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Party Line

Arthur Miller wrote communist theater criticism under the pseudonym Matt Wayne. The discovery may realign views of his life and politics.

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Playwright Arthur Miller Testifying to House Subcommittee, June 21, 1956. (Bettmann/Corbis)
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When Arthur Miller died in 2005, obituary writers saluted his standing as one of America’s greatest playwrights and praised his moral courage for refusing to name names of Communist Party members before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, or HUAC. The New York Times called Miller’s refusal “a courageous act in an atmosphere of palpable fear” and lionized him as a liberal casualty of the McCarthy era because he “never joined the Communist Party.” BBC News seconded the idea that Miller was an innocent bystander in the HUAC hearings when they reported that “it was his liberal views” and not any Communist sympathies that “caught him in the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt.” The Guardian stated that it was The Crucible, his anti-McCarthy metaphorical play, and not any party card, that brought him before HUAC. The Nation predictably hailed him as a heroic liberal resister against the thought control posed by HUAC, and so on.

In the rush to hammer Miller into a non-Communist liberal mold, and thus show that domestic anti-communism was really directed against New Dealers, the obituary writers missed a key opportunity to get at the more complicated truth of the period—and of the playwright’s own life and political allegiances. Had they read his “heroic” testimony before HUAC, they would have come across Miller’s recollection of an essay he had written 10 years previously for a Marxist audience. Calling it the “best essay I ever wrote,” he recalled its thrust:

Great art, like science, attempts to see the present remorselessly and truthfully. If Marxism is what it claims to be, a science of society, then it must be devoted to the objective facts more. … The first job of a Marxist critic is to tell the truth.

It is a pity that HUAC didn’t ask Miller to elaborate. Had they done so, they would have found out that in addition to being a playwright, he was also Matt Wayne, theater critic for the New Masses from 1945 to ’46.

Like one of those Soviet spymasters in an Ian Fleming novel, Matt Wayne was never photographed going in or out of the New Masses offices. No autobiographical information was listed at the end of his essays.  When the historian Alan Wald questioned Wayne’s colleagues at New Masses as to whether Wayne was Miller, they were still so dedicated to keeping Miller’s identity a secret that Wald had to turn off his tape recorder before they would answer his questions.

This deliberate secrecy understandably led Wald to focus on connecting Miller to Wayne. But lost in this quest was what Wayne/Miller represented. Wayne was more than a party pseudonym protecting up-and-comers like Miller from later repercussions. Wayne/Miller represented a brief period of perestroika for the ’40s-era American Communist Party.

Toward the end of World War II, the party would briefly attempt liberalization under its leader, Earl Browder. Unlike in the previous decade, where the only good art was proletarian—Malcolm Cowley, a fellow traveler and New Republic editor, saw adherence to communist orthodoxy as the only way to “write good history” and “good tragedy”—Browder’s movement toward peaceful accommodation with capitalism in 1944 gave hope to the more liberal authors in the party. Isidor Schneider, the editor of the New Masses, characterized the new editorial policy of the magazine to be the following: “No writer need worry about being politically correct if he won’t be faithful to reality.”

Enter the mysterious Matt Wayne in a period when Miller had abandoned play-writing. On the surface, Miller would seem the least-likely candidate for being Matt Wayne. During the war he had been furious at the party’s portrayal of capitalists as “the salt of the earth.” Wayne, however, gave him the freedom to air his views about steering the cultural policies of the American Communist Party away from the rigid “Art as a Weapon” phase and into the mainstream rules for literature. In a 1945 article, Wayne/Miller wrote what might have been the essay the playwright recalled before HUAC: “The authentic theatre will rise again when a playwright comes along who will face the dirtiest corners of the earth and will set about cleansing with real characters.” Nothing must prevent the “artist’s search for the truth,” for the “truth itself is political.”

Wayne/Miller wrote two dozen columns for the Masses from 1945 to ’46 and then dropped down the memory hole. The reasons may have had to do with the infamous Maltz episode. Albert Maltz, one of the party’s more liberalized screenwriters, published an essay titled “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” which criticized communist orthodoxy  as “a straitjacket.” Surveying his and other comrades’ output over the previous decades, Maltz cited American Communist Party artistic rules as “restricted, narrow” and “turned away from life.”

Maltz followed Miller’s thesis, and he suffered for it. The reason had to do with when he wrote it: February 1946. In June 1945, four months after Miller’s essay, Earl Browder was cast out of the party and replaced with the rigid ideologue William Foster. Suddenly, a heresy hunt for “Browderism” was on, and Maltz became the target. The onslaught on Maltz was so intense that he recanted and wrote a “second thoughts” essay stating that he had been in “total error.”

Ironically, Miller was one of Maltz’s initial supporters. He even met with two Communists to debate whether to go public with their support but backed down. With Wayne in the trash heap, Miller subsequently moved from liberalism to Fosterism. Rather than opposing ideologues like Howard Fast (whose Marxism was so rigid that even Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was repelled), Miller now signed petitions on his behalf against the HUAC. In a 1949 New Masses symposium titled “Should Ezra Pound Be Shot?” Miller typified what George Orwell criticized as the party’s inability to separate good literature from a writer’s politics. Answering in the affirmative, Miller castigated the literary establishment for recognizing Ezra Pound’s ability as a poet.

This orthodoxy continued in 1953 with The Crucible. In later years, Miller admitted that the inspiration for the play was his belief in the innocence of the Rosenbergs, which makes the Salem metaphor even more problematic. Children turning in elders—and husbands and wives committing adultery with politically unreliable people, thus assuring their executions—was more a feature of the Stalinist purge trials than McCarthyism.

In his testimony before the HUAC, Miller stated that he “had never been under Communist discipline.” But his behavior as Wayne and then as Miller shows otherwise. As Wayne, he followed the Browder phase of perestrokia in literature. When the tide shifted away, Miller followed the Fosterite policy that the only good literature was the politically correct kind. Miller was not only a party member, he was also an obedient one, who was willing to submerge his own ideas of good literature and politics to the shifting vagaries of the party line.

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Christopher Bigsby says:

Which discovery? I interviewed Miller about this and discussed it in the first volume of my biography of the playwright published nearly three years ago.

ron capshaw says:

Alan Wald actually made the discovery in his 2005 book. I merely analyzed what this discovery said about Miller’s adherence to Party doctrine. I will look for your book.

Sylvia Reuben says:

Is Capshaw writing that McCarthy was correct in going after Arthur Miller, because Miller was a Commuinist.

Dick Mulliken says:

I do not see how Mr. Capshaw’s article supports his conclusions. Miller may have been a fellow traveler, but for that matter, the fact that he wrote for New Masses might also indicate that he needed a few bucks, or simply a way to use his mind for a few months. Further, even if he held a party card hardly indicates he was some kind of robo-commie. At the time, I knew several party members who in fact were staunch American patriots and fundamentally liberal. At the time, dabbling in Communism, even to the extent of joining the party, was essentially a superficial and sentimental gesture.

This article reads like a “hatchet job.” Miller wrote theater criticism for a “Communist” magazine under a pseudonym and also attacked HUAC for subpoenaing writers like Howard Fast to testify before the Committee. Is Capshaw suggesting that it was appropriate for HUAC to question and threaten writers and artists because of their political convictions? Capshaw quotes from an essay of Miller’s (not under a pseudonym) that a Marxist critic’s job is to “tell the truth” and then opines that it is a pity that HUAC did not question Miller further about the essay, thus making it clear that Mr Capshaw believes that HUAC’s probe (witchhunt)of artists and writers was proper.

gerry kane says:

Nu? The writer’s problem seems to be that the HUAC questioners were’nt smart enough to ask the right questions or couldn’t interpret Miller properly in a manner that would expose him. Sterile article going over old ground. The real issue, for me, is that there existed a House Unamerican Committee trying to keep American culture kosher. The clashes within the communist party were of no great cultural import. They did no damage to anyone other than in the party. That Miller wrote under a pseudonym “Masses” is of no import. Sholem Aleikhem also wrote under a pseudonym for the “Forverts”. I wonder what he had to hide? Miller was red-baited by the committee. Today the redbaiting is in the language of Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry’s and they are bruising the total American Culture. Miller warned about that — under pseudonym and his own name.

VHJM van Neerven says:

What does the author say? As far as I can see, it’s all in his last paragraph and even the last sentence will do. Read it again:
“Miller was not only a party member, he was also an obedient one, who was willing to submerge his own ideas of good literature and politics to the shifting vagaries of the party line.”

Weird as it is that the author doesn’t even deign to name “the” party (leading us to believe he himself acknowledges only one party!), it is also a sentence that has little to do with anything he wrote above that last paragraph.

The giveaway is in author’s idiosyncratic (I try to be polite) way of heaping a person’s acts with “discipline” — the famous ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ fallacy, plus a category mistake to top it off.

All rather boring, really, except for his kind quote of Mr. Miller himself.
That is worthwhile.

So thanks anyway, Mr. Ron Capshaw.

michael wreszin says:

It is not true as Capshaw claims that Arthur Miller castigated the literary establishment for Recognizing Ezra Pounds Ability as a poet. He explicitly accepted the critical praise of Pounds poetry but denied that that should excuse him from his blatant anti semitism and support of fascism. And it wasn’t the literary establishment it was a a group of well known poets. But Capshaw usually gets things wrong in pursuing his single minded fanatacism

Grif Fariello says:

Mr. Capshaw states that Miller “in later years admitted” that his inspiration for “The Crucible” was the Rosenberg case and not McCarthyism. I wish Mr. Capshaw would be more exact about that admission as in my interview with Mr. Miller for my oral history of the period he drew the parallel between Salem and the modern day witch hunts, as (If I remember correctly) he does in far more detail in his autobiography, “Timebends.” In addition to this unsupported allegation, Capshaw further posits that possibility as evidence of “continued orthodoxy,” when one would assume that the CP would have been an equal opportunity opponent of both.

Mr. Capshaw’s effort here is to portray Miller as just another Communist dutifully following the twists of Party orthodoxy. Yet, none of the pasta he throws against wall actually sticks.

That Miller could oppose Howard Fast on political and artistic grounds and still support Fast’s right to be wrong without the aid of a government tribunal doesn’t seem to register with Capshaw. Nor does the notion that Miller’s opposition to that government action remains the sine qua non of liberal political thought. What else could Voltaire have been talking about when he said, “I disagree strongly with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?

Mr. Capshaw further neglects to mention that after WW2 Ezra Pound was arrested and indicted not for mere political differences but for treasonable actions. The man, a last-ditch supporter of Hitler and Mussolini, went over to the enemy camp and, not unlike the various Lord Ha-Ha, Tokyo Roses, and Axis Sallys, made over 100 radio broadcasts attempting to undermine the allied cause. That someone might wish Pound shot was hardly confined to the CP and sympathizers. Britain hanged William Joyce, a Lord Ha-Ha and an American citizen. Many in the US wished to see Pound meet the same, including staunch Republicans.

Miller remains the man he purported himself to be.

Thank you for sharing; I was totally ignorant about all this.

Ludwik Kowalski, see Wikipedia. Also see my FREE ON-LINE autobiography–“Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.”

Based on a diary kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA)

R.E. Prindle says:

How can anyone castigate McCarthy when the current Left PC age has destroyed more careers and blacklisted more people than McCarthyites ever thought of and with absolutely no remorse.

Arguing that the McCarthy era was evil because Communists got slammed and today’s is virtuous because Reds slam innocents for nothing is shall we kindly say- myopic?


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Party Line

Arthur Miller wrote communist theater criticism under the pseudonym Matt Wayne. The discovery may realign views of his life and politics.

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