The Plays of Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
Arthur Miller was passionately interested in the truth. A brief look at several of his most successful plays reveal the failure of Americans to transcend the common illusions that function like a mental illness in our everyday lives.
Author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck commented in one of his books that neuroses are caused by an attempt to avoid what he called “legitimate suffering” In Arthur Miller’s plays various characters are desperately keeping illusions alive to avoid, escape or postpone the pain of reality. Like most of humanity, the people depicted in the following plays, are in full flight from their shadows. The legitimate suffering involved with integrating their neurotic illusions is the last thing these characters want to experience.
The Perpetual Nightmare
All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949)
In All My Sons the mother cannot admit that her son is not returning from the war. He apparently died in World War II as a fighter pilot. In Death of a Salesman, the family can’t come to grips with the reality that the father and two sons are not successful businessmen but carry on a feverish pretense among themselves to perpetuate a fantasy of success.
In both of these plays the masculine drive for perfection leads to neurotic, self-destructive competition with no awareness of the need for “feminine” wholeness or what Jung called individuation. And in both plays the sons struggle with the fathers over their respective worldviews. The sons, albeit vaguely, recognize the soul-destroying influence of a materialistic worldview. What no one sees is the need for a radically different narrative that could save humanity from itself. In the context of P-B the characters in the following plays are doomed and completely at the mercy of the false-self.
Denial and Distraction
All My Sons (1947)
Arthur Miller shares what his goal was in writing All My Sons: “Ultimately, the play’s central theme is social responsibility and the ability to connect with the world around us. Both close and distant.” To make that all important connection requires that we embrace reality and take responsibility for our behavior which requires more courage than is common for most of us; we turn instead to the coping skills of both denial and distraction and escape into a delusional story which turns out to be no escape at all.
In this play we see Joe Keller, the father and central character isolating himself because he does not want to see reality—he is trying to remain unconscious—the same self-anesthetizing process common to most of humanity. Human suffering is universal, only the unique details of each human life reveal the diversity of the sources of that pain.
Joe owns a plant that produced and shipped defective airplane parts during the war which caused the deaths of 21 American fighter pilots. It is understandable that two years after that incident he wants to repress that memory. “In the opening scene, Joe is reading the newspaper help wanted ads, but not the news. This suggests his disengagement from the world or at least the reluctance to discover what’s going on in the world. Joe’s viewpoint is somewhat akin to the isolationists who opposed America’s participation in World War II—suggesting that it was best to look after one’s own rather than to engage with other countries.”
The shadow, both personal and collective, is a major cause of human suffering and is created by repressing what our conscious self finds unacceptable. Over time this shadow becomes very dark and dangerous because the contents will ultimately find their way to the surface and erupt into a mode of expression that is often very destructive. The shadow as a source of afflictive human reactions is joined by the self-denial behaviors of lying, denying and secrets thus adding to the array of self-destructive human behaviors. “The second major theme is the effects of repression and self-denial—or as Miller termed it ‘the paradox of denial.’” Joe Keller’s crimes against society “derive from the instinct for self-preservation and self assertion that foster the adoption of a counterfeit innocence and the illusion of one’s being a victim of others. His denial is paradoxical in that it sets forth the chain of events that finally destroy him.”
Joe represents humanity at large in that delusion and denial go hand in hand. We live an unsustainable lifestyle, pretending that this can go on indefinitely, and denying through our distracting addictions that anything is wrong. The closing sentence of this brief look at Miller’s play describes the Kellers but could be an apt description of any family or any collective in the world today. “The Kellers, and many of those around them, choose to blame everyone else for their dilemmas, but only they are the authors of their destinies—and their failure to accept the tremendous burden of their freedom and responsibility is itself the cause of their personal tragedies.”
And so it is with most of us.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.