Various discussions with other writers and artists, as well as critics and academics on various topics relating to culture. Some were my idea, some not.
Namna Norway June 2012
A conversation between a theatre professor at a California community college in the Bay Area and and playwright John Steppling regarding Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
John Steppling: Well, first off, lets focus on the Miller play. I don’t think it’s an accident that this play has retained an extraordinary popularity. I can think of no American play more performed at a collegiate and even high school level. Something in that fact suggests there is nothing that really disrupts the general public’s notions of social reality or even political reality.
Professor Perry-Folino: Yes, that is certainly a possibility. However, perhaps its critique of capitalism shown by Willy’s defeat and suicide hits a chord in people who know on a very deep level how difficult it is to maintain one’s psychological health in a system determined to defeat the majority of us. Perhaps the play is popular because it implies through the destruction of its central character how corrupt capitalism is in the United States.
Steppling: Well, my first reaction is that even if what you say is true (and I’m not sure it is) it doesn’t mitigate what I’m saying. The critique of capitalism in this play is pretty basic. My problem is that because of the form, it a very digestible sort of critique, or complaint. Capitalism exploits people and uses up their soul. Yes. But I feel something else needs to be in the play… I think great plays are about a good deal more than to say western capitalism works people to death. And I’m not even saying Salesman isn’t about more, but we return again to the form. And that’s a subject hopefully we can (or I can) expand more on here.
My definition of kitsch, for example, includes content and form that has already been recycled to a degree that grants it a familiarity.
Perry-Folino: Definitely there is something in the form of the play that is familiar and makes its audience comfortable. I would argue, however, that by using a form audiences are comfortable with and subverting that form through the content, Miller impacts the audience emotionally because he catches them off guard.
Steppling: Well, Im not sure he’s subverting anything. Tell me how this play is doing that. Also, I think it’s a mistake to suggest that it’s a good thing for Miller to sort of trick the audience. It smacks of manipulation. And in a sense, that is exactly what’s missing in the play – a deeper probing of the human condition. I don’t applaud a kitsch form that has a surprise meaning. Because, and this is really to the point, that form, that familiar friendly form…the form of mass entertainment and marketing is going to neutralize anything deeper anyway. I should add that one of the problems I have with Miller is that he believed somehow that art was moral instruction….and a motivational tool for the masses. Art isn’t there to do that.
Miller wrote in a “realist” tradition, and while that term is actually pretty meaningless, its useful to point out that Miller greatly admired Ibsen (19th century) and Shaw, the most didactic and least poetic of writers imaginable.
Perry-Folino: I am an admirer of both Ibsen and Shaw’s work precisely because they are didactic. Yes, they are the least poetic but in an academic setting, a theatre department in a state run college, these are playwrights with ideas that are helpful for teachers who wish to introduce criticism of our society, (i.e. women’s roles and the evolution of women’s rights) to students who may be coming from very traditional places. For example, Muslim women need to see how women’s rights evolved and using Shaw and Ibsen is a useful tool to reach an eventual understanding of a Suzi Lori Parks’ play.
Steppling: Interesting you mention state run college. Yeah, probably you’re right, and therein lies the fundamental problem with institutions of learning. Art, including theatre, is not there as a tool for “education”. If you want to read about women’s oppression, a significantly important topic, then read about that. If you want to learn about Colonialism….then we could start with Said, and so forth. There are volumes of excellent material on these subjects. But it’s not what art does. Great art does not have a “message” that makes life easier for teachers. Art is neither educational instruction nor is it leisure time entertainment (a word well worth investigating)….it’s about awakening. And to approach it as awakening is where the real radicalism of art lies…and why institutions fear art. Art always has an element linked to anarchy about it. Institutions shy away because they know “art” is there to destroy them.
Perry-Folino: Awakening to what, John? And is this true in all institutions? I understand it may be true in state run institutions but what about private art colleges? It is hard to believe that this blanket statement applies to every private college or university.
Steppling: Awakening to what? Awakening to the alarm clock. I can’t answer that question, honestly. It’s such a leaden literalizing of a statement meant to convey the fact that there are indefinable realms reached by an engagement with art. Ineffable, uncanny, and disturbing. Again, soon as you ask, awaken to what you are reducing the frame of discussion to something that can be taught at junior college. Here is the list of meanings to be found in this play. This is what each character represents, and so forth. Its what kills an interest in culture for the young. Its exactly what kills it. And yes, art is out to destroy institutions. It is there to be revolutionary on some level. I don’t mean it helps form the masses into a vanguard that then storm the palace. I mean a revolution of the soul. An insight, a glimpse of that furtive strange fleeting truth – and often, if not usually, these truths ‘are’ fleeting. That’s why all this work goes into creating theatre, or building temples or sculpture or painting on walls or in caves….why do we do it? If all it comes down to, is sociology, is kitsch biography and reductive psychological sketches…..then its pointless. But of course it doesn’t come down to that. And there are some great theatre and philosophy and lit crit departments in places throughout the US and Europe. Great teachers, but in general, in public education, and in a good deal of private, we run smack into this these sorts of issues. The sort of questions that really cannot be answered without doing a huge disservice to the subject. Let me add, one of things that has to be kept in mind, and it’s a tricky topic, is that art is not for everyone. Dante or Genet is not for mass consumption. There is a liberal sort of truism that suggests it is, that if in fact it’s too difficult for many people, then its elitist and bad. No, it just means it’s not for mass consumption. That’s ok, that’s fine. It’s not a perjorative judgement on either the creators of this art, or the people who don’t want to understand it. I don’t want to build bridges and learn engineering. Doesn’t mean I hate bridges.
Perry-Folino: Well public education is set up to educate (and I am now using that term very loosely) or indoctrinate people of all ages because that is public education. If it is pointless, useless, then we should get rid of it…particularly if it turns the wheels of industry (which it does). So short of that which most likely is not going to happen, how does one working within the system help to broaden that same system to include more Genet or Beckett? Or should one even bother?
Steppling: I think this is a huge huge huge question with far reaching implications, but also to even discuss it would require a pretty extensive historical over-view. I mean bourgeois education – and the various liberal branches its fostered, are something we could approach from a lot of directions. The fact that public schooling, going back to the industrial revolution, was about social control, should not be forgotten. Schools were designed to resemble factories and prisons, and vice versa. The idea of standardized uniform templates of learning…for the masses, was a pretty late development. And of course, real education remained for the rich. There are records in Parliament, from the 1840s, where it was made clear the poor must not be educated past their station, lest they yearn to over-reach their position in life. It’s not as if its really improved. But, if you asked me, should we junk the educational system, mostly I would say yes. But then, probably what I really mean, is just replace it with an education free of grades and competition and fear.
Perry-Folino: We absolutely agree on that. Which brings us back to Salesman…and the form that Miller used….
Steppling: The form of the play, the presentation of Salesman, is that of Ibsen. There is nothing in this play that is actually closer to our everyday reality than Beckett, in truth, but its presentation – its ‘realism’ had already been granted a certain status via Ibsen and other 19th century writers (Chekhov for one). Without going into a long historical exegesis, it might be relevant to see Strindberg as another branch of this historical tree. Strindberg, however, was an expressionist. In any event, I don’t want to suggest that Miller is kitsch exactly, but that he is writing within a very familiar set of conventions.
Perry-Folino: He is purposefully I think working within a familiar set of conventions. The question is why? I think it is not to make the audience feel safe but just the opposite, to make them squirm through the play’s content. But we would need to ask Miller about this and sadly, we can’t. Perhaps there is an interview somewhere about this. Not to say that even if this were his intent, that would mean he was successful. Perhaps, I grant you, this form ultimately betrays his purpose, his critique of capitalism.
Steppling: Again, form matters as much as content, and in a sense, it IS the content. There is nothing squirm inducing that I can see in ‘Salesman. So, maybe I need to hear what you think is subversive or radical in this play?
Perry-Folino: In a society as driven and controlled by capitalism any critique of it seems to be subversive. Look at our current political situation. We have a president who is accused of being a Socialist because he wants to provide health care for people through a system that benefits the health care industry. When Miller wrote Death of a Salesman there was a widespread panic and witch hunt for so called Communists. His writing any play that at its core shows the devastation on one particular family of capitalism is a gutsy thing to do.
Steppling: You continue to return this to a sort of thumbnail bio of Miller. It’s irrelevant what Miller intended, and there continues to be a misunderstanding about form, I think. But even putting that aside, the issue is really what is the value of the play as art, and even that sounds simplistic to me. This is the problem I’m finding in answering questions that assume certain paradigms for understanding what is a very complicated topic. So, no, for the record, there is nothing subversive in this play, if we mean it foments political action. It’s a sociological theme, and its didactic, and hence such conceptualizing in writing for the theatre is always going to result in material that lacks expansiveness…I just don’t know what else I can say – because I find the framing of these questions to be problematic in a sense. To say, oh, Miller wrote a gutsy play is to create an almost cartoon level of interpretation. First off, it becomes about Miller’s personality, and secondly, it assumes that somehow the point of theatre art is sociological. Yes, he wrote a play that contains a sort of reductivist critique of capitalism. So stipulated. Does that make it “subversive”? No, and it’s certainly doesn’t subvert anything in terms of form.
The avant garde movement in the arts that began (and there is always debate about this) in the 1890’s were predicated on a resistance to the growing conformity of industrial capitalism (and what was already fast becoming post industrial). They were a reaction formation to that suffocating suppression of individual autonomy and to a growing social domination of institutionally mediated life.
The work that came out of those various avant garde movements reacted to the generalizing tendencies of society and culture. The rise of mass culture was there to do something quite different from earlier forms of art. It was there to induce relaxation….a respite from wage slavery (as Adorno said, mass culture was like psychoanalysis in reverse). It was the manipulated marketed false aesthetic that had just started to gain traction. Mass culture was looking for ‘consumers’ and the more passive the better. The avant garde tried various strategies to ‘awaken’ what they saw as a sonambulent public. In a sense, kitsch was there to prevent boredom, but also to prevent despair….or, a sharing of tragic emotions. In a sense, the tragic probably is not possible, per se, in advanced western capitalist society. But let me get back to that question later…
Perry-Folino: I certainly won’t disagree with a sleepwalking public to advance capitalism. We can see how absurd mass entertainment has become in the US with reality TV shows, sitcoms, clichéd rom-coms and action and adventure films. You won’t get an argument from me on this. But I don’t think Salesman is kitsch nor do I think Miller was seeing his audience as consumers. I think his intent was to wake people up to the evils of capitalism. Now does he succeed? Probably not. But I think he was definitely a pin prick in people’s psyches.
Steppling: This is the same point I guess I addressed above. But you see, I have no idea what Miller really thought…but I know he has spoken of political education in terms related to his writing. This is probably, in my estimation, why he wrote these rather preachy plays with their ‘message’ so clearly put out front. It’s as if consciousness for Miller is looked at in very schematic ways.
There is an entire discussion to be had that would trace the evolution of aesthetic sensibility from antiquity through romanticism and modernism and it’s sort of beyond the scope of this dialogue. But questions of Enlightenment values play into this, as well as notions of bourgeois identity. In any case, there are significant questions to do with narrative here, too. And with our mimetic relationship to it.
Perry-Folino: You lost me here. I wonder if you could elaborate more on this.
Steppling: Well, it’s a complex topic. I’m using the term the way I understand Adorno to use it. For the purposes of this discussion let’s say that as we watch a play we have running along in our heads a re-telling of what we are viewing and hearing. This has an interpretive dimension to it, but it’s considerably more complex than that. This narrative in our heads is obviously shaped by a number of factors, and here it’s important to also point out that the question begs another one, that of what theatre really is.
It’s fashionable now to speak of ritual and to see theatre as having evolved out of religious ceremonies. In fact I think this is, at best, only partly correct. Theatre is a way of thinking. Murray Mednick used to say that, and Eli Rozik has said much the same thing. The truth of what happens on stage cannot be expressed anywhere else. Jan Kott wrote a seminal book, “Shakespeare Our Contemporary” in which he analyses King Lear. He points to the Mad Tom and Gloucester scene on the heath and says, among other things, that this is the start of modern theatre. It’s also expressing something that cannot be said in film or painting or poetry. It can only happen on this empty flat stage, with these two actors uttering these lines from within this narrative. That scene resonates because it captures something of the doubling that occurs in theatre and of the illusions of performance and our ideas of what ‘character’ are. I would, in the context of this discussion, suggest that such multiple layers of meaning, and such a profound use of the medium, are things that Miller seems unaware of. I never sense that complexity in Salesman. And it is for exactly this reason that Salesman is such a popular teaching aid. It invites very concrete interpretation. There is a correct answer to Miller’s work, and there is no correct answer to Shakespeare.
Perry-Folino: You make some excellent points, John. Perhaps Miller then and most contemporary playwrights now are ignorant of a deeper and more profound use of the medium and this is no small thing because it limits us to a theatre of the concrete. And that limits our collective imaginations. I think this is probably true and a great loss to our collective imagination. I doubt, however, very many people who go to theatre or who write plays today are aware of “such profound use of the medium” or lack of it, as you describe.
But, look, given all that is true and being a basic kind of gal, I must admit that when I go to see a play, ANY play, I want, no, I must relate, to connect to, at the very least one single character or a single relationship within the framework of the play. Because, frankly, if I can not relate or connect, I lose interest very quickly. I don’t think I am alone in this. In Salesman, the death of Willy Loman is the death of the father, the patriarch and this death hits me personally. I am impacted by it because I can relate to a father eaten alive trying to make a living and maintain his dignity in a capitalist dog eat dog world. That is why I watch the play and that is why I think it is still being performed. I recall seeing a production of Waiting for Godot for the first time with Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith. I was maybe 8 years old. I had been raised in a Catholic family and there was never any doubt as to the existence of god. I was unaware of the “profound use of the medium”, but I was not unaware that what was happening in front of me was comical, sad, scary and challenging everything I had been taught about a universe in which there was a divine presence taking care of us. Both of these plays, very different in form, made an impact. So why is one so superior to the other? And is it? Don’t we go to the theatre primarily to be moved? To feel more deeply? To think more deeply? Interestingly even in some of your own work I have been exposed to, I am most deeply affected when I can relate and connect to the characters on stage in a personal way.
Steppling: Genet once said “identification is the lowest form of appreciation”. This is sort of like those rubes who say, well, dang it I don’t know what art is but I know what I like. People often cry at deodorant commercials. And let me interject here, sentimentality is the virus of American popular culture. Of melodrama. Disproportionate emotional responses to manipulative material. I don’t accuse ‘Salesman of this, but I would say, this question suggests that one has an emotional response to a play (since we’re talking theatre) that that somehow validates the work. Well, it doesn’t. I know people who love Sex and the City, or love whatever….we could make a list of very popular junk…..and because they love it, because they find an emotional connection, that this means the work cannot be critiqued. It’s nonsense. Really, its philistinism. And yes, because of the erosion in arts education, in all education, a certain kind of wrong headed populism has crept into the discourse. This is a big topic. The democratization of culture, or art. In the 1920s the best seller list was Fitzgerald, and Hemingway and Dos Passos. Today it’s Tom Clancy and John Grisham. Now, I would say the same percentage of the population read Fitzgerald, but what has changed is that more people consume more cultural product. And what happens is the ceding of aesthetic authority to the marketplace. Suddenly Tom Clancy is taught in MFA programs. Post graduate studies include Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And it’s treated not as a symptom, not in the manner of the Frankfurt School examining popular culture or deconstructing lonely hearts columns in the newspaper….no, it’s treated as if it matters artistically simply by virtue of its popularity. The tyranny of “I like something” and a general corporate right wing need to encourage anti intellectualism, has gained real traction. To follow this logic leads one to say, well, Justin Bieber is as good as Bach….because he sells more. And organs of ignorance such as FOX news would probably promote that idea. So, to return to Salesman here…and let me add, that I saw a production of Godot when I was about twelve and a family friend was in it, and I got to go and I asked after the play if I could return the next night. I saw the piece three consecutive evenings. I also had an Aunt who was a book dealer. I spent summers often, at her house, in La Jolla, and I stayed in the back garage. There were piles of books, used books. Old Evergreen press and New Directions. And I was suddenly struck with these photos of the plays of Genet and Beckett and Ionesco. It was as if, I felt, a secret world had been kept from me and I instinctively knew it was important. Now, in public school you were allowed to see things like Miller (my high school did The Crucible)…..and I also instinctively knew, this was less important. It’s also the famous San Quentin Workshops production of Godot. You think guys in D Block understood in traditionally academic terms why Godot was significant and why they responded to it? Of course not. So, why is one play superior to another? Well, because we have a history and we have philosophy and we have political resistance and we have, finally, truth. And we have aesthetic truth. If we don’t, then what have we? Are we to suspend critical judgment altogether? If someone says, well, Buffy means more to me than Lear….I identify with Buffy. The answer is, well, you need to be educated. People cannot know what they have never been exposed to. And the first time I’ve sent students at the film school into watch Bresson or Fassbender….usually they are irritated and angry even. The third or fourth time, they start to get it. Suddenly Zach Snyder doesn’t seem so good. It’s why we have critical thinking. It’s why one must develop a sensibility that can appreciate Dante or Homer or Shakespeare. Often you don’t the first time. Are we to throw away Dante? Are we to say, well, if you are moved by Buffy, then it must be as valuable as Dante?? I’d say no. Those guys in Quentin who saw Beckett, they were likely the perfect audience actually. So as a footnote, I find most of the education in the US to be destructive…not just useless, but destructive. There is a petit bourgeois bias toward certain themes. And you see this in institutional theatre in the US. The plays done at Lincoln Center were written for the audiences at Lincoln Center. I’m not sure this was as true fifty years ago, but today, you won’t see work with a radical voice. It’s business partly. But it’s also class bias. It’s a comfortable affluent class that is offended, and scared by the angry voices out there. And they should be. The work of black or Latino or Asian writers….in the name of multi culturalism are always the domesticated voices, the compliant voices. There are some exceptions to this, but not many. Toni Morrison becomes a guest at the White House….and I’d argue Iceberg Slim would have been a better choice.
Perry-Folino: This is a deeply passionate voice I am hearing. And I have to tell you, I am moved by both the intellectual argument and the passion behind it, not one or the other. And because of the passion I hear, I am able to process and integrate what you have said. I think it is just this voice that is what for me anyway makes great playwriting and great plays. An integration of intellect and feeling. And I agree that Iceberg Slim would certainly have been a gutsy and better choice in many ways.
Steppling: Conceptual analysis is not the pathway to an understanding of the artwork. This is something Adorno went on about a good deal, and its not easy to discuss quickly. In a sense, the viewer of a painting is re-painting it, in a kind of performance of it….the viewer/listener/reader is assimilated in an attempt to embody (however impossibly) the internal form and tensions of the artwork. Art is always enigmatic because of the mimetic function. For Adorno, full understanding is not about meaning but about grasping this enigmatic permanence. Tragedy….its my belief anyway, has always been misunderstood because I think Artistotle was misread. Putting that aside, the idea of the individual in antiquity differs rather hugely from the psychoanalytic one of the 20th century. A character in Dante is not the same as in, well, Miller. Somewhere Adorno says that beauty is mimesis of the indefinable in objects, because the indefinable is precisely their participation in the enigmatic coherence of opaque similarities. That’s pretty obtuse I grant you. But….Valery said something not greatly different: “ The beautiful may require the servile imitation of what is indefinable in things”. I love that quote. Adorno of course also criticized an artwork once by saying it was ‘merely beautiful’. What he meant by that, generally speaking, was that it was not reaching beyond the accepted notions of the real, and of nature, (and hence in the end was reactionary for it was saying that reality was sufficient as it is)…or as Broch said, a value system that was open, the goal to be attained somehow outside the system. Romanticism by the way changed this. It was the start of an elevation of the mundane to the level of the eternal. In other words, to make beauty the goal of all art.
Perry-Folino: To make beauty the goal of all art. Well as a sensualist, perhaps because I am an Italian American, I don’t understand why this is a terribly negative thing. Perhaps I am obtuse here but this argument for me needs further clarification.
Steppling: I would ask you, define beauty. I think actually I answered this above, but if the ONLY thing you want is ‘the beautiful’, then that is what you are likely to get. The merely beautiful. And beauty can often be a tool of reactionary forces. It is the way the general public has come to think of art. Oh, isn’t that landscape beautiful. I wonder often how the populace in the western capitalist countries experience nature. I think they compare it to postcards or nature photography. If it stacks up to the best photos of nature, the Sierra Club brochure cover photo, then its deemed ‘art’. What would most Americans make of Francis Bacon’s paintings? Or Anselm Kiefer’s paintings. And really, what is taught about aesthetics in most US universities, let alone high schools. Is there anything remotely like a dialectical analysis of image or what codes are used in pictorial mediums? Imitating natural beauty is not the same as copying it. I’m going on about all this, and its very complicated, because for me Miller was in spite of his own intentions, a deeply conventional writer. The “meaning” of ‘Salesman’ can be explained in terms of social critique, but such critique is the province of sociology, and not art, and certainly not tragedy. To confuse Shakespearean tragedy with Kings…by positing an ‘everyman’ is to be both middlebrow in one’s appreciation of tragedy and of the political.
Perry-Folino: Miller’s father was a salesman, correct? Was he not basically writing about his own family in Salesman? And was it not a social critique? And why can not theatre be used in that manner? Why does that somehow seem to cheapen the play for you?
Steppling: I don’t care about Miller’s biography. And neither should you, in my opinion. It’s another popular tool these days , the kitsch biography. And lets say it was social critique. It doesn’t make it art. Of course it “can” be used this way, but the question is does such use have value?
I forget who said the true language of art is speechless. But it would bring us to post modernism to explore these ideas. The illegible, and the forgotten. These are the realms of transcendence…..of the basic trauma of what Lacan liked to call the lost object of desire.
Perry-Folino: This feels like it is crucial to your critique of not only Miller but most playwrights working in theatre today, John. What do you feel has been lost? This concept of transcendence….as opposed to social critique..why do you feel theatre needs to regain this? My instinct tells me this is at the heart of not only your passion for theatre but at the center of your own work. Correct me if I am wrong (I know you will)
Steppling: Well, I don’t think we can go into this in too much detail. My notes on theatre at LA Review of Books has a bit on this, and the longer essay a lot more. Margaret Iverson wrote a terrific book, Beyond Pleasure, which discusses a lot of this in some detail. For art to awaken, if we stick with that word for the moment, it has to do more than have a “message”. Having a message is advertisement. What did Sam Warner say, if you want a message go to Western Union. Look – great art is not sociological. It must demand more, and must point toward those unconscious realms of existence that bring us closer to our own mortality and our sense of self. It has to do with more than just question a political system, and say, well, it’s unjust. What is going on in Shakespeare, or Pinter or Beckett or de Ghelderoe or Genet or Kane or Sophocles? Social critique? One might find someone who says, yes. But clearly those artists were working at something for more illusive, and bring forth a recognition, in various ways, of an existential condition. Of our existential condition. What is often called the human condition…but that phrase now qualifies as cliché. The poetry of theatrical practice is truly anarchic and profound when you can’t find the ‘message’. We have all read bad criticism of, say, Kafka. Or, worse, of the Greek tragedians. It’s painful to have to read that criticism, for it so totally misses the point. The mis-reading of the Greeks is almost a public joke at this point. There have been correctives…guys like Vernant, and critics/thinkers such as Rene Girard, or Calasso. They have reclaimed something of real resonance in the works of antiquity. I’m finding it difficult to fully answer you because I think the predication of the questions is so basically wrong.
But I digress a bit here. Ok….Miller wrote what in a sense could be labeled agit prop. It certainly had a clear intention to impart a specific “message”. As soon as one conceptualizes the artwork, one begins to cleave pretty closely to kitsch. One kills the enigmatic language of transcendence. In fact one of the problems of ‘Salesman is that the ‘dream’ like memories are posited in strictly delineated form…they are inherently UNdream like. There is an absence of poetry or music in the language.
Perry-Folino: Wow. I suppose this is true. And this brings us back to why bother to have theatre at all any more. I mean a lack of poetry or music makes theatre, well, mundane, doesn’t it?
Steppling: Why have theatre? That’s a pretty big question. Why have art? Well, because that is what we do, and I don’t think we have much choice…its part of being human. But its not really worth dealing with when its didactic. There is great theatre going on out there. Heiner Muller, and the late Thomas Bernhard….both very important writers and theatre artists. How many college theatre departments teach Bernhard?
We could talk about dreams, as they relate to narrative, but that’s probably another topic.
Now this analysis you sent is pretty irritating, to be honest. Sentences like “He is an archetypal, generic Salesman.” Well, you cannot be both. The generic, though, is exactly the problem…or one of the problems. Now, its not really generic, but I get why that term is used. Its kitsch in a sense. The audience is given a set of signposts for a “character’, and then given the signposts for interpreting the meaning of that character. How does one do that with Vladimir in Godot, or any of Genet’s characters or Pinter’s? What is happening in Pinter, for example, is that the uncanny surfaces as the audience re-narrates the play….while viewing it, the inexplicable truths of existence (often containing the political) are experienced. Pinter is a deeply political writer, but not a sociological one. Miller was not concerned with form. He was concerned with sociology. And he wrote plays easily digestable, and I would argue such is the reason for their durability. A junior college theatre dept is more comfortable with Miller, than with Pinter, or Beckett. Why? Now Im not saying such departments don’t do Beckett…but I would bet you they feel more adrift in how to approach a Beckett or a Sarah Kane.
Perry-Folino: Absolutely true. I won’t argue with you here. It goes to the heart of well…education, doesn’t it?
Steppling: There are certain works that are exhausted by criticism rather quickly. I think Miller’s works fall into this category. What more can be said about ‘Salesman? Kafka, as an example, will likely never be exhausted. Why is that? The totality of the artwork cannot be contained by analysis. The secondary logic that follows the contours of dialogue or character or narrative….that which is non-kitsch as it were, or authentic, or whatever word you choose….is not in the service of the integrating the meaning into any pre-formed conceptual structure.
And again, per this article, expressionism is NOT message oriented. Such a misreading of whatever it is you want to call expressionism, is almost embarrassing. I mean, “message oriented”? Pepsi commercials are message oriented. Not Toller or Wedekind or whomever. The hallmark of German expressionism certainly was the introduction of a certain sense of mythos….declamatory dialogue, almost Biblical, but also deeply anti-bourgeois. There was certainly a Freudian oedipal aspect to this theatre, and we could include Strindberg in the discussion as well. The idea is almost exactly NOT what Miller is doing. Those plays…of Gas and Sorge, et al, were explicitly non-realistic. The dream like exaggerations that accompanied the father-figure as patriarchal tyrant, yada yada….culminating in a spiritual awakening of some sort. Miller is about as far from spiritual awakening as one can get. Compare German expressionist cinema with ‘Salesman. Dr Mabuse vs Willy Lohman. Steel cage death match. The point is that in a Mabuse the enemy is really within, even if the ‘within’ is shaped by the world ‘out there’. We are always our own enemy. Sociology, that most American of disciplines, is not about arriving at any existential underpinnings, it’s about data retrieval and categorization and analysis. And after crunching those numbers, to come to a conclusion. Art subverts through a poetic form…in language or structure or however, and it resists analysis of a sociological type.
Perry-Folino: So theatre as art must be dead in the US except for a few playwrights. It sounds like the spiritual, the transcendent is gone, been replaced at the worst by silly garbage and at best by plays with a social message that audiences want to believe is in some way profound. This is certainly not the original intent of theatre which was, in fact, spiritual, religious.
Steppling: Was it? See, I don’t’ know. I’ve often said (and those who have studied with me know this ad nauseum) that ‘off stage’ represents the unconscious. What is “on” stage is the conscious mind. Its like early cartographers… those early maps in which the known world stopped. How did they usually picture what was beyond the known world? Sea monsters and demons. The unconscious! Id say in one sense we live in a world which, through marketing and a commodity obsession, has managed to almost eradicate the unconscious. Tanizaki has a great book on aesthetics….In Praise of Shadows. He talks of Japanese interiors, in architecture, where the corners of the rooms are meant to remain in shadow. In the post Enlightenment west we ‘light’ those corners. We want to get rid of mystery because we believe somehow that everything can be explained. That science will “explain” everything. Well, of course it cant. But the western world of today fears mystery. It fears the shadow. Or might well look at popular culture and see quite a lot of evidence of this.
So, was theatre born of ‘spiritual” practice ( I hate the word spiritual)? Not only that, no. Theatre is thinking. Theatre exists because we ARE theatre, because we have language and therefore we create ‘space’ in which this practice takes place. Its an infinitely complex subject. The drama of our oedipal trauma is theatre – our dream space is theatre, its all linked. Religion follows theatre if there is that connection. Pharonic Egyptian temple space always suggests theatre to me….and the hieroglyphics and violence of mummification …they relate as well, because humans have always been inside a play. And language is invented so we can speak our lines.
Anyway, ok, so…..to try to wrap up this first question; the form of ‘Salesman is familiar. It’s structurally developed on terms laid by the Greeks, really, but manifested by writers such as Ibsen. The very idea of character is not really questioned, and influences such as Artaud and Jarry, or Brecht, are more or less missing. Miller’s work is there to be analysed, and its meaning explained. The meaning may be anti-capitalist even, but the form is not. The form allows the play to be packaged as a commodity in a sense….and placed out there on the cultural table in the marketplace and people feel no threat from it. His plays are defeated by this failure. For me. I recognize that Death of a Salesman is one of those plays nobody is really supposed to diss. And honestly, Miller as a man was a terrific mensch vis a vis HUAC. Sadly, his work as a poet of the theatre is less terrific.
Perry-Folino: You have given me a lot to think about, John. Thank you for that. I’ll have to take a very close look at the curriculum in light of this discussion and perhaps meet with my department chair. I don’t think this applies only to theatre and film classes but perhaps to much of what we teach, particularly at a state institution. It may be a pointless effort if what you say is true and so much is invested in deadening American society. But it is worth investigating. I’ll make sure that as many people as possible get the link to our discussion. Let’s continue this at a future time.