It is the best of times and the worst of times for Arthur Miller enthusiasts. The American Jewish playwright, who died about a decade ago, left us with an artistic and moral legacy in his masterworks, such as The Crucible, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman. Miller accomplished great things as an artist but his greatest achievement is how he lived up to the challenge of being an American. Asked to “name names” of fellow communists before congress during the McCarthy era, Miller refused. The consequences were extremely serious. His personal and professional life would never be the same. Despite having faithfully served his country during WWII, Miller’s loyalties and motives were called into question. Miller’s response to political persecution was profoundly patriotic. He refused to betray the values at the heart of democracy. Rather than take the path of least resistance, he resisted with all his might.
My introduction to Death of a Salesman came during the 1980’s. A made for television filming of the play, starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, left an indelible impression me. In my teens, I feared I’d be as big a disappointment to my parents as the Loman sons were to theirs. Miller’s characters didn’t raise my spirits because they triumph over their circumstances. His characters gave me hope by conveying that I wasn’t alone. It was at High Holy Day services that same year that Rabbi Steven Pinsky preached a sermon with a message taken straight from Linda Loman’s lips: “Attention must be paid to such a person,” she tells her sons. Your father is your responsibility. You aren’t babies anymore. Don’t complain about how others have mistreated him when you’ve done the same thing yourselves. “Attention must be paid,” Rabbi Pinsky preached to us, to people and to crises that cry out for our help.
In the theater of art, it has been the best of times for Miller devotees. Two Oscar nominated films this year draw heavily upon the themes in Death of a Salesman. The characters and conflicts in August Wilson’s Fences, an African American drama set in 1950s Pittsburgh, explores the tensions between father and son, material security verses personal fulfillment, integrity verses deceit, and bold dreams verses painful compromise. So too, The Salesman, a modern day Iranian reimagining of Miller’s classic, challenges us to consider the universality of the human condition at a time of rising bigotry, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
In the theater of social progress, it’s been the worst of times for Miller lovers. Entire classes of people are maligned because of where they come from, how they worship, and who they love. Bullying has been rewarded with power. Critical thinking has been dismissed as irrelevant. Things have not yet reached the toxicity of the McCarthy era but “attention must be paid” if we want to avoid a national relapse into irrationality.
So, it was with sadness and hope that we learned this week that Asghar Farhadi, Director of The Salesman, will not attend Oscar night to show his solidarity with those of seven majority Muslim nations who have been barred from entering the United States. Sadness because it should never have come to this and hope because this act of protest would have made Arthur Miller proud. “Attention must be paid,” he warned us. Hoping that someone else is going to shoulder the burden of holding authority to account is no substitute for doing it ourselves. Like the Loman brothers, the time has come for us to face the fact that things are not going to get better by themselves and that we’ve got no time to lose.