The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.
Thomas Xavier Sarmiento
Literature that features Asian Americans in the Midwest simultaneously functions as an archive that documents the existence and experiences of people of Asian descent in the heartland and as a provocation to reimagine the relationship between race, place, and (trans)national belonging. Although Asian people have been immigrating to the middle of the country since the late 19th century, the Midwest continues to figure as a hinterland where Asian people do not reside and have no desire to visit. Thus, fictional, semi-fictional, and autobiographical accounts of the region from the perspective of Asian Americans, spanning at least eight decades, help debunk the impression that Asian Americans are practically nonexistent in the Midwest, or that Midwestern Asian Americans do not have an authentic sense of racial-ethnic identity. These novels, short stories, memoirs, and plays not only engage the strangeness of being of Asian descent in America’s heartland, but also they explore imaginative ideas of affinity and place: what it means to dream of elsewheres or to rework the realities of “here” from the lens of so-called nowheres. Some of these texts depict the history of Asian migration to and refugee resettlement in the US interior, gesturing toward alternative genealogies of movement and displacement. Others create new worlds that fuse food (e.g., pop and tea, hotdish and chicken afritada), language, and other transcultural practices. Midwestern Asian American literature encompasses stories by and about East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples whose lives intersect with gender, sexuality, class, and ableness. Literature about Asian Americans in the Midwest often communicates a sense of racial isolation: the loneliness and abjection Asian Americans feel in being the only Asian person or one of a handful of persons treading in a sea of whiteness. However, it also can provoke readers to reimagine the Midwest as Asian, female empowering, and queer. Whereas dominant cultural attitudes often associate the region as devoid of people, opportunities, and racial, gender, and sexual diversity, Midwestern Asian American literature represents the heartland as abundant, with counter-narratives that encompass emotional attachments to place, social interactions different from those on the coasts, and Asian American characters who inhabit areas that are often seen as incompatible with, if not hostile to, cultural difference. The range of stories indicates more broadly that there is no unified Asian Midwest or Asian American experience. Rather, the literature of Asian Americans in the Midwest calls attention to the significance of space and place in conceptualizing racial formations as diverse and dynamic.
Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.