Article abstract: Considered one of the foremost dramatists in the United States, Miller has penetrated the American consciousness and gained worldwide recognition for his probing dramas of social awareness.
On October 17, 1915, Arthur Miller, son of Jewish immigrants, was born in Manhattan in New York. His father, Isadore, ran a prosperous garment business, and his mother, Augusta Barnett, was at onetime a school teacher. When Isadore’s firm began to fail in 1928, the Millers moved to Brooklyn, an area that would be the model for the settings of All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949). He inherited a strong sense of mysticism from his mother that would inform his later work. As a young boy, Miller came to resent his father’s withdrawal from failure. The figure of the failed father would play a significant role in Miller’s plays.
The young Miller came of age during the Great Depression, and seeing once-prosperous people on the streets begging for work deeply affected him. To Miller, the Depression signified the failure of a system and the tragedy of a generation of people who would blame this failure on themselves. The Depression’s impact on the aspects of personal success and failure would lead Miller to probe into individuals’ relations to their work and the price they had to pay for success or lack of it.
Like Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman, Miller was more of an athlete than a scholar. He read mostly adventure novels and some Charles Dickens. Unable to get into college, he worked for his father and became moved by the sad plight of salesmen. After a series of odd jobs, Miller worked in an auto parts warehouse, where he was able to save $500 for college on a $15-per-week job. He recreated this experience in A Memory of Two Mondays (1955). While working, Miller became an avid reader and was especially impressed with Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912), a novel that focuses on a failed father, fraternal rivalry, and a trial motif, themes that would repeatedly occur in Miller’s works.
After much convincing, Miller finally got accepted into the University of Michigan, where he became interested in social causes and began to form his liberal philosophy. He studied playwriting under Kenneth Rowe and won two Hopwood Awards, in 1936, for “No Villain” and in 1937, for “Honor at Dawn.” In 1938, he won the Theater Guild National Award for “They Too Arise.” Following the style of the 1930’s, Miller’s early plays focus on young idealists fighting to eliminate social injustice. After college, he worked for the Federal Theater Project and wrote radio scripts. In 1944, he tried to recreate the feelings of the ordinary soldier in his screenplay for The Story of G. I. Joe but was thwarted by motion-picture executives who wanted him to romanticize his work. That same year, he had his first Broadway production, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944). This drama of a man dismayed by his incredible success was a flop.
After this initial failure, Miller rose up to become one of the United States’ leading playwrights and gained an international reputation. In 1947, Miller achieved his first success with All My Sons, the tragedy of Joe Keller who, in order to save his business, sells defective airplane parts to the military and leaves his partner to bear the blame. He indirectly becomes responsible for the death of his own son, who condemns his father’s action and flies a suicide mission. Faced with the guilt for many deaths, Keller kills himself.
In 1949, Death of a Salesman achieved unprecedented critical acclaim and established Miller as a significant American playwright. Willy Loman, an unsuccessful salesman, relives his past, trying to discover the reasons for his failure. Unable to accept failure, he pressures his son into far-fetched business schemes and commits suicide in order to leave his son the legacy of his insurance. In 1949, Death of a Salesman won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The play ran for 742 performances. In 1966, the television production played to seventeen million people. In 1975, it was successfully produced at the Circle in the Square with George C. Scott in the lead; in 1984, it played Broadway again with Dustin Hoffman in the lead. In 1985, Hoffman was featured in a new television production of the play. Furthermore, Death of a Salesman has been acclaimed and produced around the world. In his book Salesman in Beijing (1984), Miller documents an unprecedented Chinese production. The play still appears in most college anthologies and continues to be taught as an American classic.
Disturbed by the repressive climate of the 1950’s Cold War, the scare tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the betrayal by his one-time liberal friends who cited names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Miller wrote The Crucible (1953), which connected the witch hunts of seventeenth century Salem with the hunt for Communists of the 1950’s. In The Crucible, Miller shows how an ordinary individual living in a repressive community gains tragic stature by sacrificing his life rather than betraying his conscience. The Crucible opened on Broadway in 1953 to a lukewarm reception but was later revived Off-Broadway with more success. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the screenplay for the French film version of The Crucible, Les Sorcieres de Salem (1955). In 1961, The Crucible was converted into an opera, and, in 1967, it was adapted for television with George C. Scott in the lead role. In 1997, it was made into a motion picture with Miller writing the screenplay. According to Miller, The Crucible is his most frequently produced work both in the United States and abroad.
His next works were two one-act plays: A Memory of Two Mondays (1955) and A View from the Bridge (1955). An expanded version of A View from the Bridge (1956) told the story of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman who is driven by incestuous desires for his niece to inform on his niece’s boyfriend and other illegal immigrants living with him.
During the mid-1950’s, Miller entered a troubled period of his life. After divorcing his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery, Miller married film star Marilyn Monroe and became involved in her turbulent career. He was also cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Although acquitted on appeal, this ordeal took a financial and emotional toll on him. In 1961, his marriage to Monroe ended in divorce; in 1962, he married photographer Ingeborg Morath.
After a nine-year hiatus from the American stage, Miller wrote After the Fall (1964) and Incident at Vichy (1964). Both plays dealt with the universal guilt associated with the genocide of the Jews. Miller returned to the form of family drama with The Price (1968), a drama depicting the rivalry of two brothers. Continuing to experiment, Miller wrote The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), a comedy based on Genesis; The American Clock (1980), a montage view of the Depression focusing on the trials of one family; The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1984), a play about power and oppression in a European Communist country; and Danger: Memory! (1986), two short, symbolic dramas exploring the mysteries hidden in past actions.
In the 1990’s, Miller experienced a resurgence. The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991) captures the gaudy materialism and egotistical self-absorption of 1980’s America. As scenes from his life pass before him in his hospital room, an insurance magnate and bigamist lives for the unabated gratification of his pleasures as he struggles with the phantom of death. In The Last Yankee (1991), Miller examines the marital relationships of two women confined to a mental institution—one who cannot adjust to her husband’s apparent failure to achieve the American Dream and the other isolated by the success of a husband who can only give her material comforts. In this play, Miller critiques the immigrant dream of unbridled success and issues a plea for self-acceptance. In Broken Glass (1994), Miller probes the indifference to the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews by exploring the psyche of a Jewish woman in New York who undergoes hysterical paralysis when confronted with both an impotent, demanding husband and a world on the brink of chaos. Mr. Peters’ Connections (1998) captures the inner world of a retired and ailing airplane pilot sitting in a broken-down saloon watching the phantoms of his past inexplicably parade before him. In Mr. Peters’s inability to find continuity in the events of his life, Miller focuses on the alienation of modern humans in an ever-changing world. In the plays of the 1990’s, Miller continued to examine private relationships in light of social criticism.
Between 1997 and 1998, Miller saw the revival in New York of All My Sons, The American Clock, I Can’t Remember Anything (a part of Danger: Memory!), The Last Yankee, and A View from the Bridge, which won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Revival. Miller continued producing new plays, and the continuous revivals of his dramas both onstage and on television and his burgeoning international reputation have kept Miller in the forefront of American theater.
Miller, a serious dramatist who believes in drama’s ability to effect change, explores the social as well as the psychological aspects of his characters. For him, individual dilemmas cannot be removed from their social contexts. His dramas attempt to go beyond simple protest pieces or self-absorbed psychological studies to deal with moral and ethical issues. He is interested in how ordinary individuals can live in unity and harmony with their fellow humans without sacrificing their individual dignity.
Although labeled a realist, Miller has experimented with a number of innovative dramatic techniques. Also, Miller’s poetic use of idiomatic speech and his subtle deployment of dramatic symbols show that his drama has moved beyond photographic realism. Using a variety of approaches, Miller most often puts characters in confrontation with their past actions so that they may define themselves not only in terms of their social situation but also in terms of their moral convictions. Miller’s ability to probe the human psyche as well as to question the social fabric of the United States has made him a towering presence in the American theater.
Arthur Miller examines both the psychological and sociological makeup of his troubled characters. His heroes are common men who relentlessly pursue either their firm convictions or their misguided illusions. Using family relationships as a starting point, Miller’s plays confront contemporary moral dilemmas and focus on people’s responsibility to be true to themselves as well as their responsibility to be a part of the human race. In showing how individuals confront their past actions, Miller employs a variety of dramatic forms, including flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness monologues, direct narration, and dynamic symbols. His concern with the struggle to define oneself in a troubled world has made him a popular American playwright and has also gained him worldwide attention.
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. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A comprehensive examination of Miller’s work that includes not only his major works but also his fiction and cinema. Contains an exhaustive bibliographic essay and a chronology of Miller’s life.
Carson, Neil. Arthur Miller. New York: Macmillan, 1982. A good introductory work to Miller’s major plays with chapters on his early work and nontheatrical writings.
Schlueter, June, and James K. Flanagan. Arthur Miller. New York: Ungar, 1987. Contains a detailed analysis of Miller’s major and minor plays, a concise biography that includes his political activity, a detailed chronology of his life and works, and a bibliography of his primary works, including radio plays and unpublished manuscripts.
Welland, Dennis. Arthur Miller: The Playwright. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 1985. A thorough analysis of Miller’s major work, including a detailed list of American and British premieres of Miller’s plays and films and a short bibliography.