Strange, Terrible Sagas
Photo by Allen ArpadiArthur Miller, the author of that great dignified workhorse of the American theater, DeathofaSalesman,died on Feb. 10 of congestive heart failure at the age of 89. Ten days later, Hunter S. Thompson, 67, author of FearandLoathinginLasVegas,outraged perpetrator of the "gonzo" style that stuck a wild hair up the ass of American journalism, and a man who took serious delight in mind-altering chemicals and guns, guns, guns, sat in his kitchen in Woody Creek, Colorado, and put a bullet through his head.
Hard to imagine two sentences that sit less happily in the same paragraph.
Miller was an Old Left humanist, a good, responsible citizen both in and out of the theater, an agonized moralist in the mid-20th-century style, painfully sincere and unrelenting in his dead-center exposure of the tragic elements of the American dream. Thompson, for his part, was one of the cool, dark daddies of the 1960s counterculture, slam-dancing on the grave of any idea of tragedy, much less any warm idealism of America pre-1963. He was the gleeful prophet of deadly Altamont rather than sex-woozy Woodstock who famously pronounced, "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone . . . but they've always worked for me."
They "worked" for him, all right. It's not to diminish what must have been the anguish and torment of his final days to say that the fact Thompson shot himself may be the most unsurprising and predictable event of a most surprising and unpredictable life; it certainly puts an emphatic period to the outsized legend he'd been self-consciously constructing for himself—a legend of personality I think will unfortunately outlive his writing. Thompson was, yes, one of the early effective practitioners of what Tom Wolfe dubbed "The New Journalism," but he didn't "change the course of American Journalism," as a recent eulogist wrote—it was Wolfe himself and, before him, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer whom you have to give the credit for introducing the technique of the busily intrusive narrator into nonfiction writing. And while Thompson certainly was one of the spearheads of the hysterical paranoid style that burned through American writing like a brushfire in the '60s and '70s—where acid trails wavered through every perception and Nixon was behind every curtain—I'm dubious about how much an achievement that actually was. Thompson's political observations, especially—about Nixon, Vietnam, Kissinger, the Bushes, anything remotely Republican in nature—never deepened, so they now sound not just creaky and bilious, but also strangely unhelpful: the sharp scythe of the paranoid style stopped cutting deep in, well, about 1980, when Reagan got elected and Left journalism lost its cache, not to mention its relevance to the ears of power. And though the man was funny—I remember swallowing up FearandLoathinginLasVegasin a single delirious summer day at the Colorado River in 1976—his humor is too desperate to sustain laughter for long, his nonstop cackling betraying a depression so deep that the scene in his Colorado kitchen seems practically foretold in his books. Wolfe, in a day-after appreciation of Thompson in the WallStreetJournal,called him the "century's greatest comic writer in the English language" and an heir to Mark Twain, but what Wolfe spent 80 percent of his essay doing was remembering Thompson the legend, the depraved misanthrope who delighted in fucking with people, who kept epater-inglesbourgeoislong after the bourgeois stopped feeling the blows. No, it's Thompson the man who'll continue to capture our imaginations; I'm guessing his work will only live on to adorn the legend.
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Not so Arthur Miller, who became a legend almost despite himself. Finding himself a Broadway icon after the twin successes of AllMySonsand DeathofaSalesman(commercial and critical sensations whose only contemporary analogue is Tony Kushner's AngelsinAmerica),he boldly if soberly battled Joe McCarthy's House UnAmerican Activities Committee on the national stage, first being cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to name Communist sympathizers before the citation was rescinded. Then he wrote TheCrucible,which so seamlessly dramatized the 17th-century Salem Witch trials into an allegory of 1950s-style political persecution the play can be performed either with that context in mind or—as a recent Broadway revival brought home—not. Then he turned around and married Marilyn Monroe, with whom he endured what appears to be an unendurable five years of marriage, which was punctuated by her suicide a month after their split and a play, AftertheFall,two years later that was his attempt to understand the whirlwind she brought into his life.
But Miller never seemed to covet the spotlight except as a means of getting the public to respond to the seriousness of his work—a public that, as the years passed, seemed ever more elusive, less a "public" at all than a distracted horde who expected theater to be about lasers, helicopters onstage and anything Andrew Lloyd Webberian. True, his later work wasn't as good as his early stuff—he tended to lose interest in character in the pursuit of dramatizing ideas—but the sturdy resilience of AllMySons,DeathofaSalesmanand TheCruciblein Broadway revivals and throughout the world (he's especially revered in Europe) ensure Miller's legacy will be his plays, not his person.
And there's no sturdier play in the American theater than DeathofaSalesman.There may never be a Great American Novel, but with this play, theater has its own version of it. Perfectly poised between naturalistic representation and a thoroughly modern and anguished expressionism, the play not only gives us indelible characters who've passed into popular culture (and not just Willy Loman; Biff Loman was a running joke on Seinfeld)and tag lines that sum up the play as well as the necessity for working-class tragic theater ("Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a man"), but it also gives Americans one more great fallen hero to put alongside Captain Ahab, Jay Gatsby and Joe Christmas—characters whose strenuous failures hurt so much because the hope out of which they come is so familiar, so seductive, so American.
Hunter Thompson once said that his "beat" was "the death of the American dream," but he never believed in the hope enough for the death to mean very much; to bring the hope and the despair together was Miller's beat—and his triumph.?
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