Arthur Miller, 1959. Working on a new play at his typewriter in the study of his New York apartment on July 21, 1959.
Courtesy of AP Images


 

Miller, Arthur (17 Oct. 1915-10 Feb. 2005), playwright and author, was born in New York City to Isidore Miller, a Polish immigrant who became a successful businessman in the garment industry, and Augusta Barnett, a schoolteacher and the daughter of Polish immigrants. He was the middle child in a Jewish family that included an older brother who excelled in both academics and sports and an appealing younger sister whom everyone adored; his sister later became a successful stage actress under the name Joan Copeland.

When Arthur was fourteen years old, his father's business collapsed, a casualty of the Great Depression, and the Millers' heretofore comfortable lifestyle declined. The Depression also had a devastating effect on the morale of the Miller family, as it did on millions of other Americans. The family moved from Manhattan to a modest mortgaged house in Brooklyn, and tensions over money became routine in the household. Despite their reduced circumstances, Augusta Miller stressed to her children the importance of learning and high culture, urging all of them to attend college. Arthur proved a disappointing student at Abraham Lincoln High School, where he had greater success as a football player. However, during his senior year in high school, Miller discovered an interest in literature after reading what he described as his first serious book: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. This book and other classics ultimately convinced him that he could become a writer. Following graduation from high school in 1932, he applied to the University of Michigan, intending to work his way through, but he was rejected because of his mediocre high school record. He took on a series of menial jobs, including a clerkship at an auto parts warehouse. Carefully saving his earnings, he persisted in trying to enter the University of Michigan, and he was finally admitted in the fall of 1934.

Before moving to Ann Arbor, Miller had tried his hand at short story writing. At Michigan, where he continued to work at various jobs, including journalism, to support himself, he became increasingly interested in the theater and appeared in several campus dramatic productions. Soon he was writing his own plays for presentation, and in 1936 he won the Hopwood Award, the university's top playwriting prize, for his drama No Villain (the award also came with $250 in prize money). The following year he won a second Hopwood Award for another drama, Honors at Dawn. His reworking of No Villain as The Grass Still Grows would go on to win the Theater Guild National Award (with a cash prize of $1,250) in 1938.

Graduating that year from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in literature, Miller returned to New York with his fiancée, a fellow student named Mary Grace Slattery, whom he married in 1940; the couple had two children. In New York Miller joined the Federal Theatre Project, a government-sponsored program that provided paid work for playwrights. Miller took on a variety of writing assignments, including scripts for radio shows, to support his family. Following the entry of the United States into World War II in late 1941, he was assigned to create plays that encouraged war bond sales. He also interviewed returning soldiers for the book Situation Normal . . . , which was published under his name in 1944.

Meanwhile, Miller continued to write plays of his own. His first Broadway-produced drama, The Man Who Had All the Luck, opened at the Forrest Theatre on 4 November 1944. The story of a garage mechanic who can seemingly do no wrong while his younger brother fails, the play established what became a recurring theme for Miller: the struggle by a pair of sons to gain the love of their father. The play received devastating reviews from critics, who found it too "talky," and it closed after only four performances. Disheartened, Miller decided to write a novel based on a theme he was only too familiar with as a Jew searching for work in New York during the early 1930s. The resulting book, Focus, published in 1945, was one of the first to examine anti-Semitism in the United States.

Buoyed by decent reviews, Miller returned to playwriting with All My Sons, a contemporary drama of a war profiteer unmasked by his family. The play opened on Broadway at the Coronet Theatre in January 1947 to great acclaim and went on to win the Donaldson Award as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as the best play of 1947. It became a successful Hollywood film the following year, with Edward G. Robinson playing the lead. In addition to being a hit, All My Sons was significant for Miller in another way: the stage production was directed by Elia Kazan, with whom he developed both a friendship and a working partnership. Kazan would go on to direct Miller's next two stage productions.

From the outset, contemporary social issues provided a nurturing broth for Miller's plays. The Great Depression had marked him for life, he recalled, as it had other writers and artists of his generation. Though the postwar world looked considerably brighter and economic prosperity once again seemed within reach for the average citizen, the threat of another catastrophe remained ever present. Fixing his vision on the dark side of the American dream, Miller focused on themes of dislocation and despair.

Yet Miller was not a social critic per se: his plays are ultimately about people and their failings, not about ideas. Miller's characters act out universal themes of lost innocence and moral failure as they try to survive without losing some sense of meaning in the world and in their own lives, struggling—often heroically but usually without effect—in the face of failure and betrayal. Two maxims would appear to govern Miller's work: what counts in anyone's life is adherence to conscience, and if hope and succor are to be found, they lie within one's family.

Miller had to look no further than his own family as inspiration for his next play, Death of a Salesman, which opened on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre in February 1949. Its protagonist is Willy Loman, an everyman who fails both at business and at life because of his delusional pursuit of the American dream, which is surely "just around the corner." The decline and fall of Loman is the epic tragedy of a very ordinary man—a seemingly incongruous pairing of high style and low content that is nevertheless overpowering.

Though Willy is not Isidore Miller—the playwright's father had slid into permanent despair upon losing his business, whereas Willy only intensifies his pathetic grasping for success in the face of unrelenting failure—the gloom of the Miller household is surely reflected onstage. So too are the efforts of Augusta Miller, a probable inspiration for the sympathetic character of Loman's wife, who desperately tries to buoy up the spirits of her family through love and devotion.

Death of a Salesman was hailed as a major triumph of the American stage, and critics almost universally declared Miller one of the leading playwrights of the century. Winner of virtually every major honor—the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the Donaldson Award, the Theater Club Award, and the Tony Award for best play—Salesman marked a transformation in American drama: seamlessly moving between interior monologue and external dialogue, the play linked past and present in a dramatic flow of emotional storytelling. Like All My Sons, Death of a Salesman was made into a critically praised film in 1951.

Miller's next project was an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People, undertaken in response to an intensifying crusade, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), to purge the government of alleged communists. Ibsen's tale of communal hysteria and ruined lives certainly echoed events of his time, but it failed to please either audiences or critics. Determined to make his protest felt, Miller focused his next play, The Crucible (1953), on the witchcraft trials held in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. This recounting of a notorious episode in American history, in which innocent people were put to death solely because of hearsay and mounting hysteria, was even more obviously intended than Ibsen's work to draw parallels with contemporary anticommunist zealotry. However, it made audiences uneasy, and critics were cautiously critical, a response that Miller attributed to their own fearful unwillingness to stand up to the bullying of what had now become known as "McCarthyism."

Despite the failure of The Crucible at the box office and its cool critical reception, it won a Tony Award. In subsequent years, the play gained in public favor, perhaps because it could be seen as a documentation of a historical event that reflected a darker side of human nature, rather than as an overt political statement. Many critical observers blamed the initial failure of The Crucible on its director, Jed Harris, claiming that it needed the expert hand of Elia Kazan. Miller and Kazan were no longer friends, however, their relationship having been severed following two incidents.

In 1951, two years before The Crucible opened on Broadway, Miller had been introduced by Kazan to the movie actress Marilyn Monroe at a party in Hollywood. At that time the married Kazan was personally involved with Monroe, a glamorous blond "sex goddess" who was emerging as a major film star and was married to the famed baseball player Joe DiMaggio. Miller, still married to Mary Grace Slattery, was fascinated by Monroe, the embodiment of countless male fantasies. Sometime during the early 1950s a romantic relationship developed between them—much to the surprise and consternation (and perhaps envy) of Miller's friends, who claimed not to understand the undereducated actress's appeal to the intellectual playwright.

Kazan's friendship with Miller cooled, and a final rupture occurred in 1952 after Kazan appeared as a "friendly witness" before a hearing of HUAC. Asked to identify former associates in the entertainment industry as members of the Communist Party, Kazan readily complied, naming names and thereby alienating Miller and other liberal friends. Miller was writing The Crucible during this period, and critics have come to believe that its intensity was provoked by his disgust with Kazan's conduct.

Forbidden passion was the central theme of Miller's next play, A View from the Bridge, in which a workingman struggles to control a growing obsession with his teenaged niece. Originally a one-act play, View was later expanded into two acts and premiered in London in 1956.

Neither A View from the Bridge nor A Memory of Two Mondays were hits following their dual premiere on Broadway in September 1955, and rumors spread that Miller's creative powers had been diminished by his romantic entanglement with Monroe. Early the next year, after applying to the U.S. State Department to renew his passport, he himself was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC as a suspected communist. In an act of solidarity, Monroe accompanied Miller to the hearings. On 29 June 1956, several weeks after Miller's divorce and two years after Monroe's, the couple was married by a judge in White Plains, New York.

In a series of appearances before HUAC, Miller denied being a communist and refused to give the committee any names of friends and associates who may have had communist affiliations. He was ultimately held in contempt of the U.S. Congress and found guilty of that charge in May 1957. Miller was sentenced to a fine of $500 or thirty days in prison and denied a new passport. He appealed, and the following year his conviction was overturned.

Miller's creative powers seemed to decline further during his marriage to Monroe, who increasingly exhibited signs of emotional disturbance. Yet he remained besotted by her, and to help the marriage he wrote a film script for her. Entitled The Misfits and directed by John Huston, the movie costarred Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift as two present-day, down-on-their-luck cowboys who try but ultimately fail to revive their fortunes by capturing and selling wild horses in the Nevada desert. Monroe's character is a recently divorced, emotionally fragile woman who tags along. This was Gable's final film—he suffered a fatal heart attack in the fall of 1960, not long after shooting ended—but even his appeal as a Hollywood superstar could not overcome audience resistance to the movie's depressing story line. The Misfits was not well received, though it subsequently became something of a cult favorite after the untimely deaths of Monroe and Clift within the next five years.

The Miller-Monroe marriage began breaking up during the filming of The Misfits, and the couple was officially divorced shortly before the film premiered in late January 1961. A year later Miller married Inge Morath, a noted photographer, and settled down to a life of stability and renewed creativity at his longtime home in rural Connecticut. His next play, After the Fall, was a production of the newly formed Lincoln Center Repertory Company and opened at an off-Broadway theater in January 1964. Significantly, it marked the reconciliation of Miller with Kazan, who helped write the script and also codirected.

After the Fall, which has as its central character a manipulative, emotionally volatile blonde named Maggie, tells the story of a failing marriage as Maggie's husband tries in vain to rescue her from her demons. Audiences and critics alike voiced outrage, accusing Miller of staging a vengeful dramatization of his own marriage to get back at Monroe, who had died under suspicious circumstances—the official cause of death was listed as "probable suicide"—two years earlier. By and large the public viewed Monroe sympathetically and saw Miller as a villain who had exploited her, had dumped her, and was now exploiting her again. Perhaps disingenuously, Miller expressed surprise that anyone would think the play was about himself and Monroe and repeatedly declared that his work was pure fiction, written to illustrate a larger theme of human self-destructiveness.

(Later in 1964 another Miller play for the Lincoln Center Repertory Company, Incident at Vichy, premiered in New York and received better reviews. Set in Nazi-occupied Vichy France during World War II, it focuses on the interrogation of a group of men of varying backgrounds who may be destined for a concentration camp. Each of them tries to sell out the others in order to save himself, arguing for his own moral superiority.)

The following year Miller was elected president of PEN International, a politically active writers' association, and in that capacity he began taking up the cause of dissident writers around the world. In one notable case, in 1966, he secured the freedom of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright and poet and future Nobel Prize winner who was about to be executed for expressing antigovernment views.

Miller became increasingly involved with domestic politics during the mid- and late 1960s, as American participation in the Vietnam civil war escalated. Counting himself among the increasing number of citizens opposing the war, Miller attended and led protest teach-ins at various locales, including the University of Michigan, and became active in local Democratic Party politics in Connecticut. He served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the same year that his play The Price opened on Broadway. Revisiting the theme of two brothers trying to come to terms with their family's past, The Price received good reviews and was a commercial success.

Miller turned to comedy for his next play, The Creation of the World and Other Business, a lighthearted take on the biblical story of Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel. There is a serious underside to the play, which poses the larger question of why there is evil in the world, but audiences and critics alike found it silly and its jokey dialogue off-putting. The play closed less than a fortnight after its premiere on Broadway in late 1972.

By this time Miller's reputation was in decline in the United States, and most of his subsequent work for the stage failed to make a lasting impression on either critics or audiences. The Archbishop's Ceiling, the story of a dissident writer in an unnamed Soviet nation, enjoyed modest success following its premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in April 1977. Another play, The American Clock, was introduced at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1980. Based on Studs Terkel's Hard Times, a nonfiction account of the Great Depression and its effect on family life, it received respectful attention.

Miller was back in the spotlight briefly in 1984 with a Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. Meanwhile he continued to write and stage plays focusing on family relations, the primacy of individual conscience, and other familiar themes; they included Elegy for a Lady (1982), Danger: Memory! (1987), The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), The Last Yankee (1991), Broken Glass (1994), Resurrection Blues (2002), and Finishing the Picture (2004).

In the decades following the appearance of Focus in 1945, Miller published several other novels as well as two volumes of short stories and provided the text for a children's picture book, Jane's Blanket (1972). He also wrote other screenplays, including two based, respectively, on The Price (1971) and The Crucible (1996); neither film was a critical or box office success. Miller fared better with his teleplay Playing for Time (1980). The true story of an all-female orchestra at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, its appearance coincided with growing public interest in the Holocaust. Miller would revisit the Nazi era in his play Broken Glass fourteen years later; meanwhile he turned Playing for Time into a stage play, which premiered in Edinburgh in 1986.

Miller collaborated with his wife, Inge Morath, on several illustrated works of nonfiction, including the travel books In Russia (1969) and Chinese Encounters (1979), as well as In the Country (1977), which focuses on rural Connecticut. Salesman in Beijing (1984), another collaboration, records the presentation of Death of a Salesman in China. In 1987 he published an autobiography, Timebends: A Life.

Miller's marriage to Morath produced two children: a daughter, Rebecca, born in 1962, who married the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, and a son, Daniel, born severely retarded five years later. Daniel was placed in an institution shortly after birth, reportedly at Miller's insistence over the objections of his wife, and the son's existence was largely unknown to the outside world until after Miller's death. The Miller-Morath marriage, otherwise an apparently happy one, lasted until her death in 2002. Shortly afterward Miller met a young painter named Agnes Barley, who became his companion. Miller's death occurred at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

The New York Times called Miller "one of the great American playwrights," though his place in the pantheon of dramatists—superseded, many would argue, by Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams—continues to be debated. In the wake of Miller's marriage to Monroe, it became critically fashionable to dismiss him as an intellectual lightweight whose work relies on sentimentality and pompous rhetoric. Even as his reputation declined in the United States, he steadily gained recognition and garnered praise in England, where he remained in high critical esteem at the time of his death. In the United States Miller is remembered primarily for two works, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Salesman, viewed throughout the English-speaking world as a quintessentially American play, has been staged on nearly every continent and is often revived. Crucible, now the most frequently performed of Miller's works, is a staple production of drama departments in American high schools. Those plays alone have undoubtedly secured his literary immortality.

 



Bibliography

Miller's lengthy memoir, Timebends, provides biographical information, including what appears to be a straightforward account of his relationship with Monroe. Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller (2009), is a well-received critical biography; an earlier biography is Martin Gottfried, Arthur Miller: His Life and Work (2003). Both Bigsby and Gottfried provide examinations of Miller's work. Miller's writings about the stage are collected in Robert A. Martin and Steven R. Centola, eds., The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller (1978; rev. ed. 1996). Collections of criticism include Harold Bloom, ed., Arthur Miller (1987); Robert A. Martin, ed., Arthur Miller: New Perspectives (1982); and James J. Martine, ed., Critical Essays on Arthur Miller (1979). For Elia Kazan's perspective on his relationship with Miller, see Kazan's autobiography, A Life (1988). Published interviews with Miller include Matthew C. Roudané, ed., Conversations with Arthur Miller (1987); Christopher Bigsby, ed., Arthur Miller and Company (1990); and Steve Centola, Arthur Miller in Conversation (1993). Arthur Miller on Home Ground, a filmed portrait by Harry Rasky made in 1979, includes interviews with Miller and highlights of his career. An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 11 Feb. 2005.



Ann T. Keene




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Citation:
Ann T. Keene. "Miller, Arthur";
http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03563.html;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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