Tradgedy, Arthur Miller and the Common Man
Tragedy, Arthur Miller and the Common Man Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Arthur Miller - Tradgedy, Arthur Miller and the Common Man introduction. At first glance this quartet seems like an simple case of “one of these things doesn’t belong with the others,” though dig a little deeper, just beneath the surface, and you’ll discover that something unbreakable and timeless binds these seemingly disparate names tightly together. What could these four men all possibly share? Three of them were contemporaries, relatively, born well over 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece.
The other was born less than 100 years ago in Harlem, New York (Arthur Miller Files, University of Michigan, 2006). One is responsible for giving us Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Another collaborated with Socrates. One is referred to as the “Father of Tragedy,” and the other one was married to Marilyn Monroe. However, despite superficial differences and existing centuries apart, one pure and simple force connects Arthur Miller with the Ancient Greek Tragedians: the written word.
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Miller’s poetically powerful ruminations on the American Dream in works such as All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, plus his metaphysical probing and constant evaluation of the 20th century man and his place in the world, helped bring the Tragedy- which Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus first introduced to theater goers- into the sphere of the common man. Never before had Tragedies been written with average men as protagonists.
Miller dared to see the everyday as epic in every conceivable sense of the word, to harvest material generally reserved for kings and queens from the mundane and common occurrences of modern day life. The standards and rules for what constituted a Tragedy were changed forever. Let us begin by first defining what is generally agreed upon as a Tragedy. A Tragedy, or Ancient Greek for he-goat-song, is a type of drama based on human suffering that simultaneously attempts to illicit in its audience a sense of catharsis or pleasure (Banham, Martin, The Cambridge Guide to Theatre.
1998). Many cultures have developed genres of drama that attempt to generate the same paradoxical response, however the term Tragedy usually refers to a specific tradition of drama that has continually played a uniquely insightful role in the self-definition of Western Civilization. Societies ranging from the Ancient Greeks to the Elizabethans have used the Tragedy as a means of asserting a cultural identity and in a more temporal sense, establishing a presence historically speaking. In his Poetics, Aristotle sought to give a scholarly definition-
Tragedy is, then, an enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of [a certain] magnitude, by means of language enriched [with ornaments], each used separately in the different parts [of the play]: it is enacted, not [merely] recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such [and similar] emotions. (Poetics, VI 1449b 2–3)- Greek Tragedy was an extension of the ancient rites done in honor of Dionysus and was heavily influenced by Ancient Roman Theater.
Many of the earliest tragic plots were myths treated in the oral tradition of archaic epics. Instead of being presented by a chorus, in the tragic theater actors presented the narratives. It is difficult to pin down the exact moment when the Tragedy was created. Ruth Scodel notes that due to lack of evidence and doubtful reliability of sources, we know nearly nothing about tragedy’s origin (Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, 2011). R. P. Winningston-Ingram raises a contrarian voice and states that we can easily trace the veins of various influences from other genres.
The stories that tragedy deals with stem from epic and lyric poetry, its meter – the iambic trimeter – owed much to the political rhetoric of Solon, an Athenian statesman credited with laying the foundation for Athenian Democracy (Stanton, Athenian Politics c800-500 BC: A Sourcebook, 1990), and the choral songs’ dialect, meter and vocabulary seem to originate in choral lyric. Specifically how these divergent elements all came to be associated with one another remains a mystery however.
The Greek Tragedy would undergo three different shifts in structure and form until it reached the template that would be used for centuries. Successive playwrights brought each of these changes upon. First, Aeschylus established the basic rules of the Tragic drama (Easterling, The Cambridge History of Classical Literature Vol. 1 Pt. 2. Greek Drama, 1989). The invention of the Trilogy, a series of three tragedies that tells one long story is attributed to him as well as the introduction of a second actor which made dramatizing a conflict possible.
A defining feature of Aeschylus’s Tragedy’s was the fact that the role of ethical thinking and action was always reserved for Zeus. Sophocles introduced an onslaught of changes. He increased the chorus members up to 15 and added a third actor. He broke the rule of having to present a trilogy, which made the production of independent dramas possible. He is also responsible for the introducing of scenery. The changes that Euripides would bring about were more concentrated with using feelings, as a mechanism to elaborate the unfolding of tragic events. His innovations can be observed mainly in three areas.
One, he turned the prologue into a monologue informing the spectators of the story’s background. Two, he introduced the deus ex machina and three, he gradually diminished the choir’s prominence from the dramatic point of view in favor of a monody sung by the characters. Another novelty of Euripidean drama is represented by the realism with which he chose to portray his characters’ psychological dynamics. The hero described in his tragedies is no longer the resolute character, as he appears in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but often an insecure person, troubled by internal conflict.
He uses female protagonists in the plays, such as Andromache, Phaedra and Medea, to portray the tormented sensitivity and irrational impulses that collide with the world of reason. The characters were still Gods, Goddesses, Kings and Queens, but they were now confused or damaged. This was a significant crack in the larger than life armor of characters that populated Tragedies. It would take almost 2,000 years for an author who would bring the Gods to their knees and cast mere mortals in their place. Arthur Miller was born on October 17th, 1915 into a well to do family.
His father owned a women’s clothing manufacturing business and employed upwards of 400 people (BBC TV Interview; Miller and Yentob; ‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004). In a reversal of fortunes generally reserved for Tragedies, Miller’s family lost nearly everything in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The family moved to Brooklyn and Miller got a job delivering bread everyday before going to school. After graduating from high school, Miller enrolled in college at the University of Michigan where he would write his first play, No Villain.
The play won the Avery Hopwood Award and brought Miller his first taste of artistic recognition. After college, he began working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while concurrently writing radio plays. Some of these plays would go on to be broadcast on CBS (London Times, Arthur Miller Obituary, 2005). After his play The Man Who Had All The Luck lasted only four performances on Broadway, Miller began work on a play titled All My Sons. All My Sons was based upon a true story, which Arthur Miller’s then mother-in-law pointed out to him in a newspaper (Meyers, The Genius and The Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, 2005).
The news story described that during the years 1941 through 1943 the Wright Aeronautical Corporation based in Ohio had conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines destined for military use. The story of defective engines had reached investigators working for Sen. Harry Truman’s congressional investigative board after several Wright aircraft assembly workers informed on the company; they would later testify under oath before Congress.
In 1944, three Army Air Force officers were relieved and later convicted of neglect of duty (Hinton, Air Victory: The Men and The Machines, 1948) . In the play, Miller created Joe Keller, an ordinary, decent, and hard working protagonist. However, just like the main characters of Ancient Greek Tragedies, Joe ha committed an offense, unknowingly, which would return to haunt him years later. This offense takes root in Joe’s character as a fatal flaw, a devastating weakness and this crack in character causes him to act in error.
When he finally accepts responsibility for these errors, he finds it necessary to commit suicide in order to restore moral order in his own universe. Like many Tragedies, the play encapsulates all the fallout from the old offense into one 24-hour time span. During that day, the protagonist must learn his fault and suffer as a result so that the Gods are shown to be just and righteous. Additionally, the play explores the father-son relationship, which was a common theme in Grecian tragedies. All My Sons was a resounding commercial success and won numerous Tony Awards.
Death of a Salesman continued Miller’s success opening in February of 1949. In Death of a Salesman, Miller created the tragic hero Willy Loman a man out of touch with everything and everyone. A man failing professionally, flailing emotionally and fading fast to those who love him most. A man who listened to the seductive whispers of the American Dream and lost himself to its dark underbelly of unrealized ambitions, unfulfilled potential and broken dreams. Loman, like his Greek counterparts, has made a terrible mistake and is suffering the consequential downfall years later.
The mistake is forever imprinted on the character of his son Biff, who in turn can never quite live up to his fathers standards as he no longer holds his father in the same esteem he once did. Willy is, in typical Tragedy fashion, painfully unaware of any of this. In the end, Willy tries, like Joe Keller in All My Sons, to make up for his error by killing himself and leaving insurance money to Biff and thus hoping to restore a sense of moral order to his family. In this final act, Willy is most tragic.
In his mind he is committing a heroic deed, atoning for a lifetime of mistakes and regret, but to the audience Willy’s actions seem misguided, senseless and futile. In the end, Biff rejects both his father’s insurance money and his father’s set of values. Biff’s brother, Happy, accepts both the money and the values and continues the cycle against all hope. “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were… ” said Miller in an essay entitled Tragedy and the Common Man and published shortly after the premier of Death of a Salesman.
“As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society,” continued Miller in the essay. By placing men like Willy Loman and Joe Keller in the same mold as Oedipus or Macbeth, Arthur Miller made a connection 2,000 years in the making.
Suddenly your next door neighbor, the door to door salesman or any other person you encountered in your daily life was capable of experiencing the same tragic downfall generally saved for Kings. The Gods were treating all mortal men alike. In Millers hands, metaphysical disasters of heart breaking proportions were transformed from ancient unrelatable notions to thoughts as embedded in our culture as the stars in the flag. We will forever be in Arthur Millers debt for having the courage and insight to make this connection.
Miller concluded it best in his essay- “… tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief-optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man. It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time-the heart and spirit of the average man. ”