Arthur Miller talks of his holocaust drama
Despite the objections of some Jewish organizations to the CBS airing Sept. 30 of his concentration-camp film "Playing for Time," Arthur Miller believes that "most people seeing this wokr will understand better than they ever understood before why Isrel had to be . . . from what emotions it springs." [See the Monitor's Sept. 3 Arts page for a preview of this program.]
Meantime the wide-ranging controversy continues over the film, which stars anti-Zionist, pro-PLO Vanessa Redgrave in the role of a Jewish cabaret performer who plays in an orchestra at Auschwitz. Arthur Miller's script is based upon the true memoirs of Fania Fenelon.
Some Jewish organizations are still protesting on the basis on what they consider "insensitive casting," most without having viewed the film, although advance reports from the nation's critics are almost unanimously favorable. "Newsweek" is working with Miss Redgrave on a cover story at the same time that CBS officials are hoping desperately that she will not make any appearances in the US prior to the airing, since the network is already having a difficult time selling commercial sponsorship to advertisers. Sponsors are wary of both the harrowing nature of the subject matter and the additional controversy caused by the casting of Miss Redgrave, who is known for propagandizing for her anti-Israel point of view.
It has been reported that CBS has already reduced its asking price for commercial time on the show. The Simon Weisenthal Foundation, a respected anti-Nazi organization, hs called for an "Operation Switch-off" to protest the airing. The Anti-Defamation League still insists that, considering her proclaimed political attitudes, Miss Redgrave's castling demeans the concentration-camp experience of millions of Jews.
Miller came into New York from his Connecticut home to assist in the casting of his new play "The American Clock," scheduled for a Nov. 13 Broadway opening. He talked to me in the third-floor walk-up flat he maintains on the fashionable East Side. It is not fashionably furnished -- there is a bed, a chair, table, and a typewriter. "What else does a writer need?" he asks.
The script of "Playing fro Time" is only the second original work Miller has written for television, the first being a play titled "Fame" which aired last year. Mr. Miller -- author of "Death of a Salesman," "A View From the Bridge" and many other serious theater pieces, some of which are now American classics -- is disturbed about the political controversy now surrounding the three-hour special, which he considers nonpolitical.
"I jsut hope tht the quality of the film will transcend the objections," he said, obviously torn by ambivalence about teh casting decision. Was it a naive decision or was it callously calculated to cause attention-grabbing controversy?
"I don't think anybody was looking for thsi kind of situation because unless the picture turned out to be great, you could never justify casting her. And how could anybody know that the picture was going to be superb? It was just a matter of casting the best actress available for the role."
Said producer Linda Yellen, who called during the interview and who seems to have been responsible for the casting: "May be I was naive, but when it came to choosinga writer, Arthur's name was at the top of the list and we asked him to do it. When it came to choosing a star, Vanessa's was near the top of the list too. . . ."
Was Mr. Miller in on the casting decision? "I knew they were about to cast her," he explains, "and I told them they were in for a lot of problems. But they had offered it to six or seven other stars who were either involved in something else or didn't want to do television, or, I suspect, didn't want to shave their heads for the role (for concentration camp realism). And once she was cast, it would have been unthinkable to replace her merely because of her political views."
There is a determined look in Miller's eyes as he discusses an issue very personal for him. "It simply was not within me to say: 'You can't cast her because I don't agree with the way she thinks.' After all, she is one of the great film actresses of all time.
"You know, in 1956 I was thrown off a film by the New York City Yough Board because I had signed left-wing petitions. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee warned New York City authorities not to have anything to do with me and the result was that I was separated from the film which, by the way, I was doing without pay.
"The point of this si they fired me because of my politics and I was outraged. Nobody ever came to my aid. Having gone through that, I was not about to deny somebody else work because of what she believes, even though I really disagree with most of what she says."
Does Mr. Miller know Miss Redgrave personally?
"I met her once -- she came to me to me to raise money for her Marxist Revolutionary Party in Britain and I simply didn't agree with what she was saying and I tol her so a half-dozen times. We remained simply neutral towards each other."
Miller appears to be a clam man, with his major passions seemingly reserved for hsi typeweiter. But there is passion in the way he expressed hsi view of democracy. "I think one of the majro strengths of our system is that it doesn't require a political means test for people to work. I was president of International P.E.N. for 4 1/2 years. It is an organization of writers in 75 countries and our main function seemed to be to save writers from being thrown in jail or to get them out . . . and most were jailed simply because of what they beleived and wrote.
"The fundamental issue is always the same. It may vary a little in verbiage or treatment in Russia or Argentina but fundamentally it si the theory that everybody in the state must conform to one political idealogy.
"I refuse to participate in that kind of repression."
Miller wants to make it clear he does not share Miss Redgrave's anti-Zionist stand. "I believe that Israel represents democracy confronting feudalism all over that part of the world. Feudalism is the reigning frame of mind in Russia, China, most of the Arab world, and a large part of Africa -- that's what they're up against.
Miller finds it ironic that the very Jewish organizations which are suggesting a boycott of his film are against the Arab boycotts of Jewish performers and businesses.
"At this point I can personally demand of the Arabs that they can no longer boycott Jewish artists in films if theya re serious defenders of humanity. I couldn't do that before because I've proclaimed my support for Israel a thousand times. I support Israel but I support humanity too. Now I can say so again . . . and I will."
However, Mr. Miller also wants to make it clear that, though he disagrees wholeheartedly with Miss Redgrave's political stands and her apparent use of her role for porpaganda (to the possible detriment of public acceptance of the film) he is not censuring her.
"I would guess that Vanessa thinks that what she is doing in the film as well as in life is portraying the suffering of all humanity. I have no desire to debate with Vanessa but it woudl be tragic if what this play has to say was drowned out in the controversy surrounding Vanessa.
"But I am a great beliver in the long run. I've had to be becuase in the shrot haul I usually lose but in the long run, as often as not, I win. And I believe that what an artist doesm in his work, not what he says,m is for the long run.