Early Sunday morning on a winding road in Roxbury, Connecticut; a classic American setting. White clapboard houses with flags flickering in the breeze on the front porches; a cluster of SUVs parked outside white chapels as services take place. After miles of rolling hills, a drive marked only by a weathered and rusted mailbox leads to the house where an old blue road sign on the wall reads: "Miller Way".
The white, colonial-style two-storey where Arthur Miller has lived since 1957 is modest, and the grounds, while lush, are far from ornate. The air is balmy. It smells of freshly cut grass. There is a noise - the only noise other than birds chirping - and it sounds like a chain saw.
A side path leads to the back of the house and an expanse of immaculate green lawn. Through the screen door to the kitchen, a young, pretty woman is making coffee. She spots us, comes out and offers a friendly introduction. She has clear skin and wears no make-up. Fifty feet away, his back to us, Arthur Miller is bent over a leaf-blower. "Arthur!" she calls out. "Arthur!" The blower stops. Calmly, he puts the machine down and walks over, a tall and lithe octogenarian who moves, in spite of his age, with natural grace. He is wearing black jeans, trainers, a short-sleeved cream shirt. His arms, like his legs, are long and lean. He is strong. Face tanned and lined, dark eyes sunk in behind glasses, he towers above us, and as he says hello there is a quiet charm that is piercing and subtle. It is easy to be in his presence. Despite his 87 years, there is still a confident sex appeal. He pays attention. It is seductive.
"Shall we sit here?" It's more of a statement than a question. "We can start talking while they look around." We sit on a wooden bench on the porch in the shade. The young woman leads the photographer, Harry Benson, into the house. Miller's spirited eyes peer through his glasses at me. "Did you meet Agnes Barley?" he asks. He describes her as "a friend". His voice is just above a whisper, but he speaks with eloquence and sincerity. He has just come back from Prince Edward Island, off the coast of Canada, where his daughter Rebecca, a film-maker, is shooting. Rebecca (married to the actor Daniel Day-Lewis) is by his third and late wife, the photographer Inge Morath. They married in 1962, the same year Marilyn Monroe died.
Arthur Miller is one of the most important author-playwrights of the 20th century. Some people find this almost as interesting as the fact that he was married to Marilyn Monroe.
The kitchen door slides opens. "I'm sorry to interrupt," Agnes says. "Can I show the office?" "It's just a box," Miller cautions. Does he think it will disappoint a photographer's eye? Perhaps his caution is protective of his privacy and his work - unless he's the one revealing it. In his memoir, Timebends, he writes with candour and humour about his life. Born in Harlem on October 17, 1915, he lived there with his family until the crash, when they moved to Brooklyn. He recalls his childhood through the Depression and the imprint this had on his psyche and work. While others were losing their prosperity and position, he was absorbing and accumulating the wealth that would later confirm his sense of injustice and drive to expose it. At the heart of Miller's plays are the gravity of accountability and the pursuit and burden of responsibility. An engine of morality pumps throughout, giving them stamina and longevity. They have a conscience, political and social, and are both current and timeless. The Crucible, for instance, is not merely about witch-hunts or blacklisting. Its centre, as Miller has said, "is the guilt of John Proctor", a farmer in 17th-century Salem whose conscience is tested during the infamous witch trials, and the "guilt of man in general". He often explores sibling rivalry, the relationship between fathers and sons and how making choices can impact a life. His characters, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, are tender and fragile, facing a loss of faith.
He began writing plays in the 1930s, was first produced in the 1940s, and has said his plays are a "metaphor for the moral order of man". He is a hybrid of artist and judge, absorbing all sides of an argument but always reaching his own verdict. He wrote Death of a Salesman, his 10th play, when he was 33. Like many men of his generation, he was given a wider perspective by the times he grew up in. That he was able to reflect on the bigger picture at an age when most men are only beginning to process it is remarkable, the life-spring of his work. But where does this clarity of emotional and moral truth come from?
There is a pause. Arthur Miller is thinking. It would be excusable to anticipate a winding and layered response, but when finally it comes, it is perfect. It might seem evasive or dismissive, yet when Miller speaks it is with disarming honesty. "It's a mystery," he shrugs. "I have no idea." There is laughter. The thought is still smouldering, though, and when asked whether insight is inherent in human nature, he nods, looking amused. "Thornton Wilder has a line in The Merchant of Yonkers. One of the characters refers to another one and says, 'A lot of experience - but no ideas.'" What he is referring to is those that are born observers, even when there's nothing to observe. Has he ever felt short of ideas? "Oh, sure, 'bout 90% of the time I walk around blank. Something's gonna happen," he pauses, "or it won't happen."
He writes mainly on the computer, and by hand when he travels. He remains a working writer, which no doubt lends substance to the air of vitality he has even as he approaches 90. He tells me he doesn't have to write every day. But he usually does. If he's actively working, he can go for six hours. "I'm up and down - walking around."
And the inspiration, where does it come from? He leans forward, then back again. "If I knew, I could tell you. I'm usually writing because I'm involved with the character. I start to hear him or her and it starts to go." It has always been that way. "It's a combination of the theme and characterisation. I'll smell a theme out and it runs along parallel - becomes intertwined." So he has no designated outcome? "No. If I did, I'd have written more plays."
He has written novels, plays and screenplays, among them Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, Incident at Vichy, After the Fall, A View from the Bridge, The Ride down Mount Morgan, All My Sons, The Price (now on in London's West End). He wrote the screenplay for The Misfits as a present for Monroe - an extension of his belief in her talent; a chance for her to show the world she could act. His first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, closed after four days in 1944. Fifty years later, it was a success at the Bristol Old Vic. In 1945 he wrote a novel about the effect a seemingly innocuous act can have on a life: when a docile employee is chastised by his superior for bad eyesight, he is told to start wearing glasses. The next morning, having done as he is told, he is shunned as "Jewish-looking" by everyone, even his own mother. The book is called Focus, and in 2001 it was turned into a movie starring William H Macy. After writing the novel, Miller went back to the theatre and his playwriting career took off.
As a writer who is sustained by ideas, what does he do when they are blocked? "I think the blocking of a writer has as much to do with his attitude towards life as it has to do towards writing. If everything seems pointless - he's not prepared to deal with that." He says the pursuit of meaning is his way out. "I know that's easy to say, but, uh, I'm not an expert on getting out of blocks, because I can go for long times without being really interested in writing."
Miller presents a stoic and serious image, but beneath lies an affable manner. He has a detached, sardonic perspective on his success, but still, the rejections must sting. For instance, After the Fall, his return to the New York theatre after a break, is a tender play exposing vulnerability - both in the work and in him, in the inevitable comparisons to his marriage to Monroe. It was a personal play with a lot at stake, and when it first opened, in 1964, it was not well received. When asked how he handles disappointment, his eyes brighten. "It's like trying to stop smoking. You try too hard, you can't do it." He hasn't smoked for 25 years. One morning he woke up and just stopped. He says it was a combination of his daughter bugging him and the realisation that he was afraid to lose the habit. "The conventional idea is that a habit has you in its grip. But it's the other way around. You have the habit in your grip. It's a romantic idea that a habit has you by the throat."
Gazing out over his property as a blanket of fog is lifting, he says he sees the world as mostly accident; it started with an accident and has been accidental ever since. But then there is destiny too, and it is impossible not to think of how big a part that plays. "I mean, look at George Bush in the White House. Who would have ever dreamt...?"
The death of the American dream is a subject that saturates his work. Willy Loman believed that if he worked hard he would succeed and his sons would succeed. It didn't happen. Was it a dream based on mistaken values? Many of Miller's plays ponder the costs of ambition and compromise, exposing the cracks of the American dream and the effects of promises unfulfilled.
Two events in American history have had a profound influence on his work: the Depression and the anti-communist witch-hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). One had to do with the death of opportunity - the broken promise of a better life - and the other with the death of individual and artistic freedom. Miller's work examines the very intimate struggle of a character in a larger social context. His themes are huge - individual freedom versus collective guilt - but he creates heroes from common men. Some critics perceive his writing as prosaic or clunky, the characters as unsophisticated, the language pedestrian, and the wisdom as obvious. But they're missing the point. Miller overestimates his audience. He lets them have insights that the characters themselves are unable to have. We recognise their mistakes, their flaws, and in doing so, our own weakness is less isolated. The plight is palpable. The experience unifies; people leave his plays uplifted because they feel less alone. His work, despite the tragic themes, is a study in optimism. No matter what Miller exposes, one is left with a belief that it can be repaired.
So he doesn't let his opposition to President Bush depress him. But he does wonder how many years it will take to repair the damage that he believes is being done to the country. "We can recover. But there's a sociopathic philosophy going - they don't believe in society. As Thatcher said, 'There is no society, there's only individuals.'
That's the philosophy of this administration." Is this presidency the end of the American dream? "God knows. I've seen it end so many times. Everything is possible; everything has a fatal flaw in it somewhere. But this country has got a lot of inner strength. It's very chancy. This can go for another two generations. Then people get fed up."
He owns 380 acres in a secluded area, but he is attentive to what surrounds him. "There are cities around this beautiful place wallowing in unemployment. It's all come to a stop. This is the richest state in the United States, and it's stopped."
A former president of International PEN, a writers' campaigning organisation, he has also worked in support of human rights, and his political beliefs have always been intransigent. During the anti-communist era of the 1950s, he joined a group of writers who voiced their disapproval through writing articles against McCarthyism. They could not get published and the group was called before HUAC; Miller stayed silent and refused to name names. His voice was heard later in The Crucible.
Having had his plays produced around the world, even in Russia and China, and having confronted and probed so many issues and emotions, what drives him now? "The interest in the work. To see if I can give form to feeling. Like naming something. If you can't give something a name, it doesn't belong to you. If you look at a flower and you don't know what it is and you don't know the name of that flower, it's different than when you look at it and say, 'Oh, that's a daisy, or a pansy.' You get closer to it because you can name it. If you meet somebody and you're just chatting and you don't know their name, it's different than when you do."
His talent to communicate feelings, to name them, identify them, is not only metaphorical. In The Crucible, the drama of how John Proctor handles the loss of his good name directly addresses identity. Now, for Arthur Miller, it's about finding new names. He looks hopeful. "I just finished this new play of mine that's starting in Chicago. It's called Finishing the Picture." How did you come up with that name? "God knows. It just lights up." That he began writing the play 20 years ago and then picked it up again 10 years later may provide a clue to how it lit up. He says he often stops, going as far as he can go, then dropping it and coming back. He has worked this way on all his plays. Except for The Crucible. "But that was a different story." He wrote that without a break; it took six months.
When to stop writing, when to let go, is a question about the measure of creativity, and he understands the dilemma immediately. It brings out a sudden paternal quality. His voice softens and he speaks with affection. "You don't finish. You abandon. You get bored with it, or tired - or realise any further revision is just rearrangement."
How do you know when you've reached the end? "When I can objectify - especially in the case of a play. If there are unresolved parts of it, I try to confront it. Sometimes you never can get it as resolved as you wish you could."
He has another play, Resurrection Blues, that opened on September 17 in Philadelphia, and opens later at the Old Globe theatre in San Diego. He says he has "fiddled" with it a lot and made a great deal of changes. "It's a satirical work - maybe easier to objectify." With Finishing the Picture,
he says the emphasis is less on the theme (the effect of power on talent) than on the characters. But with Resurrection Blues, the emphasis is more on the theme: the idiocy of our culture.
The process of containing the chaos is like a fire burning over the course of time: the flame dims and dims, until it's out and, then, a rest. Working out the complex themes, he says, "You come to terms with the problem by giving form to the chaos. And that's what it's about."
He folds his hands out on the table and looks content. Can he imagine not writing? Vigorously, he shakes his head. "For me, at this stage of the game, it's like imagining not getting up in the morning." And if he couldn't write? "I wouldn't have been any good at anything else. I wouldn't have been a good businessman, because I'm not good with numbers. I would have gotten bored with it very quickly. Uh, it's hard to imagine myself doing anything else."
But to be writing fluidly, forcefully, at 87 still raises the question: when do you reach the end? "Most writers of my stripe will think that they've written their last word every time they've written something." Does he feel that way? "Oh yeah. Sure. Every time. There's nothing more to say." Even after Death of a Salesman? "Oh yeah. Every time. And finally, it's going to be true."
Reminded of the limits of age by a crippled ankle and a bad back, he laments losing the physical swiftness he once had. He played tennis every day until recently. Other than that, there is little about ageing that frustrates him. "I'm glad I've lived this long. Nobody of my generation is alive." He thinks. "Saul Bellow is. One or two other people. But hardly anybody. They peel off every week."
When I tell him his memory is remarkable, he smiles. "Well, I use it a lot." Memories of his life haunt him, he says - things that he wishes were different, things that he would have done differently. "The usual family stuff, which loses its force over the years, but when I look back..." He breaks off, but the word "haunt" is lingering, hinting at so much. Is he haunted by a specific memory: McCarthy? Monroe? Morath? Or the unreliability of memory in general? He says that he has the same memories that he's always had, but now interprets them in a new way. "I think about them differently. Sometimes I think, 'Oh, I thought that was about that but it's about this.' I am haunted by memories. They never go away.
I don't get reassured by them. I just turn them to marble. Into a frieze." He laughs. It is time for the photographer to take over. Miller, feet on the ground, is semi-reclining on a hammock. There is a dialogue back and forth as Benson gently tries to get him to lie back, and Miller gently, but firmly, refuses. "It will look like
I don't work." This reluctance is telling. It is not obstinacy but instinct, an unwillingness to diminish his authority with the suggestion that age may be doing so. He will not permit himself to fade or be perceived as lazy; Arthur Miller does not want to lie down.
I wander inside to use the toilet. It is exactly the kind of house Arthur Miller would live in, the home of an intellectual icon: books, papers, plenty of art and framed black-and-white photographs line the walls. None of Monroe. Perhaps the memories are too sad, or out of respect for Morath and their marriage, he banished them decades ago. I glance towards the kitchen - bright plastic alphabet magnets are haphazardly stuck on the fridge. I pass through the sitting room. There is a TV set with a video cassette, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, on top of it. There is only natural light in the house. All over, there are original posters from his plays. A charcoal drawing of Willy Loman from behind, his shoulders hunched, as though carrying the weight of the world upon them. No scented candles, no cutting-edge electronics. It is comfortable, lived-in, filled with history. During the break I chat with Agnes. They met in December 2002 at a dinner party and hit it off. She is open and good-natured and I can see why he would enjoy spending time with her. They have dinners, they talk, it is companionship - she does not live at the house. The question of whether or not they are lovers, he at 87, she 31, lingers unanswered but is tangible.
The photos are done. We resume sitting across from each other at the picnic table. Since Morath died, he has lived here by himself. I wonder what else has changed. "I'm spending less time here." Melancholy creeps into his voice. "Normally, I never left this place. So I go into the apartment in the city." The loss is something he thinks about daily. He tries not to dwell on the empty space.
This year he won the Jerusalem prize, but he didn't go to Israel to get it because his late wife's retrospective show of photographs opened at the Leica gallery in New York on the same day that it was to be given. "I felt I had to be there."
And in his nature, what's changed? "I do a lot of smiling now." A huge grin crosses his face. When did that start? "About 10 years ago. I don't know why. It comes from the idea that... uh... that you're in the way. Then you get out of the way. It's possible to change who you are a little bit... For the most part, people are in love with their habits." He feels happier now, and that surprises him too. "I think I'm more optimistic than most people. That's why I write a lot of tragedies."
Still, there are things that get him angry. He becomes animated when discussing the waste of energy in the US and the pursuit of nothing. "Our public policies now are so retrograde. It's a shame. You know, I've got a lot of land and I can see instantly that if you make certain changes on the land, it can have disastrous effects in a very short period of time. Irreparable. Then I read about stuff - the building on wetlands and all that stuff; you're never going to get that back. You're going to pollute the whole goddamn world - stupid policies. The thing that angers me most is the misrepresentation of what they're doing. Everything is for the good of the people and it ends up it's three people that they're talking about.
"They don't want to know, because it lays a burden on you. But it begins to bite somewhere down the line. When it starts to bite, people feel pain and wonder what they can do to alleviate it."
We move back to the bench and I can tell he is getting tired, becoming distracted. I thank him for being so patient. "Well, this is one of my faults." A playful smile crosses his face. "Patience."
It is reassuring to know he will continue writing, enlarging the consciousness, naming the nameless. His memory is sharp and solid and will withstand the burden of his past, unscramble it, offer the insight. He remains a creative force but does he still have something to say? "Well..." He pauses, lifting his glasses with the edge of his hand, rubbing his knuckle into his eye, and letting the glasses fall back onto the bridge of his nose. "I'd put it that I feel there's something I haven't yet said, rather than I have something to say."