Last Updated on May 22, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4072
Miller, Arthur 1915–
Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, author of Death of a Salesman, A View From the Bridge, After the Fall, and The Price. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 6, 10, 15, 26, 179.
Miller's tragedies … tend to fluctuate, often uneasily, between Greek drama with its emphasis on external causes (though Miller tries to avoid its fatalism) and Christian drama, which involves freedom and responsibility and which seeks the source of tragedy in the individual. His drama is unlike both in that for the most part it rejects a religious framework. Miller, like most modern tragedians, has been seeking a new explanation of the human situation with its tragic aspects. He seeks it in naturalistic and humanistic terms, not transcendental ones. Our ignorance, our lack of consciousness, is remediable. Our man-made ethical system, though incomplete and faulty, can be improved. Our environment, which restricts and defeats us, which prevents us realizing ourselves (a failure which to Miller is the heart of the tragic experience) can be changed—if we will.
M. W. Steinberg, "Arthur Miller and the Idea of Modern Tragedy," in Dalhousie Review, Vol. XL, 1960, pp. 329-40.
[Miller's] writing, although it usually has an axe to grind, does not attempt to startle society with new ideas. Indeed, he does not believe that the theatre can promulgate entirely new ideas, because it must gather the assent of its audience as it moves along, and this is impossible with the radically new…. What Miller asks for is a theatre of "heightened consciousness." He speaks of two passions in man, the "passion to feel" and the "passion to know."… [But] Miller seems to flinch before that assertive act of the imagination which uncovers (or, in religious language, receives) the ontological ground upon which the truly meaningful act must stand. This is a level of the real which Miller has not yet explored, although it is the level demanded of one who would break out of the confusions that enveloped Willy Loman.
Tom F. Driver, "Strength and Weakness in Arthur Miller" (reprinted by permission of the author © 1960 by Tulane Drama Review), in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. IV, No. 4, 1960, pp. 45-52.
Mr. Miller's steadfast, one might almost say selfless, refusal of complexity, the assured simplicity of his view of human behavior, may be the chief source of his ability to captivate the educated audience. He is an oddly depersonalized writer; one tries in vain to define his special quality, only to discover that it is perhaps not a quality at all, but something like a method, and even as a method strangely bare: his plays are as neatly put together and essentially as empty as that skeleton of a house which made Death of a Salesman so impressively confusing. He is the playwright of an audience that believes the frightening complexities of history and experience are to be met with a few ideas, and yet does not even possess these ideas any longer but can only point significantly at the place where they were last seen and where it is hoped they might still be found to exist.
Robert Warshow, in his The Immediate Experience, Doubleday, 1962, p. 194.
[The] plays of Miller have more than a merely structural similarity to those of Sophocles and Racine and Ibsen. Like the plays of those earlier men, Miller's also vitally embody the austere tragic spirit. That embodiment, in a time which is overwhelmingly eclectic and experimental, gives the real meaning and the real importance to the work of Arthur Miller. (p. 6)
[The] premise … that the most valid and fertile subject for the drama is the attempt to show man struggling to be at one with society … is basic to all of Miller's work up to The Misfits. (p. 8)
Despite the realistic manner of The Man Who Had All the Luck, All My Sons, and The Crucible, Miller has never regarded realism as an end in itself, but only as a tool to be mastered…. In his mature plays, Miller has been absorbed by the problems that Ibsenian realism did not quite satisfactorily solve. These are the problems of how to range more broadly through time and of how to probe more deeply into the mind than the front-parlor drama allows. Without wishing to curtail the objectivity of realism, he has wanted to combine with it some of the subjective strength to be found in various nonrealistic manners like that of the dream play or expressionism…. His most effective way so far of solving this problem is by the technique of the narrator which he first used in [his] early radio plays. (p. 10)
Miller is attempting in [his] first book [Situation Normal] exactly what he would attempt again and again in his mature plays—to give to individual man, from the workings of society, his reason for existence, his personal significance, and his morality. Here his quest seems quixotic, for, although there were broad, underlying political and economic reasons for the war, those reasons had little connection with the individual soldier. In Situation Normal Miller is rationalizing, almost creating the connection. In his subsequent work up to The Misfits, he continued to search for connections. To an extent with The Misfits and almost totally with After the Fall, Miller seems to have given up the search, so actually one might read his career to date as a growing disillusionment with social idealism. (p. 12)
To many viewers [Death of a Salesman] seemed the most meaningful and moving statement made about American life upon the stage in a great many years, and it is still generally considered Miller's masterpiece…. It is difficult to say what makes a character attain [the] rare meaningfulness [that is represented by Willy Loman]. Perhaps Willy's universal quality stems, paradoxically, from his well-developed individuality. Certainly his broad meaningfulness partly stems from the compassion with which he is presented. With all of his faults—his weakness, his density, his petty irritations and self-delusions—this compassion yet remains dominant in the mind of the audience. Perceptive people probably consider that their own characters are similar compounds of weakness, delusion, and folly, but each man recognizes in himself, beneath his weight of self-criticism, an alleviating quality, a basic humanity. Whatever he has done, he at least meant well…. All of his plays are condemnations of human nature, but Death of a Salesman condemns with pity and sorrow. (pp. 20-1)
In theme and technique, the play accomplishes exactly what Miller wanted. It is not confined to Ibsen's front parlor or to the few hours preceding the climax nor do we have to interpret what a person feels merely from what he says. The play beautifully balances the interior of a man's mind with a full evocation of his world. (p. 23)
The Crucible is a strong play, and its conclusion has much of the force of tragedy. It has not the permeating compassion of Death of a Salesman, but there is more dramatic power to John Proctor's death than there was to Willy's. It is a harder hitting play, and its impact stems from Proctor's death being really a triumph. You cannot pity a man who triumphs. Willy Loman's death was a failure, and his suicide only a gesture of defeat. Him you can pity. (p. 27)
The plots of Death of a Salesman are not the center of the play, but in The Crucible the action is the play's very basis, its consuming center. One watches Death of a Salesman to discover what a man is like, but one watches The Crucible to discover what a man does. Death of a Salesman is a tour de force that succeeds despite its slim action because its real center is the accumulation of enough significant detail to suggest a man. In the life of John Proctor, one single action is decisive, dominating, and totally pertinent, and this action, this moment of decision and commitment, is that climax toward which every incident in the play tends. Death of a Salesman is not traditionally dramatic, at least in the Aristotelian sense that the center of a drama is an action. The Crucible is so dramatic, and the centrality of its plot explains its greater strength. (p. 28)
One of the clichés about Miller is that he has no humor. There is really a great deal of humor in his work, and in no place is it more theatrically effective than in [the] superb little tragicomedy [A Memory of Two Mondays]. Miller himself calls the play "a pathetic comedy," and it would be hairsplitting to quarrel with his definition. There is [however] more of pathos than of tragedy in the play. (p. 31)
Miller has frequently gone on record as being opposed to plays which aim for easy theatrical effect rather than for significant point. His point is clearly made in A View from the Bridge, but the many touches of pervasive sympathy that made Willy Loman and Gus humanly relevant are missing…. Whether he can dispense with the easy emotional effect and force an austere and intellectual drama upon the modern stage is highly debatable. (pp. 34-5)
After the Fall … was so obviously based on Miller's life that its true merits were at first difficult to see…. After the Fall is very possibly a masterpiece…. At any rate, After the Fall is Miller's most intellectually probing play, and Quentin is a central character too complicated to be summed up by simple reaction of love and pity. The play tells what happens to a man after the loss of intellectual innocence, after his Fall. (p. 39)
Technically [After the Fall] is a brilliant accomplishment. In it Miller solves his perennial problem of how to retain sufficient real psychology and a full feel of the real world and at the same time to attain a free flow of time and to probe more deeply into a man's mind than conventional realism allows. This play manages all of these matters without falling into the pitfalls of extreme expressionism or of the Theater of the Absurd. The play is told to an invisible narrator who might be, as Miller remarks, Quentin's analyst or God, but who really is Quentin himself. (p. 43)
Robert Hogan, in his Arthur Miller ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 40), University of Minnesota Press, © 1964 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scriber's, © 1973).
Miller's recent writing has been so uncompromisingly bad that one is tempted to say that he never was any good. Laid out in a critic's morgue, his Brooklyn plays don't look as impressive as they did: social moralities from the thirties (we are all guilty) crossbred with psychiatry-mongering from the forty-fifties (relax, nobody's guilty) to the disadvantage of both. To be stranded between Clifford Odets and William Inge is to be stranded indeed.
But the plays do not belong in a morgue yet, they belong on a stage. And there, to judge from the current revival of A View from the Bridge, they still work. This is the last of the early Miller: with this one he has already begun moving away from the old neighborhood, the voice is getting thinner. His people are heavily mythologized and dreamlike. The poverty of language, which is to embarrass him sorely when he tries writing about less primitive people, is already weakening his big effects….
But the play works: you can sit in the stalls ticking off its defects all evening, but in the end something has happened. And the thought occurs that perhaps Miller was always trying to write bad plays, and that this was a sizable step in that direction, but that he still was some way from mastering the art. The cheap-jack universalizing, the sociological gospel-singing, the terrible flatness of characterization are there in force, have been there all along, in fact, but there is something else working vigorously against them.
To put it briefly, Miller's characters up to and through this play were always more specific than he meant them to be. He left out details, in the hope that we would see his people as Giant Myths: but luckily for him, we didn't need details. The basic Miller family had an unmistakable flavor: we knew the neighborhood, the school, what year the characters had dropped out, how many payments were due on the car.
Wilfrid Sheed, "A View from the Bridge" (1965), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp,; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 168-71.
[Arthur Miller's] plays do register indignant protests against injustice; they do suggest a humanistic thesis on mutual responsibility. In his best writing, however, that thesis is implied in the psychological consequences of fanatic self-assertion, not prescribed in "moralistic" pronouncements on "the right way of living." Miller's forte is to visualize the causal complexities and the intensity of deeply personal motives: his moral insight focuses most clearly upon subjective process. (p. 9)
Though intrigued by "interior psychological questions," Arthur Miller has tried in his plays to create a "sense of dealing with an existing objective fact." One way he does this is to draw upon history or autobiography for his plots and characters. With the possible exception of Focus, his only novel, all his writing alludes in some manner to actual persons and events. Usually such references are unobtrusive; sometimes, as in The Crucible and in After the Fall, they are quite prominent. (p. 21)
Arthur Miller has always addressed his drama to "a whole people asking a basic question and demanding its answer." From the beginning, however, he often presented his basic questions and answers in the form of generalized proposals. Ethical abstractions—usually of wide social relevance—dominate the early works…. Later, needless to say, Miller became more adept at shaping an outlook with the mannerisms as well as with the rational content of colloquial speech, but all his writing shows a tendency to make the themes explicit. The habit evidences high seriousness; unfortunately, it has also caused serious stylistic difficulties. (p. 31)
Arthur Miller has focused upon a single subject—"the struggle … of the individual attempting to gain his 'rightful' position in his society" and in his family. Miller's chief characters, whether they eventually revise their objectives or remain rigidly defensive, are motivated by an obsession to justify themselves; they fix their identities through radical acts of ego-assertion…. The author's moral bias is clearly evident in these divergent reactions. Individuals can buttress their own and society's stability by resisting "hatred" and "exclusiveness." Or individuals can upset social equilibrium by enforcing the exaggerated demands of a narrow egoism. Lawrence Newman and John Proctor (among others) strengthen their communities even though they defy popular standards; Willy Loman and Joe Keller adopt popular standards but become estranged from both family and society because of their uncompromising self-will. Extreme egocentrism inevitably thwarts a man's constructive energies: the only way to acquire dignity is to respect the dignity of others. (pp. 101-02)
Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill have done more than other American dramatists to "relate the subjective to the objective truth": Death of a Salesman and O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night are two of the finest works in the American theater. Contrary to Miller's assertion, however, there is in his plays a contradiction between passion and awareness, between irrational impulse and rational concept. His best dialogue mirrors psychological conditions, yet he constantly returns to the formal generalization; he can skillfully manipulate emotional tension, yet he seeks esthetic detachment; his figures act most intelligibly in a family context, yet he feels obliged to make explicit their connection with a social "environment." Miller sees his principal subject—the drive for self-justification—primarily as an internal process activated by "mechanisms" that repress or involuntarily recall shameful memories and motives, that effect rapid transitions between taut and relaxed moods. When his characters fervently defend egocentric attitudes, their futility evokes a genuine sense of terror and pathos that indirectly but powerfully reinforces his thesis on the necessity for "meaningful" accommodation in society. When, on the other hand, his characters intelligently reform, their self-knowledge remains only a rhetorical promise. (p. 108)
Miller's construction, if rarely flawless, is never formless; his metaphors, if sometimes obvious, are sometimes subtle. It is the dialogue that swings between extremes of brilliance and insipidity. Colloquial speech may be heard in an amazing variety of accents—Irish, Swedish, German, Sicilian, Slavic, Barbados, Yiddish, Puritan, Brooklyn, Southwestern, and Midwestern. (p. 114)
Leonard Moss, in his Arthur Miller, Twayne, 1967.
Miller has returned to the stage dressed in prophetic robes, clothed in a ponderousness that his early plays usually escaped. It is as though he came back not as a playwright, but as The Playwright—with a capital letter, an image of eminence, a sense of his own high seriousness and his duty as an artist. But this is being unfair to the new Miller. He has always taken himself seriously as an artist, and he has always taken seriously the artist's function in society. If the new plays are inferior to the early ones—and I think they are—their shortcomings can best be seen in recognizing that there is not a complete break between early and late Miller. There are similarities in idea, in technique, in language. To understand what is new in the most recent Miller, it is best to look at his work as a whole, to attempt to understand what he has wanted to say and how he has tried to say it from the beginning….
If a playwright is to be concerned with both psychological man and social man, as Miller's definition of social drama says he must, he is inevitably forced to deal with the problem of identity. This is what Miller has always written about, and it is as clearly the subject of Incident at Vichy as it is of All My Sons….
The disappointment that many of us feel at the new plays should not be taken as a condemnation of Miller's work. He is still one of our most important playwrights, with three good plays and one extremely fine one to his credit. To have written Death of a Salesman is an achievement of such significance that Arthur Miller can be allowed a slip, or even a Fall.
Gerald Weales, "Arthur Miller" (Chapter 8), in The American Theatre Today, edited by Alan S. Downer, Basic Books, Inc., Publishers (New York), 1967, pp. 85-98.
[Arthur] Miller's theatre has never been experimentally avant-garde: from his beginnings he has aimed at a critical clarification of the already existent attitudes of liberal-minded American theatregoers. His plays are written for and largely from the point of view of a man whose attitudes are not radical and innovatory but puzzled, confused and absolutely resolved not to break with his fellow countrymen. He has maintained his theatre as nearly popular as an intellectual playwright may and still be tolerated on Broadway since the 1940's….
In his plays, Miller's restless social conscience moves towards the logical nihilism of Incident at Vichy—from the sociality of the 'thirties, through the confused liberalism of the 'forties, to the bewildered emptiness of the 'sixties. The plays are the barometer of his audience, measuring through his own sense of the pressures of the last quarter of a century.
Eric Mottram, "Arthur Miller: The Development of a Political Dramatist in America," in American Theatre (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies No. 10), edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Edward Arnold, 1967.
Miller is a moralist. A moralist is a man who believes he possesses the truth and aims to convince others of it. In Miller this moralistic trait stems from a strong family feeling. In this context the father as prime authority and guide is central. From The Man Who Had All the Luck through Death of a Salesman the father stands for virtue and value; to his sons he is the personification of Right and Truth….
The struggle represented in all of Miller's work, of which After the Fall is a central turning point, achieves a special eloquence for us in the American particularity of its tone and speech. There is a plainness, a kind of neighborhood friendliness and good humor, one might say a saving ordinariness, which gives Miller's dialogue a special appeal. The literary or aesthetic "purist" who deplores this element of Miller's talent is as remote from our reality as those who once found nothing more in Huckleberry Finn than a story for kids.
Miller is a popular writer. This may be a limitation but it is more probably a strength. Those who wept over Willy Loman, whether his story exemplifies true Tragedy or not, are closer to the truth of our day than those who want it told to them in monumental or quasi-mythical symbols for all time.
There is besides the comforting familiarity of Miller's expression an enthusiasm which mingles a deep-rooted American idealism with an age-old Hebraic fervor, a quality which mounts from hearth and home to the elevation of an altar. Miller's dialogue, coined from the energetic and flavorsome palaver of the streets, is finally wrought into something close to prophetic incantation.
Harold Clurman, "Arthur Miller's Later Plays," in Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert W. Corrigan, Prentice-Hall, 1969, pp. 143-68.
Each of [Arthur Miller's] plays written prior to The Misfits is a judgment of a man's failure to maintain a viable connection with his surrounding world because he does not know himself. The verdict is always guilty, and it is a verdict based upon Miller's belief that if each man faced up to the truth about himself, he could be fulfilled as an individual and still live within the restrictions of society. But while Miller's judgments are absolute, they are also exceedingly complex. There is no doubt that he finally stands foursquare on the side of the community, but until the moment when justice must be served, his sympathies are for the most part directed toward those ordinary little men who never discovered who they really were.
A Miller protagonist belongs to a strange breed. In every instance he is unimaginative, inarticulate … and physically nondescript, if not downright unattractive. His roles as husband and father (or father-surrogate) are of paramount importance to him, and yet he fails miserably in both. He wants to love and be loved, but he is incapable of either giving or receiving love. And he is haunted by aspirations toward a joy in life that his humdrum spirit is quite unable to realize. Yet, in spite of all these negative characteristics, Miller's protagonists do engage our imagination and win our sympathies….
For the past quarter of a century a disturbingly large percentage of the plays written for the American theatre have tended to be case histories of all forms of social and psychological aberration. For Arthur Miller, who has been a major figure during the whole period, this has not been the case; he has insisted with a continually broadening range that courage, truth, trust, responsibility, and faith must be the central values of men who would (as they must) live together.
Robert W. Corrigan, "Introduction: The Achievement of Arthur Miller," in his Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969, pp. 1-21.
Classical drama has been defined as something being done—a compound of action, motion, and emotion. In this sense, Miller cannot be called a classical dramatist, for in all of his works it is ideas, thoughts, feelings, which are of uppermost importance. He is not so much a social critic as an evaluator and sympathizer with the "little man" caught up in passions and dilemmas beyond his understanding….
In his plays Miller demonstrates what he calls the "tragic victory"—the hero or protagonist who takes his own life as in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, or chooses deliberately to die at the hands of others, as in The Crucible and A View from the Bridge.
Miller's two works A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge, although of less importance, have helped to confirm his reputation as one of America's foremost playwrights….
Miller's writing is concise, his staging dramatic, and his characters sharp and finely drawn. Even his minor characters are skillfully conceived and developed, coming across the stage as believable, living people. Much of the strength of Miller's writing, in fact, lies in the authenticity of his characterization.
Bernard Dekle, "Arthur Miller: Spokesman of the 'Little Man'," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 147-53.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support