I want to tell you a story about the ’60s. Both the 1960s and the East 60s of New York City. What was the year—‘63, ’64? I’m not sure. But as a member of the Freedom to Write Committee of PEN, I’d been asked if I would join a protest in front of the then Soviet Consulate to the United Nations to protest the imprisonment of writers in the Soviet Union. Of course I went. I got there. There were some people marching around with placards, protesting. I noticed a rather tall gentleman who was carrying a placard. He saw me, he motioned to me, he gave me a placard, and he said, “Carry this.” I said, “Thank you Mr. Miller, my name is Edward Albee,” and he said, “I know what your name is,” in a tone that I wasn’t quite sure whether it was “how dare you assume I do not know you,” or perhaps, “yeah I know you, too bad.” But in any event, Arthur and I spent that afternoon protesting and carrying our placards with other protestors in front of the Soviet mission.
I was amazed. Here I was, somebody who’d been a playwright only for five or six years, carrying a placard with one of the four giants of the American theater—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Miller. And even though he was perhaps no more than 14 or 15 years older than I, he struck me as being granitic, a giant, and ageless.
We got to know each other over the years. I never ceased my admiration for these extraordinary qualities that Arthur brought to drama, the most important of which was, “always tell the truth.” He held a mirror up to people in his work. He said, “Look, this is who you are, this is how you behave. If you don’t like it, why don’t you change?” This was the greatest quality, I think, of Arthur as a playwright.
I admired O’Neill for his exciting early work, and, once he got out of the tedious Greek period that he was in, for his final extraordinary work. I admired Tennessee for his examination of the injured and the lost and his understanding that the only unforgivable sin is intentional cruelty. And I admired Thornton Wilder if only for the amazing, heartbreaking, sad beauty of that great, great play Our Town. And of course, I just told you why I admired Arthur so much.
Maybe it’s only in America that a man can be less well known for some things and more well known for others. How can you not be known for exposing the un-American activities of the Un-American Activities Committee? How can you be less known for that than for having married a movie actress? Only in America, perhaps. But Arthur kept telling the truth. Later on, he became less popular in America; still very, very popular in Britain. Some of his former champions were going “tsk tsk, tsk tsk,” and I thought this was ridiculous. Arthur always stood very, very tall. In his late 70s, and early 80s, he began writing a different kind of play. These were shorter sometimes, they were experimental, they were adventuresome. These were the plays of a very young man who merely happened to be in his eighties.