I've refrained from commenting so far on the recent Vanity Fair piece "exposing" the existence Arthur Miller's purportedly abandoned Downs-Syndrome son. (Jason Zinoman also had a follow-up last week in the Times.) Frankly, I don't know what kind of response anyone can have that isn't highly personal. As far as shedding light on his work goes, it's become routine to comb through all an artist's biographical scraps looking for hidden secrets that put the work in a new light. But somehow I'm more comfortable about that approach when it's more in the past. Right now, it just feels like gossip, albeit true gossip.
The righteousness of Miller's plays has long turned people off, so it will probably be those same people who hold against him as a playwright his later decision (later than his major plays, that is) to have this son raised outside of the family in a special institution. For others, Miller's appeal was never in his moralizing but his sheer confronting of huge political conflicts at just the right time. And for exploring all the ugliness and guilt that connects the personal and political--especially in the father/son relationship.
Christopher Bigsby--the leading Miller scholar and biographer and, to be fair, a real champion of the man he became very close to--had a thoughtful take in the Guardian last week, offering a useful balance to the VF sensationalism:
The logic of these pieces is that Daniel [the son] was like a figure out of Jane Eyre - a guilty secret. He was, after all, it has been pointed out, not referred to in his autobiography, Timebends, seemingly left out of the family narrative.
In fact, you will find little in Timebends about any of his children. He had no sympathy for the notion that fame places an obligation on anyone to reveal details about their family. It is true that he did himself draw on family members in his art, musing at times on the legitimacy of doing so, but his life was the well from which he drew.
Daniel was not a secret. I had long recorded conversations with both Inge [Inge Morath, Miller's third wife and Daniel's mother] and Arthur about him and their decision in 2001. This was not the act of two people who wished to expunge him from the record. Neither, they insisted to me, regretted their decision, though another generation might have found it more difficult to grasp. Daniel was plainly the source both of pain and pride but it seemed to them both that they would not have been equipped to help him and that he had flourished in a way he would not have done had he ended up alone with them in the family home. It would, Inge told me, have been impossible to give him the kind of life he deserved.
And if the decision was wrong (though quite who would have been able to adjudicate is difficult to know) is it, anyway, so difficult to envisage that it is possible to be morally confident in the public world and unsure in private? Arthur Miller's work is precisely about such flawed men and women. In The Crucible a courageous public stance is taken by a man whose private behaviour is fallible. After the Fall is in part about a series of wrong choices. What are Willy Loman and Eddie Carbone, in Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge, if not men struggling to do right while unsure what form right action might take?
I totally understand people reading the VF article and thinking "Yuk, what a cold and pompous man." But to attempt to reevaluate the plays based on this particular bit of news strikes me as just not very sound criticism. As Bigsby points out, it shouldn't be news to any attentive theatre lover that Miller's plays have always been about guilt and moral failing. (If not as a father, certainly as a husband--adultery is always the original sin in Miller-land.) And I for one will always be glad Miller refused to name names before HUAC regardless of how many skeletons may lurk in his closet.The particular feeling of violating privacy is poignant in this case since no one in Miller's family has brought this grievance. His daughter, the screenwriter-director Rebeca Miller--Daniel's sister--practically refuses to comment in the VF story. And when a glossy gossip rag like Vanity Fair holds itself up as the outside arbiter of morals peering into others' souls...well, as someone once said, "attention must be paid."
But, hey, truth will out, I suppose. And famous artists will never be able to contain what posterity makes of even the most intimate aspects of their life and work.
Matt Freeman, by the way, also had some good thoughts on this--as a playwright--in a blog exchange to which I contributed some additional comments.