One of the ironies of the academic tendency to constantly renovate old disciplines is that yesterday’s modernists become today’s “Whatever became of?” question. This tendency was on display at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Chicago this year.
Thus, two 20th century playwrights, whose works are still widely performed, drew only a handful of afficianadoes to panels dedicated to their works. Ten people came to the panel on Arthur Miller, seven to the one on Eugene O’Neill.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman played Miller’s most famous character, Willy Loman, in a Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman just two years ago. David Suchet, famous as the PBS version of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, played James Tyronne in a London revival of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2012 as well.
It should be noted that the contrast between the enduring popularity of both authors outside of academia and the attention they get within it is not necessarily a political one. Neither author was by any stretch of the imagination a conservative.
Miller, in fact, was a most reluctant witness before the U. S. House Committee on UnAmerican Activities in the 1950s. O’Neill was up front in admitting to his socialism.
Yet and still, while politics gets a passing mention in O’Neill’s plays, it takes center stage in Miller’s. For example, one of the characters in The Iceman Cometh is a socialist but the tale of the main character, Hickey, is distinctly apolitical. In Miller’s The Crucible and After The Fall, though, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings are, in the former, the basis for an allegory and in the latter, part of the action.
Nevertheless, Jeffrey Kennedy of Arizona State University, who chaired the O’Neil panel, said that, “He wanted to show that America at its core, because of capitalism, was flawed.” Nonetheless, that would remain a work in progress for O’Neill.
Conversely, Miller saw “myth of the American dream” as “the screen on which American stories play out,” according to Matthew Roudane of Georgia State University. Chief among these myths, according to Roudane, is “the perfectability of man.”
If this is the premise Miller operated under in a writing career that stretched out for more than half a century, it is a questionable one. Man’s perfectability is a basic tenet of progressives. Man’s imperfections have long been commented upon by generations of American conservatives.
No true major conservative writer in this country has ever acknowledged otherwise.