illustrated portrait of American playwright Arthur Miller

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Miller, Arthur (Vol. 2)

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Miller, Arthur 1915–

A major American prize-winning playwright, Miller is best known for Death of a Salesman. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 6, 10, 15, 26, 179.

Miller is no ideologue, no thinker, but he has written some good things. Apart from Death of a Salesman, about which I have mixed feelings, I think his best play is A View from the Bridge, a simple but trenchant dramatic poem. The Crucible, too, is a fine work, once we disregard the analogies with McCarthyism, an entirely different phenomenon from the Salem witch trials, analogies that are not really in the text which I have recently read, but in the mind of the audience that first saw it produced. Now Incident at Vichy has been much criticized by reviewers, though for reasons that seem to me somewhat external. Its actual ideas have not been examined in detail but mostly sneered at for not being deep enough. The trouble with these ideas, however, is precisely their apparent depth—depth without content.

Philip Rahv, "Arthur Miller and the Fallacy of Profundity," in his The Myth and the Powerhouse (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Philip Rahv), Farrar, Straus, 1965.

[The Price] is written in [Arthur] Miller's customary undistinguished prose, and though some critics hailed the influx of Jewish humor as a new and praiseworthy development, what strikes me most about the play is its relentless retrogression. There is no present or future to speak of; the whole thing is a long Ibsenesque exposition, a raking over of bygones with a few new facts coming to light, a harking back and leaning over backward to be nice to one's past—to forgive one's brother and enemy, and, in particular, to justify oneself. For The Price, like most of Miller's plays, seems a rather less than compelling but wholly obsessive dredging up of the same family trauma that must be exorcised. Alas, this drama in reverse gear is even more private than Miller's previous retrogressions. If you beat the same breast often enough, it wears thin; and the public washing of dirty family laundry has lost its mystic appeal in an era in which entire families, guilt and all, have been promenading mother-naked across the stage. Worst of all, Miller is looking backward even technically and ideologically: neither the stylistic nor the socio-political aspect of The Price has anything appreciable to say to our time.

John Simon, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1968, p. 322.

Miller set out to expose conscience—to show its signal failures and occasional successes, the latter highlighting the former. Joe Keller and his son Chris, Willy Loman and his two sons, John Proctor, Eddie Carbone, Quentin, Victor, and Walter Franz are all people of flawed conscience; only John Proctor rises to heroism….

Arthur Miller's real achievement … [is that he] operates with ideals instead of ideas, and his agony is that of an idealist disappointed. The dramatic result is pathos; but it is pathos which, unlike that of Chekhov, for instance, has spoiled itself by hoping to be tragedy.

What, then, can account for Miller's stature as a dramatist?… I suggest that what makes Death of a Salesman is not the character of Willy Loman…. Nor is it Willy's pitiful story. It is not even that image of Brooklyn where trees give way to concrete. Rather, it is the way all these serve to provide the actor...

(This entire section contains 2144 words.)

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with grist for his mill….

The plays will survive, I think, as a challenge to a certain kind of acting, as the achievement of a man of the theater, and not as literary works or expressions of social ideas.

Tom F. Driver, in Saturday Review (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review Magazine Co., July 25, 1970, p. 35.

[It] may well be that [Willy Loman's] durable stage thereness rests on the fact that all of us see, and especially hear, beyond him. Willy's vocabulary is totally familiar—endearingly so because it is so limited. Willy's questions seem totally familiar—again endearing because limited. It is easy to pity and even love Willy, who is our father, brother, cousin, friend. But never me.

Willy is not frugal of words, but he has so few of them that he keeps repeating his small stock…. [We] remain attached to Willy because we can talk and think rings around him. Death of A Salesman triumphs because Willy falls short of us, but within touching distance….

After the Fall, written after an eight-year silence, must have been written at some personal cost to Miller, but perhaps that very cost hindered effective use of his main dramatic skill—to evoke pity through poignant scenes centering on a protagonist-victim who expresses himself in rhythmed colloquialisms….

In his next play, Incident at Vichy (1964), Miller was back in business …: Like the homespun heroics of The Crucible, the many arguments of Incident at Vichy seek to explore moral depths. But Miller lacks the verbal instruments. Proctor's "You are pulling Heaven down and raising up a whore!" and Leduc's "It's not your guilt I want, it's your responsibility" get lost in their own generalization. The two plays may arouse pity through the final frisson, but they cannot bear the pitiless eye of criticism.

After such heroics—noble suicides articulating abstractions of nobility—Miller wrote his least ambitious play of a protagonist-victim, The Price (1968)…. Although Miller has acknowledged his debt to Ibsen, The Price is his most extreme example of that playwright's technique of delayed exposition, since the exposition lasts virtually through the whole play. This technique makes large demands on dialogue….

In spite of personal dedication and public optimism, Miller's plays are remarkably full of suicide…. For all these misfortunes, Miller seeks our pity, and pity is what he evokes when most adept. Though Miller is said to specialize in the inarticulate, all his victims are articulate; they talk. Incisive dialogue etches Miller's low men in our minds; Joe Keller, Willy Loman, Eddie Carbone, Gregory Solomon are vigorous with concrete colloquialisms, Jewish inflections, or rhythmic repetitions of everyday words. Often, however, Miller tries to convert his low man into Everyman, or—worse—into the Tragic Hero. Then Miller is betrayed by his weakness for sonorous abstraction or incongruous image. He finds it hard to accept that he is most true when most trivial.

The heir of O'Neill's realism—like most successful, serious Broadway writers—Miller nevertheless forged his own distinctive dialogue. Though he probably learned effective repetition from O'Neill, his effects are markedly different. Even at his best, O'Neill builds ponderously, connects clumsily, and hammers dully. At his best, Miller's dialogue vibrates with questions, interruptions, oral inflections. Though Miller borrowed Odets' blend of preaching and pithiness, he sometimes succeeds in muting the preaching. His victims are most moving when they are least exemplary. Like O'Neill, he achieves most when he attempts least, sparing us effort with a capital E.

It is meaningless to speak of "real" language on stage, since all language is real. But O'Neill was the first American playwright whose dialogue gave his audience a feeling of observed life rather than books read or formulae followed. Miller furthered such feeling. Rarely indulging in dialect, Miller also creates dignified uneducated characters who articulate functionally in dramatic context.

Ruby Cohn, "The Articulate Victims of Arthur Miller," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 68-96.

I have always considered The Crucible Arthur Miller's best play, even when the partly true (and so partly false) analogy between Salem witch hunts and McCarthy Communist hunts made it hard to hear the play amid the shouting. Two decades later, when we can savor the artistic merit first, and still not invalid social relevance. second, the work emerges flawed but forceful, anachronistic and somewhat repetitious but essentially well constructed; it makes shrewd use of an absorbing and appalling chapter of our history that never ceases to be maniacally rewritten, and it holds the stage with tooth and nail, as good plays must.

Miller faces the difficulty of having to convey simultaneously the tragedy of an individual and that of a whole society, and of having to keep the relationship between the two in constant focus. Sensibly, he picked for his protagonist a man who has sinned in his own eyes, and allows a minor, expiated transgression to make him vulnerable in a major, social context, in which he is innocent; it is thus the individual's decency and conscientiousness that make him the victim of hypocritical massrighteousness….

The Crucible, unlike, say, Death of a Salesman, leaves us hungry for more, and if that is a failing, it is surely the nicest there is.

But, as usual with Miller, only more patently, the play also contains a totally unendearing flaw: linguistic insufficiency. Next to a tone-deaf musician, a word-deaf play-wright is the saddest thing I know. Not that Miller completely lacks language—that would have killed his Muse in the cradle. But he loses control over it as soon as it steps outside the quotidian and ordinary.

John Simon, "Eloquence in Spite of Words," in New York Magazine (© 1972 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by the permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 15, 1972, p. 70.

One can understand, watching those first three acts [of The Crucible], why Miller has become the most popular social dramatist of his time, not only in America but in the world. He deals exclusively with received liberal ideas. The best social dramatists, and many inferior ones, have usually dealt with dangerous ideas.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 27, 1972, p. 22.

Arthur Miller['s] new play, The Creation of the World and Other Business [is] another victim of the word-of-mouth disease that is one of Broadway's more grotesquely funny syndromes. As it happens, Miller's play deserved every pustule of this plague; quite simply, his pastiche of the Book of Genesis deserves no comment or any attempt to unravel its stupefyingly boring muddleheadedness and I hereby order my fingers to stop typing about it.

Jack Kroll, "Double Trouble," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1972; reprinted by permission), December 11, 1972, p. 71.

Some time ago, in the middle of a harsh review of The Price, I singled out Death of a Salesman as the one play in Miller's canon that is truly a success. I mentioned as a possible reason for this the fact that Miller had confined some of his heavier notions about human tragedy to the little essay that preceded the play's printed version and had allowed Willy Loman a dramatic existence unfettered by too much extraneous portent. To be sure, there was a bit of fustian lyricism in the play and a good deal of self-pity, but Willy Loman's quest for success in American terms and the details of his failure were honestly enough wrought so that the work's excesses could be forgiven. Alas, that was the final bit of restraint Miller showed as a dramatist. Since then, he has been intent on coercing our concern with moral parables (The Crucible), forcing us to accept rough melodramatics in a tragic framework (View From the Bridge), insisting that we do not miss the human ambiguities in history (Incident at Vichy), and offering us a dramatized autobiography (After the Fall) that has tottered between embarrassingly personal tidbits and inflated generalizations….

One must suppose Miller secure in his seriousness, for he has now, in The Creation of the World and Other Business, not only seized upon a theme that no one could consider trivial, but has dared to treat it with fits of paradoxical humor…. The creation, temptation, fall, and banishment of man from grace, Miller sees as a sort of domestic comedy in which God, as head of the household, presides over a simple-minded family easily led astray by Lucifer, the bad boy on the block….

It is hard, even in a schematic retelling of the play, to be as simple-minded as its author. It is also hard to believe that such unoriginal insights into the relationship between man and his divinity could cause such a feeling of outrage. Of course, Miller has added some new vulgarity to the story of creation, but that alone should not be enough to prompt one to excoriate a play that has already come to a brief and timely end. The fact is that the faults in The Creation of the World and Other Business allow one to see more clearly the lapses of so many of the author's earlier works that escaped without proper censure. It is easier, after experiencing the excesses of this last play, to understand how, as an artist, Miller has so often cheapened life in the past through his readiness to understand it too quickly and to festoon it with gaudy pronouncements.

Jack Richardson, "Arthur Miller's Eden" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, February, 1973, pp. 83-5.


Miller, Arthur (Vol. 15)


Miller, Arthur (Vol. 26)