Enough, my mother used to say, is as good as a feast. Growing up in wartime and postwar austerity, I never understood what it meant. What was enough, when chicken was only for Christmas and chocolate an impossibility? Ah well, that was then and this is now when Jamie Oliver campaigns to tax sugar and chicken is dirt cheap yet so freighted with guilt and chemicals you’d be better off eating a parsnip.
At last, though, I’m getting the gist of that little saying. BBC radio is currently serving up a feast of Arthur Miller. This is the centenary year of his birth, he is a titan of 20th-century theatre, the National has put on more of his plays than any other playwright (with the sole exception of Shakespeare) and he was once married to cinema’s love goddess, Marilyn Monroe.
Last week Radio 4 devoted four of its afternoon slots to new dramas based on events in Miller’s life. Radio 3 had a Sunday documentary about Miller’s life in his native city, New York, plus a sterling new production of his 1949 play, Death of a Salesman plus, in The Essay across the week, five valuable reflections on working with Miller. Radio 4 Extra carried a swift repeat of an impressive documentary, Playing the Salesman. On Saturday afternoon, Radio 4 put on a long-hidden Miller screenplay, The Hook, and Archive on 4 gave us Attention Must Be Paid, a documentary by Miller’s biographer, Christopher Bigsby. On Sunday, Radio 3’s play was Miller’s A View from the Bridge, again a new production, this time made in the US with an American cast, directed by Martin Jarvis.
I have a sneaking feeling my list is not complete, but trust you take my point. This is too much. The confusions of fact, fiction and opinion are too many. The picture of Miller and his work gets blurred and softened. But he is not the only subject to suffer from radio overkill. It is also too much to commemorate the First World War across its whole actual 1914-18 length with Home Front, a daily Radio 4 drama whose ambition is to reflect what was happening in France and Belgium through the home lives of a group of families on England’s south coast. This afternoon you can also hear the latest episode of Tommies, based on what actually happened on this day a century ago to a combat regiment of signallers in the British Indian Army.
The aim is worthy but the result is tedious. Home Front is the kind of radio drama where you can almost hear the actors turning the script’s pages. Tommies is much better but I recommend reading Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That alongside it for a cross-check on the grimmer realities of life in the trenches and on the battlefield. It’s possibly significant that the Graves memoir wasn’t chosen as a Book at Bedtime or Classic Serial. It is too frank to fit into the comfortably melancholic frame the BBC has put around this war.
Yet many may prefer the homely dilemmas of Home Front to the realities that drove men mad in combat or the cardboard cut-out of Arthur Miller that popped up from those four afternoon Dramas. But if you didn’t hear the Archive on 4, Attention Must Be Paid, last Saturday night you really missed something wonderful enough to make me cheer, a portrait of Miller from real life, meticulously drawn. Twenty years ago Christopher Bigsby and radio producer Julian May spent a weekend with Miller at his Connecticut home – a house Miller built – talking, listening, thinking aloud, remembering. Hearing this, and the actors and directors Bigsby interviewed about playing Miller’s roles, made me hear A View from the Bridge on Sunday with new ears.
What previously had sounded to me more like preaching (against intolerance, jealousy and a misplaced sense of honour) than convincing dialogue was transformed. Now I caught a subtler, more sensitive projection of character onto situations bigger than the play’s compass. In its plotline Eddie (Alfred Molina) can’t control his jealousy of his young niece’s attraction to a handsome Italian stranger so it leads him into shameful betrayal. But, having heard Bigsby’s careful exposition of Miller’s development as a writer, I could feel the bigger fear at the heart of the play, its dread of outsiders, that postwar loss of certainties that fuelled Senator Joseph McCarthy and his persecution through the Fifties of any American in public life with liberal opinions, Miller and many another included. That Bigsby documentary and both Radio 3’s Miller plays, were really and truly a feast.