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David Benedict: Did Arthur Miller’s Jewish identity inform many of his plays?

Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman at Young Vic, London. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
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“I do not at any point, in any way whatsoever, think of myself as a Jewish writer, except that I happen to be a Jew who writes.” So said Harold Pinter in 1960 in the Jewish Chronicle.

Pinter’s Judaism was, for him, subtextual and it didn’t seem to colour his discourse. Contrast that with an evening at the Ivy at which a legendary American playwright had dinner with a lawyer friend of mine who, like me, is Jewish. Her prevailing memory of their meeting was not his thoughts on the state of contemporary dramatic writing or why London has consistently been better than New York in reviving his plays. To her surprise, he led an almost comically stereotypically Jewish conversation in which he kept kvelling about the quality of the new jacket that he showed her. The playwright? Arthur Miller.

London has lately been hosting an unofficial Miller festival – productions of The American Clock, The Price and The Crucible have recently closed while All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are running at the Old Vic and Young Vic, respectively. Yet the one issue that has not been raised, or has perhaps been overlooked, is Miller’s Judaism.

All My Sons review at Old Vic, London – ‘stunning performances from Sally Field and Bill Pullman’

Of course, labelling a writer via their religious background, gender, race or sexuality is not for the faint-hearted, not least because most writers (though by no means all) consider it, at best, limiting and, at worst, patronising. Let’s all be grateful that terms such as ‘women novelist’ have largely died out, except where positive discrimination is being used.

Elsewhere, lazily categorising writers in relation to the supposed majority is usually insulting. And how useful is it to take such individual writers as, say, Sarah Daniels, Bryony Lavery and Phyllis Nagy and label them as lesbian playwrights, especially since no one argues the case for Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare or Tom Stoppard as heterosexual playwrights?

Looking at Miller’s career, ‘Jewish playwright’ seems equally wide of the mark. His Broadway career began at the age of 29 in 1944 with The Man Who Had All the Luck (derided by most critics, it closed after four performances), which bore no suggestion of his Jewish identity. Indeed, it wasn’t until 20 years later in his 1964 hour-long, one-act play Incident at Vichy – about the Nazi interrogation of a group of Jewish men in Vichy France – that he even broached the subject.

He returned to Jewish-related themes in 1980 with Playing for Time, his screenplay based on a book about musicians in Auschwitz, and finally met them head-on in 1994 in his play Broken Glass. The title refers to Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when Jewish homes, businesses, schools and synagogues in Nazi Germany were smashed up, an event seen in the play from the perspective of a couple living in Brooklyn at the time. It allowed Miller finally to put American-Jewish identity fully under his microscope.

In other words, Miller’s plays suggest that when it came to investigating that part of his cultural background, he was a late starter. Except that’s not the whole story. One year after The Man Who Had All the Luck, he published Focus, his sole novel, which is wholly about a man who starts being mistaken for being Jewish and suffers badly for it.

‘Death of a Salesman has no Jewish references, expressions or rituals but Miller himself wrote that the play sprang, in part, from a remark made by his uncle Manny’

Four years later came Death of a Salesman, his most famous play – not, in my view, his finest since, for me, that’s The Crucible. His Judaism seems absent, the play’s raison d’être being its all-American resonance – refashioned in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s Young Vic production via the casting of Willy Loman and his family as African American.

The text has no Jewish references, expressions or rituals but Miller himself wrote that the play sprang, in part, from a remark made by his uncle Manny, who boasted about the success of his son, Miller’s cousin. Parental pride is hardly culturally specific, but its exaggerated form is so ingrained in Jewish humour and culture that there’s even a specific term for it: naches (pronounced to rhyme with ‘luck-us’).

That drives Willy’s strained relationship with his son Biff throughout the play. Yet more specifically, there’s Willy’s increasingly overwhelming need to be “well-liked”, the phrase that stalks the play. Yes, that’s important for a salesman, but it would also have been fundamental to the Jewish need to fit into wider American society, to assimilate into the wider community. For Willy, that notion of acceptance becomes a giant struggle that determines his character.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that the Young Vic’s African-American casting works so well: Miller conceived his characters as white, but his Judaism afforded him lived-in insight into the mechanics and mindset of a minority whose survival depended on acceptance.

Death of a Salesman review at Young Vic, London – ‘revelatory reframing of Arthur Miller’s play’

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

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