Miller, Arthur Asher

views updated

Miller, Arthur Asher

(b. 17 October 1915 in New York City; d. 10 February 2005 in Roxbury, Connecticut), award-winning writer who earned fame as one of America’s greatest dramatists for the two masterpieces Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953).

Born in New York City, Miller was one of the three children of Isidore Miller, a Polish immigrant who made a fortune in the garment industry, and Augusta (Barnett) Miller, a schoolteacher. Miller’s father provided his family with a luxurious lifestyle until his business failed at the start of the Great Depression. This sudden collapse of the familiar world was a crucial experience in Miller’s life, and he would later frequently draw on the tensions that were created by that severe economic crisis in his writings. Also, his father’s meteoric rise and fall and the corresponding impact on the family became the basis for the playwright’s repeated exploration of the volatile dynamics of father-son relationships.

From his mother, whose parents also had emigrated from Poland, Miller learned to value high culture, education, and the power of the written word. Miller’s older brother, Kermit, was a stronger student and better athlete than his younger brother in their early years. Their sister, Joan, was the youngest and enjoyed her father’s favor as a child. She, too, would make a career in the theater, becoming an accomplished actress under the stage name Joan Copeland.

After Isidore Miller’s business failed, the family moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, where Miller attended high school while living among relatives and family friends, who would become a source of inspiration for much of his early drama, particularly the Loman family tragedy in Death of a Salesman. Miller did not distinguish himself academically at Abraham Lincoln High School, where he failed algebra several times and was better known for his prowess on the football field than for his grades. After graduating in 1932, he attended evening classes at the City College of New York and worked various jobs until gaining acceptance at the University of Michigan in 1934. There, in addition to engaging in occasional journalistic efforts, he effectively launched his playwriting career; by the time he graduated with a BA in 1938, he had seen his own dramas performed and had received several honors.

Miller returned to New York City feeling ambitious and determined to make his name on the Broadway stage. He joined the Federal Theatre Project and continued to develop new scripts while attempting to find a producer for his plays. Success eluded him, however, and two years after graduating from college, in writing to his mentor, the University of Michigan professor Kenneth Rowe, Miller expressed doubts that he would ever present his plays before wider audiences.

On 5 August 1940 Miller married Mary Grace Slat-tery, whom he had met in college and with whom he would later have a daughter and a son. In the early stages of this marriage, Miller wrote plays in support of the war bond effort, in addition to writing radio plays and scripts for the radio shows Columbia Workshop and Cavalcade of America. He published his first book of reportage, Situation Normal..., which included interviews with World War II veterans, in 1944. That same year, he first had one of his plays produced on the Broadway stage. The Man Who Had All the Luck opened on 4 November 1944 at the Forrest Theatre but closed after just four performances after being poorly received by New York theater critics. In reworking the play, Miller discovered in its exploration of the father-son conflict a significant source of dramatic action, which he would mine for his next two dramas: All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949).

Before rising on the stage, Miller decided to try his hand with another genre, publishing the novel Focus in 1945. This book holds great historical significance as one of the first American novels to deal directly with anti-Semitism in America. In addressing social injustice and the need for individuals to accept responsibility for the welfare of others, Miller laid the foundation for a continued exploration of these thematic issues.

Two years later, Miller’s return to playwriting paid off, with All My Sons winning both the Donaldson Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the best play of 1947. Examining the crisis that occurs within a family when the father’s involvement in war-profiteering crimes during World War II is divulged, All My Sons powerfully addresses the problem of social irresponsibility and the myth of privatism in American society. Through the production of All My Sons, Miller began a very successful collaboration with Elia Kazan, one of America’s premier directors. Their friendship would result in the immensely successful production of Death of a Salesman in 1949 but would eventually undergo a severe strain over the question of whether to testify before and provide names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

After All My Sons established Miller as a leading playwright of the day, his next drama not only gained him international fame and fortune but also secured his lasting place as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Donaldson Award, the Theater Club Award, and the Tony Award for best new play of the year, Death of a Salesman has been hailed as a watershed in American theater. Miller’s innovative experimentation with dramatic form and his development of a subjective realism allowed for the swift and fluid shifting of scenes from past to present inside the mind of the play’s central character, Willy Loman. Few modern stage characters have been as memorable for audiences as Loman, whose tragic protest transforms the common man into a symbol of the human outcry against the dehumanization that has destabilized the modern world. Beginning with its opening night at the Morosco Theatre, Death of a Salesman captivated audiences with its gripping portrait of the Loman family’s desperate struggle to resist entropy through the power of love. This threnody to a time lost and values forgotten is a compelling critique of the ruthlessness fostered by capitalism and the unfulfilled promise of the American dream.

Following his huge success with Death of a Salesman, Miller adapted Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People for the American stage in response to the purges of Communists and Communist sympathizers led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and carried out by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s adaptation was coldly received. His next play would suffer the same fate, as fear of persecution prevented critics from responding positively to his extraordinary portrayal of the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials in The Crucible (1953). Once again commenting on the harmful impact of McCarthyism on American society, Miller constructed a drama establishing parallels between the Puritanical hysteria that brought about the deaths of innocent people and the crusade against Communism that brought about mindless conformity, the virtual abolishment of free speech, and the widespread intolerance of differences.

While he was in Hollywood with Kazan in 1951 to meet with film producers regarding his screenplay “The Hook” (which was never produced), Miller met the actress Marilyn Monroe. By the time he was finalizing preparations for the London production of his two-act version of A View from the Bridge, Miller had already divorced his first wife, in 1956, and married Monroe, on 29 June 1956. During his very public marriage to one of America’s most popular stars, which ended in divorce in 1961, the very private playwright found himself awkwardly dealing with constant attention from the ubiquitous paparazzi and media. The personal trials he suffered in the marriage were vividly recounted in the thinly disguised autobiographical play After the Fall (1964), which was produced just two years after Monroe’s untimely death. When Miller published his autobiography in 1987, he placed the caption “The Best of Times” beneath his wedding picture with Monroe. Allusions to Monroe would also surface much later in Miller’s drama, with characters based on her in Mr. Peters’ Connections (1998) and Finishing the Picture (2004). Undoubtedly, despite the oftentimes turbulent nature of their marital life, Miller never stopped loving the beautiful Hollywood legend.

Miller faced perhaps his biggest crisis as a public artist when he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. Unlike Kazan, who voluntarily cooperated with the committee, Miller refused to provide names and insisted that he would not do or say anything to bring harm upon another person. Held in contempt of Congress, Miller was fined and sentenced to jail, but upon appeal, an upper court reversed the decision. Miller’s courageous act of defiance seemed to imitate his own character’s heroic behavior in The Crucible. From this time until his death, Miller remained a staunch opponent of censorship and a vocal political activist on many societal issues.

As a token of his love for Monroe, Miller transformed one of his short stories into a screenplay and gave his wife the opportunity to play a serious leading role in the dramatic film The Misfits (1961). Shot in the hot desert of Nevada, the film took a terrible toll on Miller’s marriage, as Monroe’s tranquilizer addiction and bouts with depression slowed production and increased the tension between husband and wife. By the end of the film’s production, the couple agreed to divorce. The events of this real-life drama would serve as the basis for Finishing the Picture, Miller’s final play.

On 17 February 1962, in the year after his divorce from Monroe, Miller married the internationally renowned photographer Ingeborg Morath, with whom he would have two children. Miller’s third marriage lasted nearly forty years, until his wife died of cancer in early 2002. By all accounts, the Millers enjoyed a very happy and successful marriage and took readily to the quiet country lifestyle that they found in their home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

In 1965 Miller was elected president of the writers’ association International PEN, and in this capacity, as well as for many years after his term expired, he traveled to countries where dissident writers were incarcerated as political prisoners and petitioned their governments to release them. Until he died, Miller remained active politically, frequently writing opinion pieces for the New York Times, on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to school prayer to capital punishment, and serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and 1972.

Meanwhile, Miller wrote many new plays, continuing his experimentation with dramatic form and his search for answers to life’s most challenging and disturbing questions. After covering the Frankfurt war crimes trials for the New York Herald Tribune in 1964, Miller addressed the horrors of the Holocaust in After the Fall and Incident at Vichy, which were staged at the newly opened Lincoln Center, in New York City, in 1964. These plays emphasized the transcendent importance of acts of forgiveness and of commitments to social responsibility. These themes would also resonate powerfully in his television screenplay Playing for Time (1980) and in his play Broken Glass (1994).

In an oblique commentary on the Vietnam War, The Price (1968) showed how individuals needed to ultimately accept the cost of freedom when society seemed unwilling to challenge corrupt authority and senseless killing abroad. In 1972 Miller ventured into the domain of fantasy by reinventing the book of Genesis in the poorly received Creation of the World and Other Business. With the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974 and the disclosures about hidden tapings in the White House, Miller created a fascinating drama considering the impact that performing for an unseen power must have on one’s sense of reality. The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977) provocatively asks how one can be certain of the nature of reality when one can have no certitude about the presence of concealed recording devices.

In the later phases of his career, Miller authored several one-act plays—including Elegy for a Lady (1983), Some Kind of Love Story (1983), Clara (1987), and I Can’t Remember Anything (1987)—that explored the contours of the human mind struggling to wrest meaning out of the chaos of existence. Miller took a playful look at the confusion inherent in subjective constructions of both memory and individual experience in The Ride down Mt. Morgan (1991). In 1998 Miller offered audiences one of his most fascinating considerations of this theme in Mr. Peters’ Connections.

Throughout his lifetime, Miller wrote extensively and insightfully about the theater; his essays are collected in the revised edition of The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (1996), edited by Robert A. Martin, and in Echoes down the Corridor (2000), edited by Steven R. Centola. He also authored radio plays, screenplays, television plays, short stories, books of reportage, adaptations, memoirs, and even a children’s book.

Miller died on 10 February 2005 of congestive heart failure, after battling cancer and pneumonia, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. His body was laid to rest next to his third wife’s in the Roxbury cemetery. With at least two masterpieces of the modern stage to his credit, namely, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Miller earned himself mention alongside the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. Perhaps even more than these others, Miller can be viewed as the quintessential American playwright, as his impressive body of work by and large directly explores themes and situations that are deeply rooted in the American experience. Miller primarily centered his drama on the family and examined the impact of external pressures on the individual in American society. Whether that pressure derived from cultural stereotypes and myths associated with an impossible dream of perfection or from powerful enticements to embrace conformity for the sake of social acceptance, Miller concentrated on native elements in his construction of plots and in his creation of often unremarkable, and as such quite familiar, characters.

While creating drama that exploded the myth of private life in American society and critiqued the prevailing values governing the American cultural and social experience, Miller demonstrated, as did O’Neill, Williams, and Albee, a keen interest in the deepest stirrings of the human soul. In almost all of his plays, characters face immeasurable challenges from powerful deterministic forces that threaten to crush their spirits. In the face of such challenges, they steadfastly resist reduction and strive to find authentic existential meaning. This humanistic focus gives a deeper metaphysical significance to all of Miller’s plays. In that he centered his drama on the intrinsic conflicts that define the human condition, his plays transcend geographical, cultural, and ideological issues and consistently present potent and hauntingly memorable visions. Miller’s legacy will long endure, and he will forever be remembered as a masterly experimenter with the dramatic art form and as one of America’s greatest playwrights.

The best place to look for accounts of Miller’s life is his autobiography, Timebends: A Life (1987). Biographical entries are also included in his two collections of essays: The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (1996) and Echoes down the Corridor (2000). The first published book-length biography of Miller is Martin Gottfried’s unauthorized study, Arthur Miller: His Life and Work (2003). Miller frequently discussed his life and career in interviews for newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. A good starting point for easy access to many of his most important interviews is Matthew C. Roudane, Conversations with Arthur Miller (1987). Many personal insights are also provided in Chris Bigsby, Arthur Miller and Company (1990); and Steve Centola, Arthur Miller in Conversation (1993). The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television broadcast of Arthur Miller on Home Ground (1980), Harry Rasky’s documentary on Miller, marks one of the first significant full-length documentaries of Miller’s life and career. Detailing many events from the playwright’s life, an important documentary created for PBS television by Michael Epstein is None Without Sin: Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, and the Blacklists (2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times (11 Feb. and 12 Feb. 2005), Chicago Tribune (13 Feb. 2005), and Washington Post (15 Feb. 2005).

Steven R. Centola