Arthur Miller: Mister Memory

You send letters seeking an interview, hoping to elicit responses to comments made by and about Tennessee Williams, and there are polite replies that avoid responses, commitments, possibilities. You decide that he is not one to give interviews, or he is not one to care much about what Tennessee Williams thought or said. And then...

You are working at the front desk of the Hotel Carlyle and he is in the lobby, looking lost and curious. He asks to see a particular suite, and you take him to it. You then tell him that you are the person who has been writing to him for almost eight years. Yes, I am that person. Life is funny, odd, scary. It is awkward for ten or twelve seconds, then he smiles. "I came to the Carlyle because I lived here off and on for a time," he said. "It holds some memories. I'm looking for memories--again. And you are, too. You're Mister Memory."

And we began to talk. Arthur Miller was searching for memories for new plays, new stories, and also to better understand the older plays, the past times. He was, at that time, in 1998, preparing revivals of The Price and, within months, a Broadway remounting of Death of A Salesman, to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary.

"Parties for plays," he snorted.

And we continued to talk--for about four years. Letters, phone calls, suggestions that I speak to others. These are notes that may become something.

Arthur Miller: I do agree with Tennessee quite strongly on one thing: We are composed of memories. Some water, some  blood, some organs that move it all around, but what motivates us, what defines us are memories. You watch and love and live with people and you are the witness to what happens to them. You observe--with young eyes--how they respond to loss, to betrayal, to fear. It's the only way you've seen to do these things, so it becomes the means by which you operate. It takes living--and making many, many mistakes--to understand that there are other ways, and by that time the landscape is full of memories and people hurt and discarded and gone. Gone from the earth, but planted in your memory.

Tennessee Williams: I respond to Arthur's plays because he, like me, keeps returning, as if to a dream that can't be understood, to tableaux of his past, populated with new characters but obsessed with the same thing: Identity. One's identity is formed primarily by the past, by those we loved, by those who raised us and broke our hearts and infused us with dreams and prejudices. Memory. All memory. How do you shake up the memories? How do you move them in such a way that they remain--in the place of honor they deserve--but are moved slightly, like pieces of colored glass, to capture the light in a better way? I move my people in my locations and he does the same. We are after the same thing, I think. Different styles. Different men. Same goal. Who are we? Can we defend our place here?

Elia Kazan: The day arrives when you realize that your father--in my case, my father--is not the strong, resilient, reliable man you thought he was. He's just human. He gets scared and he gets angry and he sins and he makes mistakes. He's human. This is not how I saw him as a child; this is not how most people view their parents and other adults as they grow up. They can't. The survival of the child depends on believing that the parents--the adults--will show up and provide shelter and love and all will be well. Nothing under the bed or out there in the frightening world of hate and war will breach this home. We live with this myth for some time, and we never quite recuperate from the realization that it is, indeed, a myth. And in my case--and in Arthur's case, and in Tennessee's case--we then view our parents in a new light. We respect them even more because we now see that they kept this myth alive--and very viable--through some extraordinary faith and acting and love.

Tennessee Williams:  The years pass and I stop and I think, I'm thirty-one. At this age my mother was dealing with the following things. And I'm stunned. I am thirty-one and I cannot maintain a checking account and a decent lover. I am thirty-one and I cannot manage to keep food from spoiling in the icebox. I cannot manage time. My mother managed the time of three children--three difficult children--and her own dreams and her own goals. And then I'm fifty, and I think of what my mother was still doing to keep me, in her own manner, feeling safe and protected and immune to reality. And a new love develops, and memory is shifted yet again, and the light hits it in an entirely new way.

Arthur Miller: Tennessee had characters with pasts and memories, and he told me he displayed them as they were wrestling with all of this, and we watched them as they were altered, destroyed, assaulted by what time was doing to them and with them. He believed that my characters were fighting, in a realistic manner, what time and memory were doing to them, while his--fabulists all--were molding the outcome through imagination. I suppose I'm more proletariat in my display of characters and emotion. I suggested this. 'Oh, no, Arthur,' he said. 'I would never call you proletariat, but your characters have somehow found the blueprint to their escape; they have somehow progressed farther than mine have. They have escaped the amber prison of dreaming in recline, while yours dream upright, fists raised, angry. My characters dream defeated and sleepwalking, and yours are banging against walls and facts and the memories that can't be shifted.'

I can live happily with that description of my work from Tennessee Williams.

Elia Kazan: Those things we love, we become. Those things we lack, we love most strongly. Arthur and I think of ourselves as ugly, gawky--outwardly. I think we both feel that our souls, our hearts, our goals are of Olympian beauty, but who sees that? If anyone sees that, claims to see that, we are hopeless in the desire to be with that person. This has happened to us many, many times--personally and professionally. If one understands that we are shaped by memory, one works demonically to shape what will become memory. The past controls us, but the present is our responsibility now, so we try to populate it with the reality that will harvest for us a good annuity of memory. And we mow over people, and we step on all the wrong feet, and we love honestly and fully, but we shine it on the wrong people for the wrong reasons. And it takes a lifetime to realize this, and I feel that Arthur's plays are about this quest to exorcise the past--sometimes violently--and foolishly race into the  current life that we feel will change us, change the world, change reality. Mortal foolishness, but fascinating.

Tennessee Williams: We are the witnesses to our past, and the past of all those we have loved, all of those who have shaped and taught us. At the center of my plays--at the center of Arthur's plays--is a man or a woman who understands the lineaments that have been crafted from the past, and in their own ways, errant and bold, they seek to change their futures and to be a witness to the past. That is what I see in all the works of literature that I love. That is what I see in the world. That is what you are doing, and it is what I am doing. It is what all the people I am sending you to study are doing. This is the study of life, I think.

And Arthur reminds me of that.



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