that social 
criticism is entertainment, but that may be because England sees itself as 
basically a failure compared with America, the success. Failures tend to 
examine their suppositions about life; the successful are more likely to 
celebrate themselves as good examples.

We never did have, at least on Broadway, a whole lot of acerbic social 
commentary, but there was sometimes a steady trickle, which seems now to 
have dried up. I can't think of when the narrow-minded, the prejudiced, the 
stupid, the reactionary could have been outraged by something on the 
Broadway stage.

HAS the essence of America, its very nature, changed from benign democracy 
to imperium? Why do such majorities across the water fear and despise this 
administration? Too much piety, triumphal arrogance? We are being blasted 
by issues raised by an unprecedented American position at the top of the 
world. The meanings of words have changed; is it really a cause for 
unalloyed boasting that we can fight two wars at the same time, or is this 
to be lamented as the failure of America's creation: the United Nations and 
the system of collective security? One has to wonder sometimes if the art 
of giving things their right names is being surrendered. Ought our most 
public of arts reflect these confusions, or is it enough for Broadway to go 
on sounding pretty much as it did 60, 70 years ago?

The bad part of being around a long time is the realization that mankind is 
endlessly rediscovering the wheel; now the stoical military virtues — a 
kind of Roman obedience and conformity — echo in an attorney general, the 
highest legal officer of government, declaring that to oppose his ideas is 
to unpatriotically encourage terrorism, even as the American Bar 
Association warns that our vaunted legal rights and protections are being 
undermined by this kind of thinking.

Almost 50 years ago now, I felt compelled to write in a speech for Judge 
Danforth in "The Crucible": "You must understand, sir, 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."

How many times do we have to indulge the same idiocies for which we must 
later be ashamed?

Is a lively, contentious, reflective theater beyond our reach, our 
imaginations? Are the powers who reign over this theater of the bottom line 
aware that there are some really interesting — even entertaining — things 
to talk about on the stage and that they ought to be encouraged? Even if at 
times they require more than two or four people in the cast? A new 
"Crucible" could not be produced on Broadway today, nor a "Death of a 
Salesman," either. Nor, for that matter, a "Streetcar." Too many people. Is 
this situation satisfactory for what purports to be the main stage of the 
richest country in human history?

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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