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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: March 2011

2 - The tradition of social drama


By his own account, Arthur Miller’s admiration for the classical Greek dramatists began with his earliest efforts at playwriting, when he was a student at the University of Michigan. “When I began to write,” he has said in an interview, “one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting.” Asked in 1966 which playwrights he admired most when he was young, he replied, “first the Greeks, for their magnificent form, the symmetry. Half the time I couldn’t really repeat the story because the characters in the mythology were completely blank to me. I had no background at that time to know really what was involved in these plays, but the architecture was clear … That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in” (Martin, Theater Essays, pp. 265–66). He has written in his autobiography Timebends that, once he began to write plays and “confront dramatic problems” himself, he “read differently than [he] had before, in every period of Western drama” (p. 232). Regarding these plays no longer as “marble masterworks but improvisations that their authors had simply given up trying to perfect” gave Miller a new perspective on the classics:

Regarding them as provisional, I could not find as common an identity among various Greek plays as Aristotle described, Ajax, for example, being of an entirely different nature than Oedipus at Colonus, and so it all devolved into the practical and familiar business of storytelling and the sustaining of tension by hewing to inner theme or paradox. My mind was taken over by the basic Greek structural concept of a past stretching so far back that its origins were lost in myth, surfacing in the present and donating a dilemma to the persons on the stage, who were astounded and awestruck by the wonderful train of seeming accidents that unveiled their connections to that past.

( Timebends, pp. 232–33)