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The Temptation of Innocence in the Dramas of Arthur Miller
Terry Otten
Columbia & London: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
$37.50, 249 pages, ISBN 0-826-1406-1.

Christiane Desafy-Grignard
Université de Paris IV- Sorbonne


This book provides a survey, comprehensive in scope, of Arthur Miller’s dramas starting from his early unpublished plays written at the University of Michigan in the late 30s, through his successful plays of the 50s, his spurned plays of the 60s, his disregarded ones of the 70s and 80s, down to his (much acclaimed ) "last plays of the century". The theme of innocence which surfaces in all of them leads Terry Otten (who, incidentally, is also Kenneth E. Wray, Professor in the Humanities and Professor of English at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, author of two other books dealing with the same subject (After Innocence: visions of the Fall in Modern Literature and The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison) to speak of the correlated themes of guilt and responsibility which are major in Miller’s Theatre.

In the course of his analysis, Otten brings to light that in all Miller’s plays, both leading and secondary characters reflect the broad spectrum covered by the word "innocence" (from naiveté / artlessness, then ignorance, self-deceit, bad faith, duplicity, to blatant complicity ) and consequently that none of them is entirely guiltless, that all fall victim to innocence either unwittingly (EddieCarbone in a A View from the Bridge who dies unaware of his guilt) or self-delusion, (Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, who is a childlike victim of his illusion about the American Dream) or wittingly, refusing the burden of guilt, using innocence as a shield to escape the responsibility of their acts. The best paradigm of this kind of character being Joe Keller (All my Sons), certainly the least innocent of all, a true villain who is not only guilty but shifts his guilt onto another to exonerate himself in order to escape dishonour and imprisonment.

Otten also comes back to the so often controversial tragic stature of Miller’s characters which, like the dramatist, he deems closely linked to the themes of innocence, guilt and responsibility. Unlike some critics who steadily deny those characters any tragic stature on the grounds that they live in the modern age and in the American culture, use colloquial speech, are irresolute in their purposes, lack awareness and fail to effect catharsis, Otten retains only the last two weaknesses and makes Miller’s theory his own, i.e. tragedy must bring enlightenment: as long as a character becomes aware of his faults and accepts the responsibility for them, he achieves a kind of redemption and becomes a tragic hero. Consequently, like Miller, Otten regards innocence as destructive, worse than the act of evil itself, because it freezes the process of guilt. Thus he grants John Proctor (The Crucible) a tragic stature that Joe Keller, Willy Loman and Eddie Carbone do not possess, by contending that, unlike the latter, the Puritan farmer "moves […] from paralysing innocence to energizing guilt".

In the perspective of his theme, Otten notes both the link and the change between the works of the 50s and those of the 60s; on the one hand, Catherine’s naïve but destructive innocence to Eddie Carbone announcing Roslyn’s simplistic craving for an innocent world in The Misfits and Maggie’s spurious naiveté in After the Fall; on the other hand, in that last play, Quentin and Holga’s awareness of their share of the guilt in the horror of the Holocaust, of their responsibility (however indirect) in the general evil and their decision to live with "their survivor’s guilt". By pitting "Chris Keller’s simplistic approach to moral issues, cheap idealism and smug self-righteousness" to Quentin and Holga’s approach to the Holocaust, Otten concludes that, contrary to the works of the 50s, in which evil is mostly corporate, society bears the sole responsibility for the individual’s evil, in the works of the 60s, the general guilt becomes personal, man starts to see evil in himself, for he is doomed, he lives after the Fall.

After the Fall
is for Otten the first turn in Miller’s tragic vision of Man, when the theme of innocence becomes the theme of lost innocence. Echoing Christopher Bigsby in his Critical Introduction, he sees in the play "the beginning of implacable evil" and classifies the three plays following it—Incident at vichy (1964), The Price (1967), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)—in its wake. Though admitting they lack the scope and magnitude of the former, he argues that these three plays, in different historical settings and in different lights, explore the recurrent theme of lost innocence, guilt and responsibility. He contends that, in them, no character can claim innocence—neither the oppressors nor the victims (in Incident at Vichy, not even the old Jew whose quiet but determined refusal to hide his jewishness makes the other Jews look guilty by comparison), neither those who deny their past to justify their errors (Victor in the Price)—and that Miller’s heroes continue to be those who not only acknowledge their own faults but accept their complicity in an evil they are not criminally responsible for, and who, without going as far as von Berg (Incident at Vichy) who is likely to die for a crime he has not personally committed, transcend their guilt by humbly accepting the imperfection of human nature and life in an absurd world (the other old Jew, Solomon in the Price). Concerning this last play Otten aptly reminds us that it was written as a reaction to the insane world of the late 60s, consequential to the Vietnam war, expressed within the States in the incipient literary movement of Post-modernism, and abroad in the Absurdist Theatre of Beckett and Ionesco.

According to Otten, Miller’s biblical play, The Creation of the World and Other Business, represents the dramatist’s first personal interpretation of the modern temperament defined by him as "the accommodation of good and evil, that easy neutrality that dissolves away any responsibility for action as well as guilt […] when along", he writes, quoting Miller, "came psychology to tell us that we were again victims […] and essentially irresponsible". Otten demonstrates that in the play Lucifer, by challenging God’s perfection and moral absolutism, frees Man from paralysing innocence, leaves him with the freedom to make moral choices but in a world devoid of metaphysical certainties, any distinction between good and evil and any "transcendent code of morality", a world in which there are "only personal and socially constructed values". This play, that Otten rightly regards as another important turning point in Miller’s dramatic vision of Man, is also a turning point in his book: the moment when his demonstration becomes more difficult, less convincing, as the assessment of good and evil depends now only on man’s personal appreciation of it.

In the five plays of the following decade, in which he sees Miller "accommodating to the mood of the new age […] without abandoning the idea of moral choice and responsibility", Otten loses the track of innocence and follows other tracks. He tackles power in The Archbishop’s Ceiling, a play in which good and evil do not exist anymore, as Power has usurped the place of God and the characters act accordingly. He looks at illusion (versus Reality or Truth—but a truth which depends now on man’s own perception of reality) in the four plays of the two double bills, Double Mirror (Elegy for a Lady and Some Kind of Love Story) and Danger Memory (Clara and I Don’t Remember Anything). He cannot but admit that in such plays the concept of a moral order gets thin. Yet, aptly using some of Miller’s recent declarations, he contends that it is still there in the individual self, however faint at times. Thus, in The Ceiling, he sees in Adrian’s coming to rescue Sigmund and in the latter’s final decision to stay in his country the proof that it has not completely disappeared from the characters’ consciences. In Elegy, he shows that enlightenment comes to the married, middle-aged hero through the proprietress of the shop who helps him to get rid of a paralysing illusion and gives him the courage to put an end to an empty relationship with his young lover. In Some Kind of Love Story, though Truth never emerges and the two characters fail to restore the moral order, he persists in seeing their need, if not their capacity or their will, to do so. He says the same about the disappointed idealist and unfortunate father in Clara who though he admits that he is morally responsible for the murder of his daughter, that he invested in wrong values and occasionally violated his moral principles, cannot and will not renounce his old ideal of faith in Man.

Otten remarks with obvious contentment that the "last plays of the century", though maintaining the process of extension and accommodation to the modern age initiated in the plays of the previous decade, though containing no moral certainties, providing no boundary between reality and illusion and being open-ended, mark by their plot structures "Ibsen’s sense of the betrayed and unalterable past" and their focus on "the necessity to reconstruct a moral world in the ethical void left by the death of God", a return to the early plays of old. The themes of innocence, guilt and responsibility come back strongly in them...

In The Ride down Mount Morgan, Otten sees innocence taking on the shape of deceit and self-deceit; in the last Yankee, he makes it synonymous with blindness (in the pursuit of the American Dream and also in the resistance to it), and in Broken Glass, with self-betrayal; in the three plays he draws once more our attention on the fact that redemption comes only when there is acknowledgment of guilt and self-knowledge. In "the intense tragic impulse" of the latter play he sees the proof that "Miller has retained a powerful and enduring sense of the conventions of more traditional drama".

The Temptation of Innocence is a powerful book, broad and comprehensive in its scope, persuasive and sustained in its argumentation, providing top level criticism and an updated bibliography. Obviously Otten has found in Miller’s dramas another occasion to demonstrate what seems to be a favourite theme of his: Man’s flawed nature, loss of Innocence, "essential predicament". His analysis of the characters is implacable, his eye is like God’s who saw through Cain’s dark soul. One feels he faces the nihilism and ambiguities of the modern age with the same discomfort as Miller. The dramatist and his scholarly analyst are always in perfect phase, for they share the same biblical culture and the same core of Puritan consciousness. The Temptation of Innocence bears the hallmark of this double legacy.

I have found a few errors which do not impair the value of the book but which I will mention nevertheless. On pp. 14 -15: concerning All my sons, it is not Larry at the beginning of Act II who is "pulling off the broken top of the smashed tree", but his brother Chris, because Larry has been missing in action for 3 years and is now dead); on pp. 15-16: Larry was the younger son, when the play begins, Chris is 32 and Larry would have been 27; on p. 94: Miller married his first wife, Mary Slattery, in 1940, and divorced her in the Spring 1956, (so he had been married for 15 years and not 25 years), he resided in Pyramid Lake near Reno in the Spring of 1956 (and not in 1957); on p. 95: he met Monroe in January 1951 (and not in 1950) in Hollywood and married her in late June1956; on p. 97: the shoot of The Misfits began in August 1960 and ended in November of the same year (and not in 1958), the film was released in February 1961.

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