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Presence: Collected Stories

Arthur Miller
Bloomsbury
Released

Bloomsbury are to be commended for bringing together all of the short stories written by perhaps the greatest American playwright of the last century.

Together, Presence shows a different side to Arthur Miller and through his inventions sheds much additional light upon this complicated man.

While his first collection, I Don't Need You Any More, has been published in book form in the UK, very few people on either side of the Atlantic will previously have seen Homely Girl, a Life, while the last six stories collected under the title of Presence have never previously been published.

In his foreword to the early collection, Miller muses on the difference between writing for the stage and the page. While the purpose may be different, the style and in particular the writer's uncanny ability to worm his way into the brains of diverse characters is common to both.

The stories also help to expand upon the picture of Miller that we can derive from the plays and autobiography. For example, the first two stories, the relatively long I Don't Need You Any More and Monte Sant' Angelo both address his Jewishness, a subject that was often on the periphery of the plays but not always at its centre.

They are both gems, with the former addressing the embarrassments of Martin, a five-year-old still struggling to come to terms with humanity, while Monte Sant' Angelo takes us on an Italian jaunt in which Bernstein, surely just as autobiographical as Marty, gets a reminder of his heritage.

For Marilyn fans there will be something of a shock. The work with which she and Miller are most closely collectively associated is the cowboy movie, The Misfits. In the written version, Miss Monroe's character, Roslyn, is nothing more than a fleeting absence, as a couple of hard men pursue mustangs across the desert.

The early collection also includes Fitter's Night, a play set in wartime that contains in Tony Calabrese a character who might well have reappeared in slightly different guise a decade later in A View from the Bridge, possibly even as the leading figure, Eddie Carbone.

The theatre is by no means forgotten and there is a lovely autobiographical piece entitled Fame. This small snapshot works its way into the mind of Meyer Berkowitz, a playwright who finally hits the jackpot becoming "the King of Broadway". It shows both the way that success can impact on a life to after all the years of hard graft and also has a wry comic side.

The acting part of the business is represented in the last story from the original collection, A Search for a Future. In this, an actor reconsiders his life in the light of his father's dementia but also his own decision to protest against a war. In doing so, he risks his career, one presumes at the hands of an institution like The House Un-American Activities Committee.

Politics also intrude into The Performance in which a company of tap dancers led by the Jewish Harold May manages to charm Adolf Hitler with consequences that prove embarrassing for all concerned.

Love and its simpler (or is that more complicated?) cousin sex are never far away, whether discussed explicitly or not. Both The Prophecy and Homely Girl, a Life take this as their topic from a female perspective.

Novelty is introduced by The Bare Manuscript, in which a blocked a writer finds an unorthodox solution to his frustration. Where someone else might switch from typewriter to pen, Clement uses a felt tip but forsakes paper for tall, fleshy Carol Mundt, the best respondent to a newspaper ad.

Miller's favourite topics otherwise include the simple, country life and the exploration of an egalitarian political viewpoint at both macro and micro levels, a subject that characterised so much of his work. Above all, though, it is people and their quirkiness that made Miller a great playwright and that are the major appeal here too.

Presence is a book that anyone with an interest in good writing or the life and dramatic works of Arthur Miller should add to their wish lists. It will not disappoint.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher