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Arthur Miller and the Fallacy of Profundity

Incident at Vichy

by Arthur Miller
Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Center

In his second play, Incident at Vichy, at the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center (still temporarily housed in Washington Square), Arthur Miller recovers somewhat, even if only to a limited extent, from the disaster of After the Fall, a piece so pretentious and defensive that virtually nothing good can be said about it. In an openly subjective or confessional mood, bringing his own life-behavior into question, Miller is more pitiable than ingratiating. In this new play, however, what is perceptible is not callow subjectivity but an overstrain of intellectual capacity. Still, its director, Harold Clurman, has very ably succeeded, in so far as it was at all within his power, in staving off some of the hazards of the author’s ideological ambition and the frequent sententiousness of his language.

The play is basically a discussion piece. The scene is a detention room at Vichy in the fall of 1942, where a number of “suspects” rounded up by the Nazis with the help of the French police, are awaiting an interrogation presided over by a Germany “professor” of racial science—an interrogation from which the Jews among the “suspects,” who are in the majority, are never to return. For the hour and a half that it lasts (there are no intermissions) it does generate an unquestionable dramatic tension not to be explained away by reference to the appalling historical experience it invokes. Recalling the gruesome suffering inflicted by the Nazis does not in itself create dramatic order and consequence—only the dramatist’s integrative hand can accomplish that. The part that is best conceived and that does provide a certain meager element of plot is that of the non-Nazi German major who enacts his revulsion at what his superiors are making him do at the same time that he accepts it as a decree of our modern historical fate; and the performances by Joseph Wiseman as a Jewish psychoanalyst, by David Wayne as a sensitive and humane Austrian prince caught in the dragnet, by Hal Holbrook as the tormented German major, and by David J. Stewart as an actor still full of consoling illusions of what the future holds for him, are not only credible but sometimes even better than that.

What au fond I find objectionable, in a dramaturgical as well as in a plain logical sense, is the surprise ending of the play (welcomed by not a few reviewers as giving it “a jolt it badly needs,” as one of them put it), in which at the very last moment the Austrian prince, a liberal of refined sensibilities, is released by the interrogators only to hand over his exit-permit to the doomed Jewish psychoanalyst. This Myshkin-like act of self-sacrifice seems to me to belie the entire portentous dialectic of guilt, responsibility, the horror of Nazism as the horror of human nature, etc., etc., which Miller develops throughout the production. It is an ending dramatically unearned, so to speak, because on the symbolical plane at least it contradicts the entire emphasis of the ideas that preceded it. It is a melodramatic contrivance pure and simple, a sheer coup de théâtre. It may give the audience a lift, but it drops the play’s intellectual baggage with a heavy thud. After all, liberalism, especially the aestheticized type of liberalism represented by the prince, has been belabored throughout, and here all of a sudden he gives his own life to save another man’s, who is a stranger at that; nothing whatever in the play has prepared us for this exhibition of saintliness. Thus the author has it both ways: he condemns human nature (“We’re all scum”) at the same time that he appears to exonerate it in the way he brings his action to a close. Everything is indeed possible in life, but in dramatic art what is required is the seeming inevitability of an end, however tragic, which is truly a conclusion vindicating the organizing principle of the work as a whole.

I prefer to think that it is not theatrical opportunism but sheer intellectual confusion which brought Miller, who is one of our few authentic playwrights, to close his piece with such a patently arbitrary ending. The confusion is in his ideas, which have that stylish “profundity,” masking a retreat from socio-political realities, that has been for many years now so much in vogue among our intellectuals. The collapse of Marxism has left them high and dry in an ideological sense, and they have long been looking for “profundities,” from whatever source, to cover their nakedness; and the “profundities” they have gone in for, ostensibly explaining totalitarianism in all its varieties, have led in the long run to little more than idle theorizing and moralistic attitudinizing. The aim is somehow to replace at all costs the concrete analysis of historical forces in their specific social and political manifestations, for such analysis seems to many people nowadays to be so very stale and boring compared to the divertissement of “deep” thoughts, which commit them to nothing but more thoughts. Hence the attempt to understand Nazism—as, for instance by resorting to individual psychology (e.g., Hannah Arendt trying to understand Eichmann’s character) or to notions of human nature in general or Evil capitalized—has resulted in nothing so far but outright mystification.

What the Nazis did is in fact no mystery. It is implicitly or explicitly contained in their program, which they openly proclaimed long before coming to power; nor did they do anything which had not been done before throughout history; think of the Turks slaughtering the Armenians or of the Church-inspired western crusaders slaughtering not only the Moslems but the Greek Orthodox Christians as well, to cite but two examples out of an innumerable array. The difference is that the Hitlerites commanded technological means permitting them to commit atrocities on a scale hitherto unknown. There is nothing “new” in terror; what is new is the means at the disposal of the terrorists. In the Nazi experience the point for us does not lie so much in what the Nazis did—what they did cannot be undone—but in the question of how they managed to take power in the first place without being forced to fight for it; only by examining the latter question can some useful lessons for the future be drawn. Hitler’s greatest success was in sparing himself civil war while nevertheless grabbing the state-power. And the blame for that is to be laid at the door of German big business no less than that of German small business, also of the German military, also of the Communists, ruinously manipulated by Stalin, also of the Social Democrats, in part immobilized by their Communist rivals and in part by their inherent lack of militancy. Nor can one absolve from blame the German intellectuals who, for the most part, instead of thinking and acting politically, were engaged as usual in misinterpreting life and history with their seductive abstractions and profundities. (There is an extremely revealing picture of that type of intellectuality, which is by no means a German monopoly, in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, a picture far more interesting and historically instructive than his so much more talked about invocation in that novel of its hero’s Satan-inspired aesthetics.)

Now Arthur Miller appears to have absorbed quite a few of the mystifications with which some of our intellectuals have been at once perplexing and diverting themselves. Thus in his play the Austrian prince, who in this instance is clearly speaking for the author, says: “Many times I used to ask my friends. To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age—the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.” On the surface this may sound profound and, to be sure, it has the modish “existentialist” ring; but does it actually explain the German contempt for other nations? No human beings are “nothing,” and to equate “good German” with “nothing” is a pointless piece of cleverness. The German contempt that Miller refers to is at bottom far from mysterious. It was a willed contempt functionally serving as the rationalization, politically and culturally, of their urge to exterminate other peoples in order to make Lebensraum for themselves. They thought it was a practical urge, but it turned out to be wholly impractical. German imperialism, in its first nationalistic as in its second totalitarian edition, was a historical phenomenon much too belated to realize its aims; and its worked-up claims of superiority, like its frightful ruthlessness, was an essential part of what one might call its character-armor. Why mystify ourselves with the metaphysics of “nothingness” when the explanation is really so much simpler?

Nor am I impressed by Miller’s notion of anti-Semitism as his psychoanalyst voices it: “And Jews is only the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction. Each man has his Jew; it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews.” But gentiles are drawn to anti-Semitism not because otherness as such repels them but by simpler reasons, such as the tempting contradiction in their image of the Jews. On the one hand they seem to them to be “pushy” and all too prosperous while on the other hand they seem so very helpless. It is this particular combination which invites the blows. And if Miller merely means to say that everyone wants to find someone he can look down upon or who might serve him as a scapegoat, that is the sheerest cliché. Again, the psychoanalyst says to the prince: “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.” This too sounds deep, but what does it mean? Guilt feelings are essential if our conscience is to be stirred, and without pangs of conscience there can be no taking of responsibility. The thesis of the play, in so far as it has any coherent thesis at all, is that each of us is responsible for all, that whatever evil we do, however small, contributes to the greater evil that destroys humanity. Actually, this is one of Dostoevsky’s ideas, which is scarcely convincing even in his context. It is a Christian thought put to false uses. He used it as apologetics for the absolutist Czarist regime, its state-dominated Church and other malign forces holding down the Russian people in ignorance and misery. Responsibility cannot be other than specific: if all are responsible none are responsible. It is simply not true that we are all responsible for the Nazi horrors, and to universalize in this fashion the German guilt is to transfer it to human nature in general and thus vaporize it. The argument from human nature in general is insubstantial because it is so exceedingly vague, explaining everything and nothing at the same time.

Miller is no ideologue, no thinker, but he has written some good things. Apart from Death of a Salesman, about which I have mixed feelings, I think his best play is A View from the Bridge, a simple but trenchant dramatic poem. The Crucible, too, is a fine work, once we disregard the analogies with McCarthyism, an entirely different phenomenon from the Salem witch trials, analogies that are not really in the text which I have recently read, but in the mind of the audience that first saw it produced. Now Incident at Vichy has been much criticised by reviewers, though for reasons that seem to me somewhat external. Its actual ideas have not been examined in detail but mostly sneered at for not being deep enough. The trouble with these ideas, however, is precisely their apparent depth—depth without content.

The reviewer in Newsweek, for instance, after lambasting Miller, has written his prescription for the theater, which, in his opinion, needs “to become again the forum for the boldest confrontations frontations with the truths of history and the moral life of man in society.” Why “again”? I for one cannot remember the time when our theater fulfilled this exalted role. Yet some very good plays have been written by Americans—on the basis, however, not of “the boldest confrontations” of history and morality but of emotional commonplaces. I am not recommending, of course, emotional commonplaces, but why overlook the fact that some very good drama has been written on that basis and so has some great poetry, in English as in other languages (Pushkin is an excellent example).

Moreover, the present cultural situation in the United States is hardly conducive to the “boldest confrontations,” either in drama or in literature generally. We are living at a time when anything goes, when in the name of literature and art, no less, the right to pornographic writing is affirmed, strategically omitting to mention the cold cash which is its huge reward, as if it were almost a new kind of civil liberty; when people who should know better are proclaiming a moral idiot like Jean Genet to be a great novelist, a worthy successor to Joyce and Proust and Mann and Kafka and Lawrence and Faulkner, while other people are so frightened of being called square that they are willing to accept this unlikely estimate. And, unlike the reviewer in Newsweek, I do not think that highbrowism as such is the answer. It is not an end in itself. Intelligence is one thing, and programmatic highbrowism is something else. That reviewer strikes me either as a confirmed optimist or as one of the many who are blind to what is actually transpiring among us. It is not more highsounding and utopian demands that we need but a strict and perhaps harsh examination of what we are in fact faced with.

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