Authors: Arthur Miller

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American playwright and essayist, vocal opponent of McCarthyism

October 17, 1915

New York, New York

February 10, 2005

Roxbury, Connecticut

Biography

Along with Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller is usually considered the most important American playwright of the generation that came out of World War II. Miller grew up in a Jewish family in Harlem and in Brooklyn in the years just preceding the Depression. His father, Isidore, was a prosperous businessman until the stock market crash led to the collapse of the economy and to a scarring of his son’s psyche from which he never fully recovered. Arthur Miller spent the 1930’s in a series of odd jobs, including a period in a warehouse that he movingly recollects in A Memory of Two Mondays. He read Fyodor Dostoyevsky on New York subways and dreamed of attending college. In 1938 he fulfilled his dream, attending the University of Michigan, where he soon became interested in drama and successfully competed for the prestigious Avery Hopwood Prize.

Miller’s student plays are full of passion for social issues. They are schematic and somewhat improbable, for he had not yet learned to create complex human characters. Miller was too intent on showing how the force of circumstances and the dictates of society could ruin people’s lives. This tendency to pick arbitrary plots and dwell on outside forces without sufficiently examining his characters’ motives also marred his first two Broadway productions, The Man Who Had All the Luck and All My Sons. Yet the latter play succeeded, for it ably dramatized what was to become one of Miller’s most important themes: the individual’s responsibility for society and obligation to the greater good.

Arthur Miller, American playwright

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By U.S. State Department [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Death of a Salesman made Miller’s reputation as a great playwright. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best American play, and two Tony Awards. The play’s main character, Willy Loman, has become a classic American character, and the play itself has become a fixture of the American literary canon. For the first time, Miller achieved a balance between his reading of individual character and societal pressures. On one hand, Loman is the “low man,” the victim of a culture that values success, prizes a man for what he can sell, and lauds people for being popular—“well liked,” to use one of Willy’s obsessive phrases. On the other hand, Willy realizes that he has not measured up to his own standards. In agonizing moments of the play Loman almost reaches the status of a tragic character, when he senses that a flaw in his character has led to his failure as a businessman. He tries to be relentlessly optimistic in a typically American upbeat way, yet his terrible anger, impatience, and pathetic self-delusions show how easily he can be misled. In one of the play’s most telling moments, Willy expresses his preference for Swiss cheese, rejecting the “processed” American cheese his wife offers him. He almost immediately wonders how cheese is processed. It is Willy’s terrible fate that he should be distracted—“processed”—by a mass-marketed society that destroys his individuality. His suicide is a recognition of his own collaboration in this destruction. Loman passes his self-delusion on to his favorite son Biff, hindering his son’s potential by coercing him into accepting a shallow American Dream and believing that charm and popularity supersede a hard-work ethic.

Miller’s play hit American society with enormous force, for the culture was experiencing an explosive consumerism and a shift toward conformity. Economically and politically, the country seemed in no mood to brook individuality or dissent. Miller’s next three plays—An Enemy of the People, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge—all probed society’s corrosive impact on its members while showing their complicity in their undoing. The Crucible attacks the mass hysteria and deceptions during the Salem witch trials but also serves as Miller’s indictment of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “witch hunt” for Communists. In A View from the Bridge, Miller focuses on Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman who turns in his wife’s relatives (illegal aliens) to the immigration authorities because one of them courts his daughter, for whom he possesses barely suppressed incestuous feelings. As in all Miller’s mature work, the conflicting values in society have their parallel in the individual’s tormented psyche. Nowhere is this clearer than in largely autobiographical After the Fall, in which the main character and narrator, Quentin, reflects bitterly on his dishonesty with himself, comparing it to the hysteria and hypocrisy of the United States from the Depression years to the McCarthy period, when the very notion of dissent became branded as subversion. Quentin’s personal tragedy, his subversion of himself, is thus linked to a society that has undermined itself by losing the trust that must exist among individuals and institutions.

In his later years, Miller took a more universal approach to drama. While several of his plays, such as The Price and The American Clock, have American settings, others, such as Incident at Vichy and The Creation of the World and Other Business, possess European and biblical settings, reflecting his desire to explore the roots of human behavior. Incident at Vichy is a searing study of a group of detainees in France during the German Occupation who examine and cross-examine one another’s motivations and responsibilities toward themselves and humanity. The play demonstrates the need for social responsibility through sacrifice. Playing for Time concerns an all-female orchestra in the concentration camp at Auschwitz that performs in order to save the lives of the musicians. The Creation of the World and Other Business is a surprisingly humorous effort to describe the conflicts inherent in any human organization of society; Up from Paradise is a musical adaptation of Creation. In Broken Glass, a Jewish woman in New York experiences guilt upon viewing newspaper photographs of the mistreatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. Her guilt results in her hysteria and paralysis. Finishing the Picture revisits the making of The Misfits, a screenplay Miller wrote for his second wife, actor Marilyn Monroe.

Miller’s later plays suggest a movement away from his early focus on society as the cause of human troubles. In these works he depicts society as a manifestation of contradictions at the very heart of human existence. He achieved, in his mature work, a melding of psychology and sociology, of the individual and the group, as a way of dramatizing the predicaments not only of his time but also of all times.

Between the late 1960s and mid-1980s, Miller and his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, produced several books together. He also published an autobiography, Timebends, in 1987.

Over the course of his lifetime, Miller amassed a number of awards and honors in recognition of his work. Among them were five Tony Awards, a Special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, two Drama Critics' Circle Awards, two Emmy Awards, and a Gold Medal in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Miller died of heart failure on February 10, 2005, in Roxbury, Connecticut. The play Resurrection Blues (2006), about an imagined Second Coming of Christ in modern Latin America, and the short story collection Presence (2007) were published posthumously.

Author Works Drama: The Golden Years, 1941 The Man Who Had All the Luck, pr. 1944 All My Sons, pr., pb. 1947 Death of a Salesman, pr., pb. 1949 An Enemy of the People, pr. 1950 (adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play) The Crucible, pr., pb. 1953 A Memory of Two Mondays, pr., pb. 1955 A View from the Bridge, pr., pb. 1955 (one-act version) A View from the Bridge, pr. 1956 (two-act version) Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, pb. 1957 (includes All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A Memory of Two Mondays, and A View from the Bridge) After the Fall, pr., pb. 1964 Incident at Vichy, pr. 1964 The Price, pr., pb. 1968 The Creation of the World and Other Business, pr. 1972 The American Clock: A Vaudeville, pr. 1980 Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, Volume II, pb. 1981 (includes The Misfits, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, The Price, The Creation of the World and Other Business, and Playing for Time) The Archbishop’s Ceiling, pr., pb. 1984 Elegy for a Lady, 1982 Some Kind of Love Story, 1983 Two-Way Mirror: A Double-Bill of “Elegy for a Lady” and “Some Kind of Love Story”, pb. 1984 Up from Paradise: A Musical, 1984 (book and lyrics; music by Stanley Silverman) Playing for Time, 1985 Danger: Memory! Two Plays, pb. 1986 Plays: One, pb. 1988 Plays: Three, pb. 1990 The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, pr., pb. 1991 The Last Yankee, pb. 1991 Broken Glass, pr., pb. 1994 Plays: Two, pb. 1994 Plays: Four, pb. 1994 Plays: Five, pb. 1995 Mr. Peters’ Connections, pr. 1998 Finishing the Picture, 2004 Resurrection Blues, 2006 Collected Plays, 1987-2004: With Stage and Radio Plays of the 1930s & 40s, 2015 (Tony Kushner, editor) Long Fiction: Focus, 1945 The Misfits, 1961 Short Fiction: I Don’t Need You Any More, 1967 (revised as The Misfits, and Other Stories, 1985) Homely Girl, A Life, and Other Stories, 1995 Presence: Stories, 2007 Screenplays: The Misfits, 1960 Playing for Time, 1980 Everybody Wins, 1990 The Crucible, 1996 (adaptation of his play) Nonfiction: Situation Normal, 1944 In Russia, 1969 (photo essay; with Inge Morath) In the Country, 1977 (photo essay; with Morath) The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, 1978, revised and expanded 1996 (Robert A. Martin, editor) Chinese Encounters, 1979 (photo essay; with Morath) “Salesman” in Beijing, 1984 Conversations with Arthur Miller, 1987 (Matthew C. Roudané, editor) Spain, 1987 Timebends: A Life, 1987 Arthur Miller and Company, 1990 (Christopher Bigsby, editor) Arthur Miller in Conversation, 1993 (with Steve Centola) “The Crucible” in History, and Other Essays, 2000 Echoes down the Corridor: Collected Essays, 1947-2000, 2000 (Steven Centola, editor) On Politics and the Art of Acting, 2001 Conversations with Miller, 2002 (with Mel Gussow) Anthology: The Portable Arthur Miller, 1995 (Christopher Bigsby, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Jane’s Blanket, 1963 (illustrated by Al Parker) Bibliography Als, Hilton. "Losing Battles." New Yorker, 23 Nov. 2015, pp. 115–17. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=110935117&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 27 Mar. 2017. Reviews productions of Miller's plays A View from the Bridge and Incident at Vichy, which the author views as morality plays. Bigsby, Christopher. Arthur Miller. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Even though this biography covers only the first 48 years of Miller’s life, it is nearly 800 pages long and is rich in detail. Bigsby covers Miller’s childhood, writing, politics, and marriages. It is a more thorough study of Miller’s life than even his 1987 autobiography. This book is essential for any scholar of Arthur Miller. Bigsby, Christopher, ed. Arthur Miller and Company. London: Methuen, 1990. A series of impressions on Miller’s works from noted writers and theater personalities. Presents a variety of insights into Miller and his work. Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains a detailed chronology, an essay on the tradition of social drama, and chapters on the early plays, the major plays, and Arthur Miller in each of the decades from the 1960’s through the 1990’s. There follow chapters on Miller’s involvement with cinema, his fiction, and his relationship with criticism and critics. Includes a bibliographic essay and an index. Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This volume consists of essays on Miller’s major drama from All My Sons to The American Clock, a brief introduction discussing Miller’s significance, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index. Includes important early essays (Raymond Williams and Tom F. Driver on the playwright’s strengths and weaknesses) and later criticism by Neil Carson, C. W. E. Bigsby, and E. Miller Buddick. Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Contains critical discussions published between 1963 and 1987, a chronology of Miller’s life, a comprehensive bibliography of books and articles, and an index. In spite of reservations about Miller’s importance as a writer, Bloom explains in his introduction how the play “achieves true aesthetic dignity” and discusses the particular merits of the essays in this collection. Brater, Encoh. Arthur Miller: A Playwright’s Life and Works. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005. A basic introduction to Miller and some of his best-known plays, including 70 black and white photos. Brater, Enoch, ed. Arthur Miller’s America: Theater and Culture in a Time of Change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. A collection of essays by Miller scholars. Gottfried, Martin. Arthur Miller: His Life and Work. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo, 2003. The first full-length biography of Miller, this profile discusses the playwright’ work in the context of his life. Koon, Helene Wickham, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Death of a Salesman.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. These essays from the 1960’s and 1970’s emphasize the play’s cultural significance, its status as a modern classic, and its style and point of view. The introduction provides a brief biography, a discussion of Miller’s major themes, the play’s relationship to classical tragedy, and his manipulation of time. Includes a brief bibliography and chronology of events in Miller’s life and times. Koorey, Stefani. Arthur Miller’s Life and Literature. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2000. A bibliographic resource to primary and secondary sources. Martine, James. Crucible: Politics, Property, and Pretense. New York: Twayne, 1993. An in-depth analysis of The Crucible from a number of viewpoints, including the historical context of McCarthyism, its place in Miller’s oeuvre, and how it fits into the genre of tragedy. Murphy, Brenda. Miller: Death of a Salesman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. This comprehensive treatment of Miller’s play Death of a Salesman discusses its Broadway production, productions in English and in other languages, and media productions. Also provides a production chronology, a discography, a videography, and an extensive bibliography and index. Schleuter, June, and James K. Flanagan. Arthur Miller. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. Contains a comprehensive narrative chronology, a thorough first chapter on Miller’s literature and life to 1985, chapter length discussions of his major plays (including The Archbishop’s Ceiling), and a concluding chapter on his later one-act plays. Extensive notes, bibliography of Miller’s work in all genres, select secondary bibliography of books and articles, and index.

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