Tuesday, February 15, 2005

THE "COARSELY COMPULSIVE" VS. THE MERELY COARSE. Now the culture warriors are feasting on the corpse of Arthur Miller and, as carrion birds will, making a sloppy job of it. My Stupid Dog gets the neo-Hegelian Award for denouncing The Crucible not only for its bulging anti-HUAC subtext, but for being crypto-anti-gay. "People who tittered over the sexual proclivities of Chambers, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine," writes the Dogman, "would have instantly recognized Miller's 'Abigail Williams' as a homosexual man in woman's drag."

When conservatives resorts to Queer Studies charlatanism to attack a dead playwright, you know Culture War High Command has thrown up more flags.

Having the most obvious (not to say egregious) political content of all Miller's plays, The Crucible has been the flashpoint for many wingers' funerary wrath. The New York Post even caps its Miller editorial by declaring that "To ignore [Miller's] contributions would be as wrong as to suggest that communism never posed a danger." Some people can't even recognize the word "class" unless it's printed on their airline tickets.

I give a little more slack to Terry Teachout, as he writes very astutely on cultural issues outside the padded walls of OpinionJournal. While I will say that it is odd to find him denouncing the newly-dead in such harsh terms, I will assume based on his record that his distaste for Miller's petentiousness is the clinical judgement of a critic, rather than the groping after available brickbats seen among the goon squad.

I do think he's missing something about the kind words spoken for Miller after his death -- quite apart for, um, a simple regard for decorum, I see in the remarks denounced by Teachout something other than "more stringently politicized critics and playwrights... willing to overlook Miller's limitations because he thought as they do."

Even Teachout acknowledges the "coarsely compulsive power" of Death of a Salesman, at least. Teachout says that power "manages to mask its aesthetic deficiencies" -- as if it were an air freshener or something. But how often nowadays do we get anything "coarsely complusive" in our theatre -- or film, or music, or etc.? I like coarsely compulsive powerful stuff like the Ramones, Celine, etc. And I can easily imagine theatre artists -- who tend to be romantic souls --wishing their work could have the sort of crude impact that "The Crucible," "Waiting for Lefty," and other plays of that sort had in their time, not because they're Commies but because it seems as if it would be exciting.

We can argue over whether, in Miller's case, the gestures were anything more than outsized; contrary to some of my critics, I approve agitprop only as I approve fruit-based sauces for meat: when they are extremely well done. But I think it's a little wide of the mark to assume that the younger playwrights are only speaking well of their fallen comrade because they're liberals. That seems to me more than a misjudgement, indeed a misreading of basic human nature. And once we start doing that, we're onto something that's much worse that bad theatre.


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