Arthur Miller “It’s All About the Language” Arthur Miller’s Poetic Dialogue By Stephen A. Marino In a 2003 interview with his biographer, Christopher Bigly, about the inherent structure of his plays, Arthur Miller explained, “It’s all about the language” (Bigly, “Miller”). Miller’s declaration about the centrality of language in the creation of drama came at the end of his almost seventy-year career. He had completed his final play, Finishing the Picture, and a little more than a year later, he became ill and subsequently died in February 2005.
Thus Miller’s statement can be seen as a final avowal about how language operates in dramatic dialogue, a concern that had obsessed him since the start of his career when he wrote his first play, No Villain, at the university of Michigan in 1935. Despite Miller’s proclamation, not enough critical attention has been paid to the sophisticated use of language that pervades his dialogue. Throughout his career, Miller often was subject to reviews in which critics mostly excoriated him for what they judged as a failed use of language in his plays.
For example, in the Nation review of the original production of Death of a Salesman in 949, Joseph Wood Crutch criticized the play for “its failure to go beyond literal meaning and its undistinguished dialogue. Unlike Tennessee Williams, Miller does not have a unique sensibility, new insight, fresh imagination or a gift for language” (283-84). In 1 964, Richard Gillian judged that After the Fall lacks structural focus and contains vague rhetoric.
He concluded that Miller’s “verbal inadequacy [has] never been more flagrantly exhibited” John Simony’s New York review of the 1994 Broadway production of Broken Glass opined that “Miller’s ultimate failure is his language: Tone-deafness in a alright is only a shade less bad than in a composer. ” In a June 2009 review of Christopher Bigamy’s authorized biography of Miller, Terry Outgeneraled that Miller “too often made the mistake of using florid, pseudo-poetic language” (72).
These reviews illustrate how, as a language stylist, Arthur Miller was underrepresented, too often overshadowed by his contemporary Tennessee Williams, whose major strength as a dramatist for many critics lies in the “lyricism” of his plays. As Arthur K. Berg pointed out, “In the established image, Miller’s art is masculine and Craggy; Williams’, poetic and delicate” 303). Because Miller has so often been pigeonholed as a “social” dramatist, most of the criticism of his work focuses on the cultural relevance of his plays and ignores detailed discussions of his language–especially of its poetic elements.
Most critics are content to regard his dialogue as “colloquial,” judging that Miller best used what Leonard Moss described as “the common man’s language” (52) to reflect the social concerns of his characters. The assumption is often made that the manufacturers, salesmen, Puritan farmers, dockworkers, housewives, policemen, doctors, lawyers, executives, and inkers who compose the bulk of Miller’s characters speak a realistic prose dialogue–a style that is implicitly antithetical to poetic language.
This prevailing opinion of Miller as a dramatist who merely uses the common man’s language has been reinforced largely by a lack of in-depth critical analyses of how figurative language works in his canon. In his November 1998 review of the Chicago run of the fiftieth anniversary production of Death of a Salesman, Ben Bracelet noted that, “as recent Miller scholarship has suggested again and again, the plays images and rhythms have the patterns f poetry” (E).
In reality, though, relatively few critics have thoroughly examined this aspect not only of Salesman but also of Miller’s entire dramatic canon. 1 Thomas M. Tamari judges “that critical attention to Miller’s drama has been lured from textual analysis to such non-textual concerns as biography and Miller as a social dramatist” (10). 2 Moreover, classroom discussions of Miller’s masterpieces Death of a Salesman and The Crucible (1953) mostly focus on these biographical and social concerns in addition to characterization and thematic issues but rarely discuss language and illegal.
Five years after his passing, it is time to recognize that Arthur Miller created a unique dramatic idiom that undoubtedly marks him as significant language stylist within twentieth- and twenty-first-century American and world drama. More readers and critics should see his dialogue not exclusively as prose but also as poetry, what Gordon W. Coachman has called Miller’s “rare gift for the poetic in the colloquial” (206). Although Miller seems to work mostly in a form of colloquial prose, there are many moments in his plays when the dialogue clearly elevates to poetry.
Miller often takes what appear to be the colloquialisms, cliche©s, and idioms of the common man’s language and reveals them as poetic language, especially by shifting words from their denotative to connotative meanings. Moreover, he significantly employs the figurative devices of metaphor, symbol, and imagery to give poetic significance to prose dialect. In addition, in many texts Miller embeds series of metaphors?many are extended–that possess particular connotations within the societies of the individual plays.
Most important, these figurative devices significantly support the tragic conflicts ND social themes that are the focus Of every Miller play. By deftly mixing these figurative devices of symbolism, imagery, and metaphor with colloquial prose dialogue, Miller combines prose and poetry to create a unique dramatic idiom. Most critics, readers, and audiences seem to overlook this aspect of Miller’s work: the poetry is in the prose and the prose is in the poetry’. Indeed, poetic elements pervade most of Miller’s plays.
For example, in All My Sons, religious allusions, symbols, and images place the themes of sacrifice and redemption in a Christian context. In Death of a Salesman, the extended adaptors of sports and trees convey Wily Loan’s struggle to achieve the American Dream. In The Crucible, the poetic language illustrates the conflicts that polarize the Salem community as a series of opposing images?heat and cold, white and black, light and dark, soft and hard–signify the Calamities dualistic view of the world.
In A View from the Bridge, metaphors of purity and innocence give mythic importance to Eddie Carbon’s sexual, psychological, and moral struggles. After the Fall uses extended metaphors of childhood and religion to support Question’s psychological quest for redemption. The Ride Down Mat. Morgan connects metaphors of transportation and travel to Lyman Fell’s literal and figurative fall, and Broken Glass uses images of mirrors and glass to relate the world of the European Jew at the beginning of the Holocaust to Sylvia and Phillip Eagleburger shattered sexual world.
That most critics continue to fail to recognize Miller’s sophisticated use of poetic elements is striking, for it is this very facility for which many other playwrights are praised, and the history of drama is intimately intertwined with the history of poetry. For most of Western dramatic history, plays were Ritter in verse: the ancient Greek playa,’rights of the fifth century b. C. E. Composed their tragedies In a verse frequently accompanied by music; the rhyming couplets of the Everyman dramatist were the De arguer medieval form; and English Renaissance plays were poetic masterpieces.
Shakespearean supremacy as a dramatist lies in his adaptation of the early modern English language into a dramatic dialogue that combines prose and poetry. For example, Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” speech is lyrical prose. In the twentieth century, critics praised the verse plays of T. S. Eliot, Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Sherwood, and W. H. Aden. Even more baffling about this critical neglect is that Miller readily acknowledged his attraction to poetry and dramatic verse.
His views on language, particularly poetic language, are evident in the prodigious number of essays he produced throughout his career. Criticism has mostly ignored this large body of nonfiction writing in which Miller frequently expounds on the nature of language and dialogue, the tension between realistic prose and poetic language in twentieth-century drama, and the complex evolution Of poetic language throughout his plays. For example, in his 1 993 essay “About Theatre Language” he writes: It was ineviTABLE that I had to confront the problem of dramatic language. Ritually came to wonder if the essential pressure toward poetic dramatic language–if not of stabilization itself–came from the inclusion of society as a major element in the plays story or vision. Manifestly, prose realism was the language of the individual and private life, poetry the language of man in crowds, in society. Put another way, prose is the language of family relations; it is the inclusion of the larger world beyond that naturally opens a play to the poetic.
How to find a style that would at one and the same time deeply engage an American audience, which insisted on a recognizTABLE reality of characters, locales, and themes, while opening the stage to considerations of public morality and the mythic social fates–in short, the invisible? (82) Miller’s attraction to poetic dramatic dialogue can be traced back to his development as a playwright, particularly his time as a student at the University of Michigan in the mid-sass and the early years of his great successes in the 1 sass and 1 sass, when his views on dramatic form, structure, aesthetics, and language were evolving.
Miller knew little about the theater when he arrived in Ann Arbor from his home in Brooklyn, but during these formative college years, he became aware of German expressionism, and he read August Strindberg and Henries Ibsen, whom he often acknowledged as major influences on him. Christopher Bigly has pointed out that Miller always remembered the effect that reading Greek and Elizabethan play. Frights at college had on him (Critical Study 419). However, Miller was markedly affected by the social-protest work of Clifford Oddest.
In his autobiography, Tenements (1 987), Miller describes how Dodge’s 1 sass lays waiting for Lefty (1935), Awake and Sing (1935), and Golden BOY (1937) had “sprung forth a new phenomenon, a leftist challenge to the system, the poet suddenly leaping onto the stage and disposing of middle-class gentility, screaming and yelling and cursing like somebody off the Manhattan streets” (229). Most important for Miller, Oddest brought to American drama a concern for language: “For the very first time in America, language itself had marked a playwright as unique” (229).
To Miller, Oddest was “The only poet, I thought, not only in the social protest theater, but in all of New York” (212). After Miller won his first Avery Hoped Award at Michigan, he was sent to professor Kenneth Rowe, whose chief contribution to Miller’s development was cultivating his interest in the dynamics of play construction. Oddest and Rowe clearly were considerably strong influences on Miller as he developed his concern with language and his form broke out of what he termed the “dusty naturalistic habit I’ (Tenements 228) of Broadway, but other influences would also compel him to write dramatic verse.
The work of Thornton Wilder, particularly Our Town (1 938), spoke to him, and in Tenements Miller acknowledges that Our Town was the nearest of the sass plays in “reaching for lyricism” (229). Tennessee Williams is another playwright whom Miller frequently credited with influencing his art and the craft of his language. He credited the newness of The Glass Menagerie (1944) to the plays “poetic lift” (Tenements 244) and was particularly struck by A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), proclaiming that Williams had given him license to speak in dramatic language “at full throat” (Tenements 182).
Moreover, Miller practiced what he had learned and espoused. In fact, he reported that when he was first beginning his career he was “up to [his] neck” n writing many of his full-length and radio plays in verse (“Interview” 98). When he graduated from Michigan and started his work with the Federal Theatre Project in 1938, he Wrote The Golden Years, a verse play about Montague. In a letter to Professor Rowe, he reported that he found writing verse much easier than writing prose: “I made the discovery’ that in verse you are forced to be brief and to the point.
Verse squeezes out fat and you’re left with the real meaning of the language” (Bigly, Arthur Miller 155). Also, he explained that much of Death of a Salesman and all of The Crucible were originally written in verse; the one-act version of A View from the Bridge (1955) was written in an intriguing mixture of verse and prose, and Miller regretted his failure to do the same in The American Clock (1980) (Bigly, Critical Introduction 136). However, Miller found an American theater hostile to the poetic form. Miller himself pointed out that the United States had no tradition of dramatic verse (“Interview” 98) as compared to Europe.
In the sass, Maxwell Anderson was one of the few American playwrights incorporating blank verse into his plays, and the English theater witnessed some interest in poetic drama in the sass ND 1 9505, most notably with Christopher Fry and T. S. Eliot. In reality, dramatic verse had been in sharp decline since the late nineteenth century, when the realistic prose dialogue used by Henries Ibsen in Norway was adopted by George Bernard Shaw in England and then later employed by Eugene O’Neill in the united States.
Miller also judged that American actors had difficulty speaking the verse line (“Interview” 98). Further, Miller came of age at a time when American audiences were demanding realism, the musical comedy was gaining in dominance, and commercial Broadway producers ere disinterested in verse drama. Christopher Bigly has pointed out that Miller was “in his own mind, an essentially poetic, deeply metaphoric writer who had found himself in a theater resistant to such, particularly on Broadway, which he continued to think of as his natural home, despite its many deficiencies” (Critical Study 358).
Struggling with how to accept this reality, Miller accommodated his natural inclination to verse by developing a dramatic idiom that reconciled his poetic urge with the realism demanded by the aesthetics of the American stage. Thus he infused poetic language into his prose dialogue. Let’s examine how some of these poetic devices?symbolism, imagery, and metaphor– operate in Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman. From the outset of the play, Miller makes trees and sports into metaphors signifying Wily Loan’s struggle to achieve the American Dream within the competitive American business world.
Trees symbolize Will’s dreams, sports the competition for economic success. 4 Miller sustains these metaphors throughout the entire text with images of boxing, burning, wood, nature, and fighting to make them into crucial unifying structures. In addition, Miller’s redirection for juxtaposing the literal and figurative meanings of words is particularly evident in Salesman as the abstract concepts of competition and dreaming are vivified by concrete objects and actions such as boxing, fists, lumber, and ashes.
Trees are an excellent illustration of how Miller uses literal and figurative meanings. Two references in act 1, scene 1, immediately establish their importance in the play. When Wily unexpectedly arrives home, he explains that he was unTABLE to drive to Portland for his sales call because he kept becoming absorbed in the countryside scenery, where “the trees are so thick, ND the sun is warm” (14). Although these trees merely seem to distract Wily from driving, he also indicates their connection to dreaming. He tells Linda: “I absolutely forgot I was driving.
If Divide gone the other way over the white line mightn’t killed somebody. So I went on again–and five minutes later I’m dreaming’ again” (14). Will’s inability to concentrate on driving indicates an emotional conflict larger than mere daydreaming. The play reveals how Wily often exists in dreams rather than reality?dreams of being well liked, of success for his son Biff, of his “imaginings. All of these dreams intimately connect to Will’s confrontation with his failure to achieve the tangible aspects of the American Dream.
He is a traveling salesman, and his inability to drive symbolizes his inability to sell, which guarantees that he will fail in the competition to be a ” hot-shot salesman. ” The action of the play depicts the last day Of Will’s life and how Wily is increasingly escaping the reality Of his failure in reveries of the past, to the point where he often cannot differentiate between reality and illusion. The repetition of the mention of trees in Will’s second speech in scene 1 moments the importance of trees in the play as a metaphor for these dreams.
He complains to Linda about the pap rodent houses surrounding the Loan home: “They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When Biff and hung the swing between them? ” (17). However, these trees are not the trees of the real time of the play; rather, they exist in Will’s past and, more important, in the “imaginings” of his mind, the place where the more important dramatic action of the play takes place. Miller’s working title for Death of a Salesman was “The Inside of His Head,” ND certainly Will’s longing for the trees of the past illustrates how dreaming works in his mind.
Throughout the entire play, trees–and all the other images connected to them–are complicated symbols of an idyllic past for which Wily longs in his dreams, a world where Biff and Hap are young, where Wily can believe himself a hot-shot salesman, where Brooklyn seems an unspoiled wilderness. The irony is that, in reality, the past was not as idyllic as Wily recalls, and the play gradually unfolds the reality of Will’s failures. The metaphor of trees also supports Will’s unresolved struggle with his son Biff.
Will’s memory of Biff and himself hanging a hammock between the elms is ironic as the MOO beautiful trees’ absence in the present symbolizes Will’s failed dreams for Biff. Throughout the play, Miller significantly expands upon the figurative meaning of trees. For example, in act 1, scene 4, Wily responds to Hap’s claims that he will retire Wily for life by remarking: You’ll retire me for life on seventy goddamn dollars a week? And your women and your car and your apartment, and you’ll retire me for life! Chrism’s sake I couldn’t get past Yonkers today! Where are you guys, where are you?
The woods are burning! I can’t drive a car! 41) Will’s warning that “the woods are burning” extends the tree metaphor by intro icing an important sense of destruction to the trees of Will’s idyllic world of the past. Since the trees are so identified with Will’s dreams, the image implies that his dreams are burning too–his dreams for himself as a successful salesman and his dreams for Biff and Hap. The images of burning and destruction are crucial in the play, especially when Linda reveals Will’s suicide attempts–his own form of destruction, which he enacts at plays end.
We realize that since Wily is so associated with his dreams, he will die when hey burn. In fact, Wily repeats this same exact line in act 2 when he arrives at Franks Chop House and announces his firing to Hap and Biff. He says: “I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, boys, you understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around. I was fired today” (107). This line not only repeats Will’s warning cry from act 1 but also foreshadows Biffs climactic plea to Wily to “take that phony dream and burn it” (133).
The burning metaphor–now ironic–also appears in Will’s imagining in the Boston hotel room. As Wily continues to Moore Biffs knock on the door, the woman says, “Maybe the hotel’s on fire. ” Wily replies, “It’s a mistake, there’s no fire” (1 16). Of course, nothing is threatened by a literal fire–only by the figurative blaze inside Will’s head. Once aware of how tree images operate in the play, a reader (or keen theretofore) can note the cacophony of other references that sustain the metaphor in other scenes.
For example, Wily wants Biff to help trim the tree branch that threatens to fall on the Loan house; Biff and Hap steal lumber; Wily plaintively remembers his father carving flutes; Wily tells Ben that Biff an “fell trees”; Wily mocks Biff for wanting to be a carpenter and similarly mocks Charley and his son Bernard because they “can’t hammer a nail”; Ben buys timberland in Alaska; Biff burns his sneakers in the furnace; Wily speculates about his need for a “little lumber” (72) to build a guest house for the boys when they get married; Wily is proud of weathering a twenty-five year mortgage with “all the cement, the lumber” (74) he has put into the house; Wily explains to Ben that “l am building something with this firm,” something “you can’t feel with your hand like timber” (86). Finally, there re “the leaves of day appearing over everything” in the graveyard in “Requiem” (136).
Miller similarly uses boxing in literal and figurative ways throughout the play. In act 1 scene 2, Biff suggests to Hap that they buy a ranch to “use our muscles. Men built like we are should be working out in the open” (24). Hap responds to Biff with the first sports reference in the text: “That’s what I dream about, Biff. Sometimes I want to just rip my clothes off in the middle of the store and outbox that goddamn merchandise manager. I mean I can outbox, outrun, and outline anybody in that store” (24). As an athlete, Biff, it seems, should introduce the sports metaphor, but, ironically, the sport with which he is identified–football–is not used in any extensive metaphoric way in the play. Instead, boxing becomes the extended sports metaphor of the text, and it is not introduced by Biff but rather by Hap, who reinforces it throughout the play to show how Wily has prepared him and Biff only for physical competition, not business or economic competition. Thus Hap expresses his frustration at being a second-rate worker by stressing his physical superiority over his managers. UnTABLE to win in economic intention, he longs to beat his coworkers in a physical match, and it is this contrast between economic and physical competition that intensifies the dramatic interplay between the literal and the figurative language of the play. In fact, the very competitiveness of the American economic system in which Wily and Hap work, and that Biff hates, is consistently put on physical terms in the play.
A failure in the competitive workplace, Hap uses the metaphor of physical competition–boxing man to man–yet the play details how Hap was considered less physically impressive than Biff when the two were boys. As an dull, Hap competes in the only physical competition he can win–sex. He even uses the imagery of rivalry when talking about his sexual conquests of the store managers’ girlfriends: “Maybe I just have an overdeveloped sense of competition or something” (25). Perhaps knowing that they cannot win, the Loans resort to a significant amount of cheating in competition: Wily condones Biffs theft of a football, Biff cheats on his exams, Hap takes bribes, and Wily cheats on Linda. All of this cheating signifies the Loans’ moral failings as well.
The boxing metaphor also illustrates the contrast between Biff and Hap. Boxing as a sports metaphor is quite different from the expected football metaphor: a boxer relies completely on personal physical strength while fighting a single opponent, whereas in football, a team sport, the players rely on group effort and group tactics. Thus the difference between Biff and Hap- Hap as evoker of the boxing metaphor and Biff as a player of a team sport–is emphasized throughout the text. Moreover, the action of the play relies on the clash of dreams between Biff and Wily. Biff is Will’s favorite son, and Will’s own dreams and disappointments are tied to him.
Yet Hap, the second-rate son, the second-rate physical specimen, the second-rate worker, is the son who is most like Wily in profession, braggadocio, and sexual swagger. Ultimately, at the plays end, in “Requiem,” the boxing metaphor ironically points out Hap’s significance as the actual competitor for Will’s dream, for he decides to stay in the city because Wily “fought it out here and this is where I’m goanna win it for him” (139). Biffs boxing contrasts sharply with Hap’s. For example, Biff ironically performs a literal boxing competition with Ben, which juxtaposes with the figurative competition of the play. The boxing reinforces the emphasis that has been placed on Biff as the most physically prepared “specimen” of the boys.
Yet Biff is defeated by Ben; in reality he is ill prepared to fight a boxing match because it is a man-to-man competition, unlike football, the team sport at which he excelled. He is especially ill prepared for Uncle Ben’s kind of boxing match because it is not a fair match conducted on a level playing field. As Ben says: “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get Out Of the jungle that way” (49). Thus the literal act of boxing possesses figurative significance. Wily has not conditioned Biff (or, by extension, Hap) for any fight–fair or unfair–in the larger figurative “jungle” of the play: the workplace of the American economic system. Wily, too, uses a significant amount of boxing imagery, much of it quite violent.
In the first imagining in act 1, Biff asks Wily about his recent sales trip, “Did you knock them dead, pop? ” and Wily responds, ‘Knocked ‘me cold in Providence, slaughtered ‘me in Boston” (33); when he relates to Linda how another salesman at F. H. Stewart insulted him, Wily claims he “cracked him right across the face” (37), the same physical threat that he will later make against Charley in act 2 on the day of the Beets Field game. Wily wants to box Charley, challenging him, “Put up your hands. Goddamn you, put up your hands” (68). Wily also says, “I’m goanna knock Howard for a loop” (74). Wily uses these violent physical terms against men he perceives as challengers and competitors.
As with the tree metaphor, this one is sustained throughout the scenes with a plethora of boxing references: a punching bag is inscribed with Gene Tunney’s name; Hap challenges Bernard to box; Wily explains to Linda that the boys gathered in the cellar obey Biff because, “Well, that’s the training, he training”; Biff feebly attempts to box with Uncle Ben; Bernard remarks to Wily that Biff “never trained himself for anything” (92); Charley cheers on his son with a “Knock ‘me dead, Bernard” (95) as Bernard leaves to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court; Wily, expressing to Bernard his frustration that Biff has done nothing with his life, says, “Why did he lay down? ” (93). This last boxing reference, associated with taking a dive, is a remarkably animistic way of describing how Biff initially cut down his life out of spite after discovering Will’s infidelity.
Miller also uses images, symbols, and metaphors as central or unifying vices by employing repetition and recurrence?one of the central tenets of so-called cluster criticism, which was pioneered in the 1 9305 and 1 9405. 6 In short, cluster criticism argues that the deliberate repetition of words, images, symbols, and metaphors contributes to the unity of the work just as significantly as do plot, character, and theme.