In Arthur Miller's memoirs; Timebends, there is a short passage about the day he first sat down to write a play. He was twenty years old and, far from wanting to be a playwright, Arthur was more likely to be found crooning with the expressed aim of becoming the next Bing Crosby. A college freshman, Miller had all but run out of the money he earned working at an auto parts warehouse before leaving for college in Michigan, and his family's dwindling fortunes back home in New York meant wiring for more was not an option. The University of Michigan's annual creative writing competition, The Avery Hopwood Award, provided Arthur with an opportunity of winning the $250 prize and safeguarding his education for the time being; more importantly it provided the crucible in which his playwriting verve was fired.
Eighteen months ago, I began a mission to uncover the lost text of the resulting play; No Villain. As a devotee of his life and work, I was desperate to read the play that Miller himself calls "The most autobiographical dramatic work I would ever write". I began my search by speaking with Patrick Herald (Arthur's agent) and The Miller Trust (custodians of his estate), neither one had ever seen the play in the flesh, but they welcomed me to continue searching. I persevered and, after a few months of scouring through the vast library archives of the University of Michigan, my hard graft paid off and I was presented with a hand-typed manuscript complete with pencilled notes. I was holding in my hands a work of tremendous literary importance and was one of only a handful of people to lay eyes on it for the best part of a century.
I believe there were three flashpoints in Miller's youth that shaped his entire life's work. The first, and perhaps the most enduring, was the collapse of his father's business during the Great Depression of the late 1920s. Arthur's father Isidore was a Polish immigrant who had come to the USA, alone, aged just eight years old. He was the embodiment of the American dream: arriving with nothing, but within years running a highly successful business in New York's thriving and predominantly Jewish garment industry. Like many others Isidore invested in the stock market and when Wall Street crashed the Miller family went from a stately home in Manhattan with chauffeurs and housekeepers to a ramshackle hut in downtown Brooklyn Heights almost overnight. Arthur was thirteen - old enough to understand the sheer injustice; he saw how quickly in the land of opportunity, everything could be taken away, just like that.
The second eye-opener came as a direct consequence of the first. A teenage Arthur was out looking for a summer job to help pay his way through college, and, struggling to find anyone willing to take him on in a highly prejudiced New York of the 1930's, he experienced anti-Semitism for the first time. Social injustice is an ever-present theme in Miller's writing, and was borne from personal experience.
The final awakening came just months before he wrote No Villain; a young man, only a few years older than Miller, had told him about a fairer kind of politics: Marxism. Miller was intrigued and before long he had read The Communist Manifesto, was an outspoken member of Marxist outfits in Michigan, and wrote impassioned articles for 'Red' newspapers.
All three light bulb moments came just a few years before writing his first play, and No Villain is the culmination of these experiences. These same themes would fixate him through much of his later, mature work, but No Villain fizzles with the exuberance of a young man of extraordinary intellect and unshakable social conscience discovering the world and realising it may not be as fair as it should be. The play deals with his own family unit in vivid autobiographical detail as a young Marxist student returns home from college for the summer and is forced to decide where his allegiances lay, his family or the striking workers. It won the Avery Hopwood Award, but was never staged.
No Villain really is a remarkable debut play and I am delighted to be able to present the World Premiere here in London this Christmas. Don't miss this rare insight into the youth of one of the world's greatest playwrights.Suggest a correction