Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Timebends," Crooked Lives, Warped Humor

I've finally finished reading Timebends, Arthur Miller's dense and twisty memoir. Despite its length, Miller still leaves some things out (he hardly discusses his first marriage, and, of course, never mentions his Down's-syndrome son — more on that in a later post). Nonetheless, it is very revealing, sometimes overly so. At one point Miller casually admits to having an Oedipus complex, as if it were no different than having a stomachache. Does he not know how weird this makes him sound? Or does he just not care? On the one hand, it's valuable that Miller reveals stuff like this; on the other hand, it's not fun to read a memoir if you're constantly raising your eyebrows at the author.

Miller spends a lot of the book trying to justify his actions, but sometimes this has the opposite effect--he makes some feeble excuses. You know, if he'd written, "It was the 1950s, I was going through a lot of angst, McCarthyism frightened me, my marriage wasn't working out, women found me attractive now that I was famous, so I'm not saying it was a nice thing to do, but I cheated on my wife," that would be honest and humble, and you could forgive him. But instead he makes it sound like the hardships of McCarthyism not only caused him to cheat on his wife, but justified it--because he deserved the succor that only contact with the "eternal feminine" could provide. (Can female artists ever think that "the eternal feminine" is anything but hogwash? You never hear us extol "the eternal masculine.") The New Yorker titled its review of Timebends "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," and I can't think of a better description.

I have never read this much non-fiction writing from one dramatist before, and it is good that Miller discusses his major plays in depth. And undoubtedly, he has a very clear vision of what theater ought to do. For him, plays must specifically engage with and respond to major social and political trends; otherwise they are worthless. He is right, up to a point--of course theater should be relevant! But his vision can get way too didactic and dreary; it leaves out everything that has to do with amusement and style and the thrill of live performance. In the last part of the book, he veers close to sounding like a grouchy old man who says "Entertainment? Bah, humbug!"

Yes, it makes sense to decry the mind-numbing, commercialized entertainment of the late twentieth century. But when I think about the playwrights who have brought me the most joy and whom I admire most--I don't believe any of them would ever have said "Bah, humbug!" to entertainment.

Then there is the related matter of Miller's humorlessness. Or perhaps I should say, his bizarre sense of humor: in Timebends he says he considers Death of a Salesman a funny title. ("Out of the laughter the title came one afternoon. Death Comes for the Archbishop, the Death and the Maiden Quartet--always austere and elevated was death in titles. Now it would be claimed by a joker, a bleeding mass of contradictions, and there was something funny about that, something like a thumb in the eye, too." A strange thing to say about a play that Americans have always considered "austere and elevated.")

Yet there is also a suggestion that Miller finds humor vulgar and embarrassing. On the last page, he writes, "If only we could stop murdering one another we could be a wonderfully humorous species." As if humor were a frivolity that has no right to exist until all the world's problems have been solved. As if we were not already a wonderfully humorous species, despite all the tragedies that remain with us. As if humor were not a way of dealing with those tragedies. If we lived in a perfectly harmonious world, I daresay we would not need humor--it would not even tempt us. Doesn't some of the best humor result from righteous anger in the face of adversity? The world is imperfect, and therefore the world is humorous.

Very few of my favorite artists lack a sense of humor--especially when it comes to playwrights. (For some reason I seem to find humorlessness easier to take in novels, e.g. Atonement, a great book but entirely solemn.) This is why something like Synecdoche New York leaves me feeling almost betrayed--because Charlie Kaufman's other screenplays show that he has a profound and original sense of humor, but it was hardly evident in Synecdoche.

Oddly enough, in the first part of that movie, Caden, the protagonist, directs Death of a Salesman using a "concept" that he hopes will make it even more depressing: Willy and Linda are played by young actors, and Caden wants the audience to realize that the young people will inevitably grow up to become like Willy and Linda, though they seem so full of promise. And the rest of the movie proves Caden's thesis--a perfect storm of humorlessness, really.

Now, before I go to Japan, I am trying to finish up the Anthony Lane compilation as well as read The Complete Short Fiction of Oscar Wilde. In other words, I require not one, but two, preternaturally witty Brits to serve as palate-cleanser after the humorless American. Wilde, the man who said "Style, not sincerity, is the important thing," is a very good antidote to 600 pages of Miller.

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