Miller, Arthur (1915—)

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Miller, Arthur (1915—)

Arthur Miller is probably America's most famous living and most enduring playwright. From the production of his first play in the 1930s through the 1990s, Miller has continually sought to explore and demystify the foundations upon which American power was built. During the 1950s, in particular, Miller risked his artistic career in order to expose the lies and hysteria that underpinned the McCarthy era. As a symbol of artistic integrity and resistance, his plays contain universal themes that have transcended their American origins; few other American playwrights can claim to be so heavily and consistently produced throughout the world. Miller has written more than 50 plays, stories, and novels, and he still continues to fascinate because of his marriage in the 1950s to Marilyn Monroe.

Born October 17, 1915, in New York, Miller was raised in a middle-class Jewish household in Harlem supported by his father's coat manufacturing business. The impact of the Depression, however, forced the family to move to Brooklyn. After high school, Miller enrolled at the University of Michigan, then a hotbed of leftist activity. He began to write his first plays while still at college. Miller's origins and experiences heavily influenced these early plays as Jewish themes coexisted with a socialism that was the product of the Depression. After college, Miller briefly worked for the Federal Theatre Project, and following its closure by Congress, he wrote radio plays for CBS and NBC. Miller tried to enlist during World War II, but a school football injury kept him out of the armed forces. It was not until the end of the war that Miller began to make a name for himself.

In 1947 Miller's All My Sons was produced in New York, which was followed by Death of a Salesman, Miller's major achievement, in 1949. Both these plays introduced Miller to the New York theatre-going community as a controversial young playwright, unafraid to expose the negative effects of capitalism and wartime corruption on typical American families and the "common man." Several awards, including the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the year for Death of a Salesman, and positive critical reception signaled Miller's arrival on the American dramatic scene. Despite his new fame and unlike many of his colleagues, Miller chose to remain within the theatre industry rather than adopting Hollywood as his new home.

It was during the period of McCarthyism, at the height of the domestic Cold War in America, that Miller wrote his best plays and became an international figure. The deleterious effects of U.S. foreign policy and McCarthyism on artistic freedoms concerned Miller. His most famous play, The Crucible (1953), took witch-hunting as an analogy for the contemporary situation. It has since become an enduring metaphor not only for McCarthyism, but also for any system of domestic repression, and hence is still produced all over the world today. This was followed up by A View from the Bridge (1955), which attacked the current vogue for informing and naming names before the various senate and congressional investigating committees that was required as a test of political loyalty. These anti-McCarthy plays, together with his support for many leftist causes, led many to label Miller as subversive. On the pretext of a misuse of his passport, the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Miller in 1956 to account for his various actions. Miller refused to name names during his hearing and was thus cited for contempt of Congress. It was this "unfriendly" stance that set Miller apart from many of his colleagues in the film and theatre industries and contributed to his international reputation as a man of integrity. While many other liberal intellectuals were diving for cover or actively cooperating with the McCarthy witch-hunts, Miller stood out as symbol of uncompromising resistance at a time when most forms of cultural creativity were steadily being destroyed.

His fame increased further as a result of his private rather than public life. In 1956 Miller announced his engagement to 1950s icon Marilyn Monroe. Miller—the nerdy, Jewish intellectual from Brook-lyn—had inexplicably attracted the most desired woman in America. Miller wrote The Misfits for his new wife, and she starred in the film of the same name in 1960. They divorced the following year. Their marriage was, in part, the subject of Miller's first play in nine years, After the Fall (1964), and he reflected upon their relationship in his autobiography, Timebends (1987).

In 1962, Miller's life entered a new phase. He married his third wife, professional photographer Inge Morath. Following his experience of Nazi trials in 1959, Miller openly turned to very personal issues in his work. After the Fall, Incident at Vichy (1964), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), Playing for Time (1980), and Broken Glass (1994) all dealt with the universal issues of the Holocaust and "man's inhumanity towards man." These plays continued his lifelong fascination with the problem of evil and the responsibility of the individual. He also wrote other plays concerned with family, identity, and memory. In addition, Miller wrote many articles and short stories, and he continued to be politically active, becoming the president of PEN in 1965 and an anti-Vietnam campaigner.

—Nathan Abrams

Further Reading:

Bigsby, Christopher, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Martin, Robert, editor. The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller. London, Methuen, 1994.

Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. London, Methuen, 1987.

Welland, Dennis. Arthur Miller: The Playwright. London and New York, Methuen, 1983.

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Miller, Arthur (1915—)

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