Thursday, June 4, 2009

Arthur Miller, and My Grandfather

I am currently in the middle of reading Arthur Miller's autobiography, Timebends. I cannot honestly say that Miller is one of my all-time favorite playwrights, but at the same time, very few playwrights of his stature have written such a thorough autobiography, and he worked at such an interesting time in the American theater, that I felt it would be good to read it.

Timebends is an appropriate title for this work--its chronology jumps around so that, for instance, Miller talks about the triumph of Death of a Salesman in chapter 3, but doesn't describe the first play he ever wrote until chapter 4. And I guess it's appropriate that Miller uses this technique: as The New Yorker recently reminded us, "We are now so familiar with the theatrical trope of flashing back and forth in time within a character's mind that we've forgotten we owe the device to [Death of a Salesman]." The book is dense (six hundred pages) and it takes a while to get used to the time-bendy rhythm of it; admittedly, the first part of the book, about Miller's childhood, can get tedious.

Fortunately, I have an additional reason to want to learn about Arthur Miller's boyhood, apart from the fact that he was a playwright. You see, my maternal grandfather and Miller were born about a year apart, and both grew up in New York City Jewish families. (There are some differences of course: Miller's was an upper-middle-class family that lost everything in the Depression, whereas my grandfather's family was never well-off.) When they grew up, they looked a little bit alike--tall, lanky men in thick-framed eyeglasses--and both broke out of the narrow ethnic community where they'd been raised, and married Catholic women. I get the impression that their personalities were similar, too. Both Miller and my grandfather were very serious men, I think; both felt guilty for surviving the Holocaust, even though neither of them were ever in any real danger; both were proudly liberal, and very concerned with the moral and intellectual side of things. At the same time as Miller was defending human rights as president of PEN, my grandfather (who owned a Manhattan greengrocery) was driving around in a truck that said "We boycott the produce of South Africa because of its cruel racial laws."

My grandpa, or "Papa," as I called him, died about five years ago, without ever having told me, or even his own children, much about his youth. (My mother was in her forties before she learned that Papa grew up in Manhattan, not in the Bronx, as she had always thought. I am not kidding.) So when I read Timebends, and learn about the games Miller played as a boy and the way life was for Jews in 1920s New York, I'm not just learning about the formative years of an important American playwright. I'm also wondering if my grandfather played these same games, saw these same sights, had similar experiences during his own formative years.

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