The Playwright and The Journalist
by Carol Hall
It began simply.
I was sitting in a theatre audience, idly flipping through my copy of PLAYBILL, when I came upon an interview with Arthur Miller. It seemed bland enough. Someone (whom I shall call here Nameless Journalist) had subtitled the feature piece “A Conversation with Arthur Miller,” making it mostly an account of Miller’s forthcoming play A RIDE DOWN MT. MORGAN, and including along with it a brief history of Miller’s writing life. Something caught my eye however. In the third paragraph, I came across the following sentence:
“You can sense Miller wincing at the word ‘career’..... but what he lacks in volume of work (two dozen or so plays) he makes up for in longevity...”
I’m still not sure why this particular sentence caught my eye, really, or even why I paid the slightest attention to it, but for some reason, as the lights dimmed and the play which I had come there to see began, I clutched my PLAYBILL in my lap and began to muse upon that statement (well, actually, maybe “muse” isn’t quite the word here; maybe “brood” is more the word).
Arthur Miller? What he lacks in volume of work? Two dozen or so plays?
So. Nameless Journalist didn’t find two dozen or so plays enough to be considered “volume”, did he? By the time the play I was seeing was at its intermission, I couldn’t wait to point out the offending paragraph to the people I had come with that night. When I did so though, they merely laughed.( Not at me. They laughed at Nameless Journalist. They marvelled that anyone could write anything that inane about Arthur Miller.)
“Two dozen or so plays? Even Shakespeare only wrote 37,” said one of them, They brushed away Nameless Journalist as if he were merely a buzzing fly. Me, I continued to brood. I was gettin’ pissed.
Days passed. As a new member of the Tony Nominating Committee I was attending the theatre more often than usual, and now every time I did, I felt personally assaulted by the PLAYBILL article. In my hands the pages seemed to flop open automatically to page 10, that third paragraph seemed to flash in neon, the last phrase of it burned into my brain like a giant laser beam:
“WHAT HE LACKS IN VOLUME OF WORK (TWO DOZEN OR SO PLAYS) HE MAKES UP FOR IN LONGEVITY.”
I couldn’t believe this was being read night after night by the theatre going public. Was anyone else noticing this? Did they react to it if they did? At various intermissions I was starting to stare darkly at those who sat near me, waiting expectantly for something I could see on their faces, trying to read sideways to see if they’d gotten to page 10 of their PLAYBILLs.
The next week I attended a One-Act Play Festival in Texas, where three of my plays were being done, and although I was charmed to be in the company of fellow playwrights David Ives, Jack Heifner, and James McLure, in conversations with them I often found myself still referring to the article. Once, over fried catfish and barbecue (a time when, believe me, I would not normally be thinking of PLAYBILL magazine or even of New York and life in the theatre in general) I heard myself say, “Here’s what gets me. I can’t stop imagining them all. It’s dreamlike. I imagine them dressed up and going on subways or in cabs or cars, walking into the theatre, giving the usher their tickets, getting their PLAYBILLS, and sitting down and turning the pages aimlessly, and reading this. I imagine them. They read that Nameless Journalist thinks that what Arthur Miller lacks in volume of work he makes up for in longevity. And maybe they actually take this into their consciousness in some way, like subliminal advertising that makes them want to drink Pepsi when they didn’t know they were thirsty. Do you think they do?”
David and Jack and Jim were extremely sympathetic, but I confess that even I was beginning to notice that I seemed somewhat more --- what is the word exactly? --- “obsessed”? --- than other people.
It was time to examine myself.
And yes, it is true that from time to time in my life I have had a tendency to dwell.... to hang onto something as my Grandad used to say, “like a turtle bitin’ on a finger.”
And yes, years ago when I had a musical done at Playwrights Horizons, and a Daily News critic reviewed it by saying that one of my actors (who had sung a song of mine perfectly) “... had a voice that unfortunately was too big for the room”..it is absolutely true that I called up the critic and asked how should I correct that, should the actor sing more softly or should Playwrights Horizons move to a larger space?
But this was not about me, this was about Arthur Miller. And truth. And art.
I had to call up Nameless Journalist.
It was easy to find him in the New York phone book. He answered the phone. I told him my name, he knew it already, and gave me the perfect opening line when he said to me, “I just read your name somewhere.”
This enabled me to reply, “Yeah, me too. I just read your name somewhere, too. PLAYBILL to be exact. I just read your name in PLAYBILL. That’s why I’m calling.”
I tried to be very quiet-spoken and composed.
Sort of like Kathy Bates in MISERY right before she smashes James Caan’s feet with the hammer.
“I was wondering,” I began, “in the article about Arthur Miller... that thing about what he ‘lacks in volume’? Was that, sort of, like a joke? Because I mentioned it to some people and we all thought maybe you were being sardonic or something. I just had to call you up and ask. That was a joke, right?”
Nameless Journalist didn’t quite understand my question yet. He said he had to bring the article up on his screen.
“Yes, do that,” I said.
I noticed I was beginning to speak a little faster now.
“It’s the third paragraph on page 10 of the magazine,” I said, “the part where you say that what Arthur-Miller-lacks-in-volume-of-work-parenthesis-two-dozen-or-so-plays-end-of-parenthesis-he-makes-up-for-in-longevity.”
Nameless Journalist found it and brought it up on his screen.
I continued,” Two dozen or so plays,” I said. “That’s like, maybe 25? Or 26? I’m sure you know that Shakespeare wrote 37, right?“
Nameless Journalist seemed slightly taken aback, but not so much that his natural impulses as a critic were in any way dampened. He then actually spoke the following words:
“Well, in my mind I was probably just counting five of his plays.” He added casually, “I only consider five of them classics.”
At that moment I wanted Nameless Journalist’s typing fingers, and body bones all crushed together and crumbled into dust beneath my heel.
HE ONLY COUNTED FIVE OF THEM AS CLASSICS?
I spoke very calmly. Kathy Bates had nothing on me now.
“But you see, Nameless Journalist,” I said (calling him by name now, but gently so he would not sense the bone-crushing thing), “It actually does not matter to me how many of Arthur Miller’s plays you ‘count’ as classics. What matters to me is that night after night thousands of people are reading that ‘two dozen or so plays’ is something which you think ‘lacks volume.’”
Old N.J. tried to interrupt.
“No, wait,” I said. “What MATTERS to me is that if you do the math and you figure that Miller’s first play was produced in 1944 and his most recent play was produced last month, then you get 56 years of plays, see, and then by my figuring if you count that ‘two dozen or so’ plays is something on the order of, maybe, 26, and you average the 26 plays over the 56 years, then it comes out to something on the order of ONE PLAY FOR EVERY TWO-POINT-SOMETHING YEARS. That matters to me,” I said.
I was exhausted.
Nameless Journalist began to fumpher slightly, and asked that I wait while he went to “check” something in his article.
He returned. “But it was a very complimentary article,” he said, “And only this morning someone called to tell me how much they liked my opening line,” he added.
I was unforgiving. “ONE PLAY FOR EVERY TWO-POINT-SOMETHING YEARS,” I said.
For some odd reason I then felt compelled to add, “You write theatre feature articles. I thought you were supposed to love the theatre.”
“I do love the theatre,” said Nameless Journalist. He sounded a little sad.
He said once again that I should hold on while he went to “check” something. Personally I thought he was probably trying to find some other means by which he could maintain that his third paragraph and his math made sense, but I knew he couldn’t do it.
He returned to the phone then, and did something completely unexpected. It almost threw me for a loop.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I guess I....”
He paused and said one more time, “I guess I made.... I made... ”
I took a breath. “A dumb mistake?” I offered.
“A dumb mistake,” he answered quietly.
There was stunned silence between us.
Time stood still.
I was agog. Oh my god. How could I continue to want his typing fingers and body bones all crushed together and crumbled into dust beneath my boot when he had just done something that most of the men in my life have found impossible to do? He had admitted that he was wrong and I was right.
Suddenly I found myself admiring Nameless Journalist’s deep humanity.
(And anyway, now what could I say? “Oh, that’s all right, Arthur Miller and I forgive you”? I DONT EVEN KNOW ARTHUR MILLER)
We spoke for a few minutes more, of not much at all, people we knew in common, forthcoming projects, nothing important. I got off the phone. My last words to him sounded, to me, completely lame, candy-assed, and kind of like a second grade schoolteacher out on the playground:
“You should be more careful with one of our greatest living playwrights,” I said.
And to his credit:
“Yes,” said Nameless Journalist.
We both hung up then.
And so now there is a new issue of PLAYBILL out in the aisles of the theatres, and I find myself wondering why I even bothered with all of this.
Am I moments away from being one of those New Yorkers who shouts and drools and mutters to themselves on subways about perceived slights while the rest of the folks look away?
Certainly it’s not probable that I will be dropping off any note to Arthur Miller over at the Ambassador Theatre saying, "Yo Mr. Miller: You can sleep nights now. I took care of the PLAYBILL guy."
I have decided that it was simply one moment in my life when I was compelled to tilt at that particular windmill: to address the cavalier ease with which artists are daily and consistently dealt the journalistic inanities, the derisive slights, the little jabs, the odious comparisons.
Oh yes, I know. None of that is going to stop, ever, and it doesn’t really matter in the end, and Arthur Miller has probably figured out the best way of dealing with it, which is not to. Except just to keep writing for fifty- six years.
And sure, it was a lot easier to fight for Arthur Miller for a day or so than to keep up my own courage in the face of all of it.
In any case, I notice I have begun taking a small paperback novel in my bag when I go to the theatre. A person can catch up on a lot of reading that way.