When an Artist Lives a Human Life, Like They All Do
Cast of All My Sons.
When writing of WaterTower Theatre's production of All My Sons, which opens tonight, the Morning News' Nancy Churnin raises an interesting point about the show's playwright Arthur Miller. She says that in the past decade her admiration for Miller has been challenged by the 2007 revelation in a Vanity Fair article that he had a fourth son with Down syndrome whom he failed to acknowledge during his lifetime. Essentially, he dropped off his son, Daniel Miller, at a home for the mentally challenged and never spoke of him again, not even mentioning him in his memoir.
When the original story hit eight years ago, it sent ripples through the Internet. What did this mean about Miller? Would we need to reject his place in the theatrical canon? Would we redact his heroism in the face of Congress when he refused to point fingers and call Communist? That original article's author, Suzanna Andrews, even suggested that Miller wasn't quite the same genius that he'd been before Daniel's birth. Surely this was a sign that he was plagued by guilt like we all might hope he'd be.
Reading Churnin's article, I'm reminded of the conversation I had after watching Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. The documentary is an incredible look at this rebellious Chinese artist who has not just created incredible art, but has spent his career defying the law, exposing corruption of the government and standing up for basic human rights like free speech. But one of the things the documentary doesn't do is anoint the artist with a kind of living sainthood. Instead, it shows him to be veritably human. It documents his extramarital affair, and the way in which Ai WeiWei discusses all of this openly makes it easy for the Internet to point fingers at purported misogyny. You mean, he does all of these awesome things but he has issues? Oh, the humanity!
In literary theory, this could be broken down to what might be called a savior complex. It's something we too often apply to anyone in the public realm who is supposedly doing the good work. There was the time that President Obama was asked if he inhaled. Mozart seduced his servants. David slept with Bathsheba. T.S. Eliot was an anti-semite. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had fairly public extramarital affairs. Those are just the tip of the iceberg.
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Yet, it's easy to speculate in particular about Miller because of a decision he made that in contemporary times seems foreign and despicable to us. Historically though, I'd speculate that it wasn't so odd. Remember, at that time there weren't sonograms that could identify signs of mental disabilities and allow you to consider your options. Another thing often undiscussed is the reality of the orphanage for much of the 20th century. It wasn't just a home for children with deceased parents. There, many children who were unwanted or just difficult to care for were dropped. Some of these homes were more specialized, as was the case with the home chosen for Miller's son.
Of course, Miller's story is more complicated than that. That a play he wrote in 1947 with this now-prophetic title, All My Sons, (Daniel was born in 1966) is an incisive portrait of a man whose shoddy moral code gives precedence to the comfort of his family over the safety of the country. It's all too easy to say, "See, Miller knew better!" But that kind of mentality discounts the labyrinthine complications of humanity. It's also indicative of the way we talk about art generally. It's easier to get caught up in the tiny truths, slowly chipping away at the artist, or the writer or the politician, than it is to discuss the gray areas that result in the work, or the ideologies. We use every decision, every anecdote, every characteristic to discount the value of the work. Because as humans we are obsessed with stories, and it's easier to focus on the connections between the artist and his work, than our own connections with the work.
Recently I was discussing a lengthy profile written of a prominent local artist in a publication, and he said, "Well, of course, there a number of fictions in the piece." He wasn't saying that the writer had misquoted him, or that he had lied. He was simply pointing out that there is a human urge to idealize the life of an artist, or perhaps that a human life can never be fully rendered through language. There's a certain futility in trying to render 3-dimensional, dynamic humanity into words. Our actions are not always examples to live by, our decisions not markers that indicate our inner beings.
It's an interesting time to participate in the discussion that Churnin has started, as I spent 10 minutes yesterday excited that Hillary Clinton and I share a love for Chipotle. It's hardly a fair comparison to the life-altering decision that Miller made in rejecting his son. It doesn't even sit in the same spectrum. But it is true that both stories of these public figures will be used to distract from a discussion of their work. Both stories are markers by which to determine their humanity, a task we will never be able to complete.
WaterTowerTheatre celebrates the 100th anniversary of Arthur Miller's birth with All My Sons, which runs on the mainstage through May 10. Tickets at watertowertheatre.org.
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