Last reviewed: June 2017
American playwright and essayist, vocal opponent of McCarthyism
October 17, 1915
New York, New York
February 10, 2005
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
Arthur Miller, American playwright
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.