Saturday, February 12, 2005

After the Thud: Arthur Miller

Playwright, screenwriter, novelist, memoirist: Was Arthur Miller the most overrated literary figure of the twentieth century, or merely the most overrated American literary figure of the twentieth century? He wrote three widely acclaimed dramas -- All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible -- and the screenplay for The Misfits (which is basically "Death of a Salesman" on horseback). None of them withstand scrutiny today. All My Sons is generally regarded as simplistic and schematic, too much of an "I hate Daddy" play for its own good. Death of a Salesman begins well enough, but its admonitions that "Attention must be paid" and "Nobody dast blame this man" are condescending in the extreme. (That word "dast" should also remind us of Miller's tin ear for dialogue, a fault which worsened with age.) As for The Crucible, a simple-minded parable of McCarthyism, it once enjoyed near-ubiquity in high-school classrooms, perhaps because it offered high-school teachers an opportunity to talk about something called "symbolism." One imagines the classroom discussions: "See, Miller's sort of talking about one thing, but he's really talking about another thing. Isn't that interesting, kiddies?"

Even an average, minor-league American dramatist can claim a better record. The American Century Theater recently proved that Robert Anderson's maligned Tea and Sympathy still works on a stage, and 1920s Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green scored a hit with the outdoor drama The Lost Colony. Although Arthur Miller is still admired among the literati to an extent that Anderson and Green never enjoyed (and alas, never will), his plays are tainted with a meanness, an unthinking cruelty, which becomes more obvious to audiences as time goes by.

Take The Crucible, a 1953 play that would become Miller's greatest popular success.

Some works of art can be discussed without reference to an explicitly political context. The Crucible cannot. If you forget, even for an instant, that this play about the Salem witch trials actually refers to McCarthyism, everything you see onstage melts into thin air. Miller wasn't interested in exploring the dynamics of panic, or showing how fear of the Other spreads throughout a community (as Tea and Sympathy does, for instance). Instead, he wanted to create a left-wing myth about the righteous John Proctor, and the persecution he faces from the leaders of his town.

Most of what you need to know about Miller's protagonists can be found in their slightly cartoonish monikers. Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman is the most obvious: Miller clearly sees his titular salesman as a "low man," compelled to lead an unfulfilling life in the pursuit and defense of American capitalism. In All My Sons, the last name of industrial capitalist Joe Keller is but one letter removed from "killer," which is precisely what the play reveals him to be: His defective airplane parts lead to the deaths of unsuspecting American GIs. Elia Kazan turned these dramas into something like tragedy, but Miller just seems to think these guys had it coming. (Which might explain his dismissive epitaph for Loman.) The Crucible has John Proctor, who derives his name from that guy who shows up at a final exam and watches panicked students for signs of cheating. Naturally, Proctor is square-jawed and stiff-necked as Dudley Do-Right. With a name like "Proctor," how could he be anything else?

The Crucible successfully exploits the persecution complex of the American Left, creating an anti-American myth that reduces our entire Puritan colonial heritage to a tale of one good American done in by a gaggle of right-wing Christian zealots. As with most of Miller's work, the hero of this play is so obviously correct and the villains so obviously evil, that humanistic, apolitical concerns are simply rendered irrelevant. Like the Passion Plays of medieval Europe, The Crucible is meant to produce outrage, not empathy. It is stark, manipulative melodrama, conflating politics and anti-religious fervor to potent effect.

Yet it would serve as what Lyotard would call a "master narrative," forming a template for left-wing sociopolitical critique, and paving the way for half a century of mean-spirited politics. One cannot dismiss its cultural impact: In the realm of the "ideological imaginary," few works of art have met with such resounding success -- which may prove that even propaganda is better when it's privatized. Even today, with Miller's critical reputation very much on the wane, The Crucible is practically the official drama of college-town leftists with no taste (i.e., the majority of English teachers).

The most remarkable thing about The Crucible is that if read as anti-McCarthy myth -- and alas, the play can't be read any other way -- it's one of the most deliberately, maliciously anti-Gay dramas ever written. The witchcraft charge against John Proctor begins with an unrequited teenage crush from Abigail Williams, and the parallels with the Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss trial are absolutely intentional. On the American Left, it was an article of faith that Chambers placed Hiss on trial mainly because the handsome, blond Hiss refused to respond to his sexual advances. People who tittered over the sexual proclivities of Chambers, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine would have instantly recognized Miller's "Abigail Williams" as a homosexual man in woman's drag: She places Proctor on trial because he won't "put out" for his sexually voracious accuser.

Proctor's problem isn't that he's too good; it's that he's too sexy. He's too much of a "real man" for the screaming queens in the courtroom. But if they can't have Proctor for themselves, they can at least see him hanged. Alas, the civil authorities are all too willing to work with these deeply disturbed "girls," when they should be putting them in their rightful place -- perhaps in an asylum, or in jail. The play ends with the triumph of coded-homosexual disturbance over heterosexual normalcy, a tragic outcome in which both Proctors, husband and wife, are sacrificed to deviant lust. But we know that this momentary triumph will not last long: There will be a reckoning, and these "girls" will pay dearly for their taste of power.

To an inattentive contemporary audience, this subtext seems like simple misogyny. Miller's audience knew better. None of the accusers in the McCarthy hearings, the Hiss trial, or the Rosenberg case were women; several of the most prominent anti-Communists were rumored (sometimes correctly) to be Gay or at least Bisexual. When the play is placed in its specific historical context -- after Alger Hiss's conviction and shortly before the Army-McCarthy hearings -- Miller's paranoid sexual politics comes to the fore. His barely veiled denunciation of homosexuality is identical to the resentful sexual politics of today's Far Right. With The Crucible, anti-Gay bigotry was enshrined at the core of the American left-wing ideology, and it's unlikely to leave without a fight.

Then again, so much of what is wrong with the American Left can be laid at Miller's doorstep, though certainly not at his alone. This is partly due to an accident of timing: In the postwar years when Miller experienced his greatest success, the old New Dealers didn't yet know how to respond to personal affluence and anti-Communist politics (both implicit repudiations of socialist ideology). Miller's literary output helped determine the tone of their response, with its stridency, prejudice, phony piety, petty vindictiveness, and a general lack of humanity. The Left would achieve some major successes in the decade and a half after The Crucible, but Miller's splenetic anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism and anti-humanism had placed the movement on a downward spiral from which it has yet to recover.

Miller died this week at age 89. Attention was paid, though not merited.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Notes on the State of Virginia: 2005 General Assembly

The Virginia General Assembly is halfway through its 2005 session. I've avoided writing about them so far, because I was thoroughly burned -- and burned out -- after last year's Marriage Affirmation Act. The Marriage Affirmation Act, as regular readers might recall, is so broadly written that it may well deny same-sex couples the right to private contract. This year, an amendment to the Marriage Affirmation Act, sponsored by GOP delegate Robert Albo, would have limited the law's effect on private contracts. That bill was killed in committee by fellow members of the GOP. A bill to repeal Virginia's sodomy law (declared unconstitutional after Lawrence v. Texas), also died in committee.

The sole bright spot is a health insurance bill, sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers. Currently, Virginia law prohibits health insurance companies from offering benefits to domestic partners: The only way Virginia businesses can offer health insurance to domestic partners is to self-insure, an option well beyond the means of most small- and medium-sized operations. Virginia businesses -- especially our tech-related companies -- are thus placed at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring. SB 1338 would change that situation, by allowing employers and insurance companies to determine who will be covered under their health plans. It won't mandate that employers cover domestic partners, but it won't mandate that they leave them out, either. The Senate passed the bill with a 26-14 vote, so there's at least a chance that it will reach the House of Delegates for a floor vote. Republican activist Rick Sincere asks Virginians to support this pro-business legislation.

Other than that, it's the same, depressing story: Once again, the General Assembly is doing everything in its power, short of renaming the state "Virginistan," to make life unpleasant for Gays and Lesbians.

For example, the Assembly has proposed not one, but two state constitutional amendments banning Gay marriage. The House of Delegates and the Senate have both approved a version of this amendment by overwhelming margins (including the vast majority of Virginia Democrats). It's clear that Virginia voters will pass some anti-Gay marriage amendment in 2006: The only question is just how vehemently anti-Gay that amendment will be. Both versions in the Assembly prohibit Virginia from recognizing same-sex marriage, civil unions, or anything else that might possibly pertain to same-sex couples. However, unlike the Senate version, the House amendment has a provision stating that "Any right, benefit, obligation, or status pertaining to persons not married is otherwise not altered or abridged by this section" -- which means that rights could (in theory) be conferred on same-sex couples by legislative largesse, and that same-sex couples would possess the right to form private contracts should the Marriage Affirmation Act be repealed, modified or overturned. So, should Gays in Virginia support the House amendment as the lesser of two evils, or should we simply "follow the drinking gourd" to the freer climes of Massachusetts and Vermont?

There's also a bill designed to keep Gay-Straight Alliances from meeting in schools. Originally, it simply barred GSAs from the schoolhouse door. Luckily, that was amended to something a bit more constitutional (not that this has managed to stop our legislature before). Now, the bill simply grants school boards the "discretion" to "prohibit school facilities from being used by any student club or other student group that encourages or promotes sexual activity by unmarried minor students." (Married minors can screw in the halls, as far as the General Assembly is concerned.) Now, anyone who has ever attended a GSA meeting can tell you that these clubs are not about sex; they're about giving Gay and Lesbian students (and their allies) one safe space in the public school where they aren't bullied, insulted, abused or assaulted. (Can't have that, now, can we?) The irony here is that under Virginia law, school boards are not allowed to deny access to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization which has done more than any GSA to bring young Gay men together. Of course, the anti-GSA bill passed unanimously in the House of Delegates. Once it passes the Senate, it's anyone's guess what damage it will inflict on Gay and Lesbian teenagers.

Another bill is meant to keep Gay and Lesbian people from adopting children. It requires investigators to determine whether applicants for adoption are "known to engage in current voluntary homosexual activity," and whether they're living with someone they're not related to by blood or marriage. Debate on this issue has been lively. The best moment occurred when one Delegate asked if investigators would ransack applicants' homes for contraband Judy Garland box sets, and Adam Ebbin -- the only openly Gay man in the entire General Assembly -- replied that he didn't own any Judy Garland albums. No longer content with "Over the Rainbow," Virginia's legislators have gone over the edge.

You might think that once our General Assembly has finished having its way with us, the only things in Virginia that won't tout an anti-Gay agenda will be the license plates. You'd be wrong. Under a bill proposed by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, heterosexuals in Virginia will acquire the "special right" to buy license plates supporting "traditional marriage." The design would feature two rings entwined over pink hearts -- apparently, the other Lucky Charms will have to file a lawsuit if they want a plate of their own. Local leftist Waldo Jaquith has proposed a more appropriate license plate for Lingamfelter and his ilk. The anti-Gay license plates have passed the House, but not by veto-proof margins: Unlike the other anti-Gay bills this session, this one might be so extreme that the General Assembly will let it die.

Yes, once again, our legislators have engaged in an extended, taxpayer-funded bout of Gay-bashing, with little hope, no end in sight, and no way for Gays and Lesbians to fight back. But "Virginistan" hasn't focused its fundamentalist wrath on homosexuals alone: Young Black men and women were briefly targeted under the widely ridiculed "Underpants" bill (proposed by an African-American Democrat, who proved that racism knows neither party nor color). This bill would have imposed a fifty-dollar fine on anyone "who, while in a public place, intentionally wears and displays his below-waist undergarments, intended to cover a person's intimate parts, in a lewd or indecent manner ...." After a rousing vote of approval from the House of Delegates, the law was "passed by indefinitely" in a Senate committee. As far as I can tell, it would not have applied to fat, pasty White people who walk around town with their butt cracks showing. Yeeesh. There ought to be a law about them.

When "New Federalist" conservatives claim they want to return more power to the states, they're really talking about giving more power to state legislatures. A quick look at the kooks, quacks, bigots and morons who run the Virginia General Assembly should remind us all that this is not such a good idea.

Hat tips to Rick Sincere, Waldo Jaquith, and the Equality Fairfax website.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Back tomorrow

Last week's bout of "blogorrhea" wore me out. Regular posts will resume tomorrow.

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