Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005)

Written by:
Nina Nichols
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Arthur Miller was at least the greatest playwright of his generation. His one possible rival, Tennessee Williams, exploited quite different dramatic territory, so their legacies remain distinct. Miller’s was the high moral ground, the individual’s engagement with his society. Williams’ investigated the emotional, inner life, and in this regard is the son of Strindberg.

Miller was a quiet innovator, politically courageous, and both commercially and academically successful from early in his career. His second play, All My Sons (1947), won the Drama Critics’ Circle award. Two years later he closed the gap between literary and commercial plays with his most celebrated work, Death of a Salesman (1949). It won the Pulitzer Prize for that year, and the Drama Critics’ Circle award, while it continues to be performed regularly and shown in the successful film version based on the play.

The story goes that a person in India, asked for the names of the most famous playwrights in the English language, cited Shakespeare, Miller, and Eugene Farber. "Who the devil is Farber?" the questioner wanted to know. His answer was, "No one. But without a third name, Miller’s would be too conspicuous." Indeed.

Constructing such a list among colleagues would, in any case, lead immediately to a mild dispute over whether the third should be Pirandello, Brecht, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter–modern drama is rich in important writers, each quite unique. Nor did Miller’s work draw on the output of any of his immediate predecessors’ or contemporaries’, insofar as is known. If the game of tracing influences were truly fruitful, it might see Miller’s debts to Ibsen, the first to set tragedy in the contexts of domestic and family relationships. These remained the areas Miller investigated most regularly and with greatest success.

Arthur Miller was born in October, 1915 in New York City, the son of a clothing manufacturer who was ruined during the economic depression of the 1930s. As an adolescent at the time, Miller’s surroundings demonstrated to him the insecurity of modern existence, as every biographer points out. He held odd jobs after high school to pay his way at the University of Michigan, where he began to write plays.

Miller’s first public success came with Focus (1945), a novel about anti-Semitism, but it was with All My Sons (1947) two years later that he emerged as an important playwright. He seems to have needed no rehearsals to learn the structure of plays. All My Sons, a drama about a manufacturer of faulty war materials, strongly shows the influence of Henrik Ibsen. But it was with Death of a Salesman in 1949 that Miller secured his reputation as one of the nation’s foremost playwrights. Death of a Salesman mixes the tradition of social realism that informs most of Miller’s work with a more experimental structure that includes fluid leaps in time as the protagonist, Willy Loman, drifts into memories of his sons as teenagers. Loman stands as an American archetype, a victim of his own delusions of grandeur and obsession with success that haunts him in his failure. The play has been frequently revived in film, television and stage versions that have included such diverse actors as Dustin Hoffman, Lee J. Cobb and, most recently, Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman.

Miller followed Death of a Salesman with his most politically significant work, The Crucible (1953), a tale of the Salem witch trials that contains obvious analogies to the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings of Miller’s own day. Three years later, in 1956, Miller found himself part of these hearings when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller refused to name people he allegedly saw at a Communist writers’ meeting a decade before and was convicted of contempt. However, he appealed this verdict and later won.

That same year Miller married actress Marilyn Monroe. The two divorced in 1961, the year of her death. That year Monroe appeared in her last film, The Misfits, an original screenplay by Miller. After divorcing Monroe, Miller wed Ingeborg Morath, to whom he remained married at the time of his death.

Miller also wrote the plays A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge, both of which were staged in 1955. His other works include After the Fall (1964), a thinly veiled account of his marriage to Monroe, as well as The Price (1967), The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977), and The American Clock (1980). His most recent works include The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), The Last Yankee (1993) and Broken Glass (1993), which won the Olivier Award for Best Play.

Although Miller had not written significantly for film, he did pen an adaptation for the 1996 film version of The Crucible starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, which garnered him an Academy Award nomination. Miller’s daughter Rebecca married Day-Lewis in 1996. In recent years, Miller committed much of his time to teaching young playwrights.

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