The acclaimed playwright was the first American to hold the International PEN Presidency, following his unanimous election to the post at the 1965 Bled Congress.
Arthur Miller’s term as President, from 1966 until 1969, was shaped both by the Cold War and by the explosion of racial tensions within PEN.
He entered his Presidency as PEN pulled itself apart over the implications for its Charter and its ethos of the Playwrights’ boycott of South Africa. In 1965 playwrights from across the world had begun to refuse to allow their work to be performed in South Africa because theatres were so strictly racially segregated, with white and black South Africans attending entirely separate performances. Often non-white South Africans were not allowed into theatres at all.
South African PEN – at that point a largely white organisation – protested vehemently to PEN arguing that the restriction of performances in South Africa represented an infringement of PEN’s free speech commitments, whilst not recognising their own complicity in a system which not only restricted the non-white population’s access to the arts but also censored their writing and voices at every level.
Among Miller’s early duties was an attempt to manage this dispute when the majority of PEN International centres voted in support of the boycott and to try to smooth tensions within the divided organisation.
Perhaps the most famous myth surrounding Miller’s Presidency was when, in 1969, he apparently helped free Wole Soyinka from prison. Soyinka, at this point a little-known playwright, had been imprisoned by General Yakubu Gowon’s government during the Biafran war. The story goes that, while many attempts by PEN to free Soyinka had tried and failed, and many letters of protest had been sent, Gowon, on receiving one signed by Arthur Miller asked if this was, in fact, the husband of Marilyn Monroe. On being assured that the letter had indeed been sent by that Arthur Miller, he had apparently released Soyinka immediately. Soyinka, of course, went on to become one of the world’s most admired writers and to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
The problem with the story is that there is no evidence for it in the archives – though Miller did receive regular updates on Soyinka’s imprisonment and dispatched various members of PEN staff to Nigeria to further make his case. In fact, Soyinka himself rubbished the claims years later having, in his own words, ‘checked with the man who signed the release warrant.’ The story continues in perpetuity as one of PEN’s most compelling and oft-quoted myths, demonstrating perhaps the ongoing feeling within the organisation that its petitions and tireless campaigning was often ineffective with comparison to the harnessing of the star power of its more famous members and affiliates.
Nevertheless, Miller was no stranger to adversity and censorship himself – he was descended from Polish refugees and had himself been interrogated by the infamous HUAM (House Un-American Activities Committee) which sought to root out Communist sympathisers within American society. This witchhunt, which he later scrutinised in his work, most notably The Crucible, may have informed his desire to interact with Soviet writers.
His overriding ambition during his tenure as President was to establish a PEN Centre in the Soviet Union. In fact, PEN, from its very beginning, had wanted to create a centre in Russia. Along with International Secretary David Carver, Miller held many meetings with the Soviet Writers Union to further this aim. The Soviets were apprehensive about joining PEN, honing in on the organisation’s commitment to free speech over and above political affiliations, a stance they viewed as hostile to Soviet commitments to political ideas of free expression and socially-engaged literature.
Nevertheless, Miller persisted. He invited the Soviet writers to the incendiary 1966 New York International PEN Congress. The Soviets did not attend, having been tipped off shortly before the Congress that a defector – the writer and PEN member Valery Tarsis – would attend and would denounce the Soviet regime and his treatment at its hands to the gathered international audience.
Miller and Carver’s progress with the Soviet branch was largely halted by this development, of which they had been largely unaware. There were a number of fascinating interactions between PEN and the Russians during Miller’s Presidency, much to the disgust of the large number of PEN branches exiled from Iron-Curtain countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia and Latvia. However, his hands-on style and his desire to encourage dialogue between all sides during this particularly fraught period of the Cold War was in some ways essential for holding the organisation together.
Miller remained a PEN member and campaigned for free expression throughout his long life. The annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture stands as testament to his legacy within the organisation. It has been delivered by Christopher Hitchens, Hilary Clinton, Salman Rushdie, Roxane Gay, Arundhati Roy and, of course, Wole Soyinka.