- The Temptation of Innocence in The Dramas of Arthur Miller
In The Temptation of Innocence in the Dramas of Arthur Miller, Terry Otten critically surveys the career of a playwright who has survived the "vagaries and vicissitudes of theater criticism" (ix) for more than half a century. Otten's study begins with Miller's college plays in the 1930s, and continues through the successes of the 1940s and 1950s, the failures of the 1960s, the ignominy of the 1970s and 1980s, and into his comeback near the end of the century. The common thread Otten finds running through Miller's work is his "quintessential theme of guilt and responsibility" (xi), and how it connects to the search for innocence, which Otten believes Miller sees as the greatest, and potentially most destructive, temptation one can encounter.
Throughout Miller's plays, characters fall victim to the chimera of innocence which masks an underlying state of ignorance. In Otten's view, Miller believes "the only evil greater than an act of evil itself is the claim of innocence that allows for self-deception to camouflage the potential for evil in one's self" (24-25). Miller's characters struggle with guilt and claim innocence to conceal the truth, often injuring others in the process. Thus, Joe Keller in All My Sons passes the blame to his partner to absolve himself; Willy Loman engages in self-delusion in Death of a Salesman bylonging for his innocent past; Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge dies a victim of self-ignorance in a vain attempt to assert his innocence; and Phillip Gellburg in Broken Glass denies his Jewishness rather than face the terror that paralyzes his wife Sylvia.
Otten addresses the much-debated tragic aspect of Miller's work, and finds that although the playwright's later plays seemingly steered a new dramatic course, he "has not so much abandoned as transformed his tragic vision as he has incorporated the relativism and irony of the age" (xi). Miller's critics have contended that he confuses tragedy with social drama; thus his characters are victims rather than heroes, who lack a sense of divine order, use banal language, lack awareness, and fail to reach catharsis. Otten counters by supporting Miller's contention that as long as a character undergoes self-knowledge, attains enlightenment, and takes responsibility for his or her actions, the result is tragic. In The Crucible, John Proctor's existential victory of reclaiming his name even while denying the existence of God illustrates to Otten, "Miller's oft-repeated dictum that in tragedy the 'birds come home to roost. . . . You've got to retrieve what you've spent and you've got to account for it somehow'" (75). Thus, for Otten, Proctor reaches the position of tragic hero in a way that eludes many of Miller's other characters.
Through Miller's many explorations of "the presentness of the past and the consequences of choice" (159), as in the struggle between brothers Victor and Walter in The Price, Otten sees a tragic rhythm that reinforces Miller's theme of responsibility and guilt. This undergoes a shift in Miller's work beginning with After the Fall (1964). In the earlier plays, Otten contends Miller embraced the view that man [End Page 141] was somehow perfectible and that "society carries the primary responsibility for evil" (107). The existence of a moral imperative necessary to tragedy rested in society, which became a surrogate deity. In the plays of the 1960s, Otten believes Miller moved toward recognizing original sin and "that guilt is an inevitable consequence of human nature itself, that is both corporate and personal" (107). Thus Quentin in After the Fall cannot escape his past and is filled with self-hate. For Otten the message of this play, which recurs throughout the decade, is "that nothing can enslave like innocence—that the greatest of crimes is the self-ignorance that fosters the tyranny of innocence and allows it to exert its annihilating power" (132).