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Assessing the Real-Life Ethics of a Visible and Celebrated Father

September 13, 2007 By:
Samuel Freedman
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Arthur Miller

In the most pivotal moment of Arthur Miller's most famous play, a teenage boy shows up unannounced in the Boston hotel room occupied by the salesman father he reveres, the character indelibly named Willy Loman.

The son, Biff, is a high school football star on the verge of flunking a math class, thereby dooming the mutual, filial dream of a sports scholarship to college.

He has come to his father for help, advice, for some version of wisdom. Willy is in the middle of promising to drive straight back home to set the offending teacher straight when a stirring from the bathroom interrupts. The salesman, it turns out, is not the sole occupant of the premises. His mistress is sharing it, and she is asking for the stockings Willy promised her, stockings supposedly intended for his wife.

Beholding all this, Biff utters the words that condemn Willy and anticipate his suicide in the play's crescendo. "You fake!" Biff cries. "You phony little fake! You fake!" As Miller's stage directions specify, "Willy is left on the floor on his knees."

Miller's harsh judgment on Willy echoes now in some disturbing and unexpected ways. As a devastating account by Susanna Andrews in Vanity Fair magazine shows, the playwright renowned for his moral vision, as both artist and activist, essentially abandoned a mentally disabled son for decades, leaving him in an overcrowded and miserable institution, not even mentioning the boy's existence in the autobiography Timebends, as if a child with Down syndrome were being airbrushed out of history like some discredited Bolshevik.

Much discussion has already ensued in literary circles about these revelations, and the seeming disparity between the values that Miller espoused and the ones that, at least regarding his son, Danny, he embodied. But there is a specifically Jewish context, too, for such ruminations, especially as the High Holy Days approach, and tradition instructs us to take stock of our souls.

If there were ever an archetype of the secular Jew, the cultural Jew, Arthur Miller might have been it. While he only overtly addressed Jewish history in one of his last plays, "Broken Glass," he filled his dramas with Jewish characters and with a piercing application of Torah morality; Right and Wrong as warring forces inhabited Miller's stage, and the primary critical complaint about his work was its preachy, tendentious tone.

No character appeared more often than the hypocritical father. Besides Willy Loman, there was Joe Keller in "All My Sons," Eddie Carbone in "A View From the Bridge" and the dead father in "The Price," an autocrat represented onstage by an empty chair in a cluttered attic, who emotionally warped both of his sons until they vied like Isaac and Esau.

So what are we, and our Judaic heritage, to make of the ethics of a father who denies his own imperfect offspring? Does it matter that Miller's public stances and private acts stand now in such contradiction?

Some of these questions would tax even the finest psychiatrist. Miller wrote his most withering portraits of failed fathers in the years before Danny was born. He seemingly had perspective on a father's role, on the need for moral consistency, well before he chose to abrogate exactly that standard.

There are also mitigating arguments to be made in Miller's behalf. As Andrews herself points out in Vanity Fair, as of the early '60s, when Danny Miller was born, many parents routinely sent children with Down syndrome to institutions. Miller was, by all accounts, a fine father to his other three children. Still, to place a child in an institution is not tantamount to never visiting the child there, as was the case with Miller, or to obscuring virtually any public trace of that child's existence.

In Miller's art, meanwhile, he aspired to much more than entertainment. A playwright who takes on American capitalism and the McCarthy witch hunts -- to say nothing of the Holocaust and the Depression -- wants to be taken seriously as a social commentator.

So, in the season of cheshbon nefesh, in the time of the literal breast-beating of the Al Chait, what is Arthur Miller's posthumous lesson to us? What does his example tell us about ourselves?

"As the rabbis said, the mark of a person with moral mettle is 'his inside is like his outside,' " noted Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a prominent ethicist and rector of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. "That is, the person he presents himself to be is what he really is. Given that Miller took a rather haughty moral stance in his writings, this revelation about how he treated his son really does call into question the veracity and authenticity of the moral vision he presents in his writings."

In the most enduring speech from "Salesman," Miller has Willy Loman's wife, Linda, say of him: "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person." The playwright was making sure that no audience would forget to see Willy as a victim of the American marketplace -- a man more sinned against than sinning.

For those of us who admired Miller, who learned as much about ethics as about literature watching his work, Linda's valedictory cannot help but mean something different during the Days of Awe. The harsh light of scrutiny -- that kind of attention -- shines even on us, who think we can wield it at others without ever being captured in its glare.

Samuel Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

 

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