Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hail, and alas! In 2015, attention must be paid to Arthur Miller

At the high end of American popular culture, there are two birth centenaries worth celebrating this year. That of Frank Sinatra is already showing up in presenters' schedules for next season. But Arthur Miller was also born in 1915, and I'm interested in seeing observances honoring this significant playwright pop up on theater schedules, especially locally.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
I'm getting in early on the celebration — Miller's 100th birthday comes in October — partly because I don't want to spoil the party. You see, I have severely mixed feelings about Miller's work.

True, it is often stunningly effective on the stage, getting to the heart of social problems and their intersection with private lives. It scrutinizes ways in which the mid-20th century mangled human dignity, ironically in the aftermath of American triumph — our way of life a model, our global hegemony virtually unchallenged.

In his first flush of fame, Miller's work displayed the uncanny knack of taking on the value the playwright embedded in his scripts. The significance of his plays seemed inseparable from the way they told us they were important. Nowhere is this more evident than in his most famous play, "Death of a Salesman."

And the locus classicus within that drama is the speech of the protagonist's wife, Linda, chiding the couple's two self-involved sons for their lack of respect for their salesman father. Here's its heart: "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."

The speech makes me squirm, frankly. It's Exhibit A of the self-regard that shadows Miller's output. I'm not saying Linda's speech rings false, but it's a little odd that, while it opens by underplaying Willy's significance,  it then kind of grandstands — with an odd use of the passive voice, considering that she is responding specifically to her sons' lack of regard for their father. She wants to say something more than "You should pay attention." She would implicate us all in his fate.

So out comes "Attention must be paid," and lo, the line blossoms into a talisman for understanding  the pathos of a changing post-war America. Here's how the most esteemed drama critic of the era, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, used the line in praising the play: "The power, the knowledge and the sincerity of 'Death of a Salesman' have persuaded millions of people to pay attention to the tragedy of this victim of the American cant about success."

Sorry, but Willy Loman is more pathetic than tragic, and that goes for his play's most famous line. Game-playing being healthier than nursing annoyance, I've chosen to exorcise my disdain by parody. I've imagined the speech adapted loosely in the style of a half-dozen English and American playwrights who enjoyed prominence in the course of Miller's long life (he died 10 years ago last month). I'm after the characteristic rhetoric and language rhythms of these playwrights, though those who continue reading may recognize the inspiration of particular plays and characters. To reinforce the parallelism, I've tucked in allusions to the dog and death imagery near the end of Linda's speech to complement that blasted "attention" motif.

Happy birthday, Arthur! Please mark my attention "paid in full"!


We were strong men and women straining
To live fully among the mutant seasons
Of fullness or want, among whispers of eternity,
Paying attention, getting attention paid
To us, knowing that attention can become itself
Inattention if we rest in it, seeking somewhere
A garden refuge from lengthening shadows,
Shadows that reach along the corridors
Of smooth stone and urge us graceless
To descend and descend like jackals or dogs
Into obscure graves strewn with faded rose petals.

Harold Pinter

Attention, you say? You want my attention, fancy that. Well, don’t prate to me about attention. (Pause.) I’ve put my bleeding arse on the line time and again to give you the attention your mum thought you deserved. She was as mistaken as she could be, rest her soul. (Pause.) What have you made of your life? Give you a few bob and you just piss it away. Gone to the dogs, you have. I’ll pay attention to you, all right, and watch my back too, I will. (Pause.) Now clean up this mess and let’s get on down to the track. (Pause.) I feel lucky today.

Tom Stoppard

Attention! Has an unmistakable ring to it, doesn’t it? Especially when you shout it. Not as menacing as Achtung!, which carries a certain baggage, of course. But still, you shout “Attention!” and attention must be paid. (Looks into the wings. Beat. Turns and looks into the far corners of the stage.) Is there a way out of here for us, do you suppose, a smooth way? You’ve been tense, I’ve been tense. A tension must be paved, perhaps with good intentions, like the road to — oh, you know. But why shouldn’t that road lead in the other direction as well? People don’t think about that. They say they have empathy for us, as if that helps. Empathy is emotional colonialism. Whatever happened to sympathy? Unfashionable, of course. Empathy is just a land grab, really. Someone dumps their feelings into me and I become a container for them. What’s left of me? I’m a sausage casing. A dog would choke on me getting to the meat. That’s the attention they’re willing to pay, but it’s not paid in our currency or coin, is it? (Tosses a coin into the air and catches it several times.) This is our coin, and I’m entitled to toss it to determine if we go here or go there. Pay attention now, and call it, heads or tails.

Tennessee Williams

You will say I have always craved attention, which may be true, but I have done so in the manner to which people of good breeding were brought up long ago. When I look at the human wrecks of dreamers scattered about me, I am wanting only to salvage what I can, going far away from anything tawdry and common before the sun sets, far from the humid corners of alleyways and disheveled bedrooms. Attention must be paid to such as I, because how else can generosity of spirit survive in this world? There are so few of us left adequate to the task. I have paid dearly for the attention of gypsy fortune tellers, stepping over their sleeping dogs in the doorway, parting the thin beaded curtains, groping in the dark toward the fake crystal ball, sitting down at the narrow table, touching the hag’s knees with mine, giving everything I have to the threadbare hope that sustains me.

A.R. Gurney

Attention? Or course. It’s what we do. It sets us apart. We pay attention to the right things. What to talk about at table. What china to put out for what kind of dinner. When to go down to the club or out for a drive. Whom to tell about it beforehand. Or afterward. Whom to ignore and how to apologize for ignoring them if you need to. How to offer proper condolences, whether we liked the deceased or not. To be seen where it counts, like at Westminster. Attention must be paid to such things.

August Wilson

You always gotta look the world’s ways straight in the eye and figure out where you fit, y’hear? Your daddy never done that and look where it got him. Nowhere. He don’t even know his way around his own little world no more. That’s the truth, and worse, all around that little world — which I mean to say is our world, too: The Hill — around that world is the bigger one, run by white folks. And he always thought that if he got the white folks’ attention they would be bound to respect him. Attention must be paid to me, he thought, because I’m a colored man of quality. Yes, he thought quality would speak for itself, you see. But quality in a black man don’t say nothing much to white folks. To most of ‘em we all just dogs that bark about the same. So now your daddy about ready to meet his maker ‘cause he didn’t tend to his business. He lost respect in the world he knew and never had none in the other. Hurts me how everybody done decided to waste no pity on him. Seems to me he deserve better.

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