Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miller, Arthur 1915–

Miller is an American playwright. A moralist who has often been charged with didacticism, he poses questions for which he gives no answers, instead seeking a state of "heightened consciousness" for his heroes and audience. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 6, 15, 26, 179.

C. W. E. Bigsby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In many ways … The Price seems to mark a return to the world of Joe Keller and Willy Loman. Once again, it appears, we are invited to witness the struggles of a man who has "the wrong dreams" and who embraces too completely the ethics of a society intent on success at any price. But … since Death of a Salesman Miller has become aware of more fundamental influences than those exerted by Horatio Alger Jr. and while he continues to expose the vacuity of the American dream he is more concerned with probing the nature of human freedom than with exposing the social charade. [The Price], therefore, owes more to After the Fall and Incident at Vichy than to All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.

The line between Incident at Vichy and The Price is disturbingly direct. Miller has said that he is fascinated by the Nazi era because it constituted a turning point in man's perception of human nature. The war and the Nazi occupation of Europe produced not merely "a chilling of the soul by the technological apparatus" but also "the obstruction of the individual's capacity for choosing, or erosion of what used to be thought of as an autonomous personality." (p. 16)

As in Death of a Salesman and After the Fall we are at a point in time when the main characters are made suddenly aware of the futility of their lives thus far. For Willy Loman it had been an imperfect perception—a dull sense of insufficiency and failure. For Quentin it was a sudden realisation that his life had been dedicated only to self-interest. In The Price the crisis emerges from a meeting between two brothers. Both men are at a crucial stage in their own lives. Victor, a frustrated and bitterly disappointed policeman, looks back over his life and sees no meaning and no hope for his remaining years. He is poised. He lacks the courage to retire because this means that he will be forced to acknowledge his failure to create anything worthwhile through his career. Likewise he lacks the will to start again—to change a destiny which he has already rationalized away as the consequence of the economic determinism of the nineteen-thirties. His brother, Walter, is in a similar position. Although successful he can find no purpose or meaning behind his frenzied pursuit of wealth and fame. His personal life is in ruins, his professional integrity compromised. But after a serious nervous breakdown he feels at long last that he has begun to understand himself and as the play progresses it becomes apparent that he is determined to put this new, imperfect, knowledge into practice. For the first time he feels genuinely alive to the possibilities of a life built on something more substantial than mutual recrimination and obsessive guilt. Seized with a naive excitement he struggles against his old nature and fights to explain his new perception to his brother. (pp. 16-17)

What [Walter] now understands and tries to convey to his brother is that human failure can be traced not to some in-definable hostility in the universe or to the destructiveness of a particular social system but to the failure of individuals to recognise the paramount importance of some kind of genuine human relationship. The misery of their own family life, for example, was not a sign that "there was no mercy in the world" but rather that there was "no love in this house …". (p. 17)

[Miller failed], in many of the early plays, to trace moral and social failures to their source in the human character. In the person of Chris Keller, in All My Sons, he demonstrates the cruelty of the idealist without attempting to understand its cause while in the same play he draws a picture of a war-profiteer without questioning a human nature which could evidence such cruelty and deceit.

Again, in Death of a Salesman, he seems uncertain as to whether Willy is the victim of his own weakness or of a brutally simple-minded society. We know, finally, that Willy is fatally illusioned but discover little about the true nature of reality or the potential freedom of moral or social action which depends not only on Willy's state of mind but on the nature of the human situation…. [At] this time Miller was himself confused as to the reality of human nature. At one moment he could declare that "there are people dedicated to evil in the world" and regret not having made Judge Danforth, in The Crucible, more of a villain; while in the same breath he could say that "man is essentially innocent" and that "the evil in him represents but a perversion of his frustrated love." (pp. 18-19)

With After the Fall and … The Price he has probed not only behind the bland facade of success but also behind the social and psychological rationalisations of earlier plays. Discovering somewhat belatedly an existential ethic he recognises the imperfection of human nature but insists on man's responsibility for his own fate. Earlier he had said that "The great weight of evidence is upon the helplessness of man. The great bulk of the weight of evidence is that we are not in command." But significantly, even then, he felt constrained to add that "we surely have much more command than anybody, including Macbeth's Witches, could ever dream of and somehow a form has to be devised which will account for this. Otherwise the drama is doomed to repeating and repeating ad nauseam the same pattern of striving, disillusion and defeat." In spite of this panegyric in favour of man's power to act few playgoers can have seen much...

(The entire section is 2293 words.)

Barry Gross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Of the failures of All My Sons, most] notable is what might be termed its failure in mode, a serious flaw in methodology: simply and baldly stated, the play is too insistently "realistic"—which is, of course, what Miller meant it to be—to accommodate Chris' fine speeches or to give any weight or resonance to their words. In the narrow and pedestrian setting of the Keller back yard they announce themselves as speeches, in this mundane place the words ring loud and hollow…. The realistic mode is adequate to All My Sons as long as the play is dominated by the family relation; it is not adequate to the social relation Miller requires the play to represent, nor does Miller attempt to express that social relation in another, less realistic mode. The problem is clearly illustrated in the case of appropriate stage speech:

When one is speaking to one's family one uses a certain level of speech, a certain plain diction perhaps, a tone of voice, an inflection, suited to the intimacy of the occasion. But when one faces an audience … it seems right and proper for him to reach for the well-turned phrase, even the poetic word, the aphorism, the metaphor.

Chris' speeches fall flat because they violate our sense of suitability, our sense of context. They are made at the wrong time in the wrong place to the wrong people. (p. 22)

All My Sons does not burst out of the living room, or, more precisely, the back yard, and yet Miller insists that his characters confront non-familial, openly social relations and forces which exist only beyond it. The result is that same tension Miller feels in The Cocktail Party, that "sense of … being drawn in two opposite directions." In Eliot's play, Miller argues, the tension is created by the language, or, rather, by "the natural unwillingness of our minds to give to the husband-wife relation—a family...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Death of a Salesman contains the idea for a great play, and I would maintain that its immense international success comes from the force of that idea prevailing over the defects in execution. The force takes hold with the very title, which is highly evocative, and is amplified by the opening sight of Willy Loman coming in the door. That sight is a superb theater image of our time, as unforgettable an icon as Mother Courage and her wagon (another traveling salesman!): the salesman home, "tired to the death," lugging his two heavy sample-cases, rejected by the big milk-filled bosom of the country from which he had expected so much nourishment.

The force of the play's idea continues fitfully to...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Irving Jacobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arthur Miller's short stories "Monte Sant' Angelo" and "I Don't Need You Any More" share a supplementary relationship to his essay on "The Family in Modern Drama." All develop themes that prove essential for an understanding of Miller's imagination, and all deal with man displaced from the enveloping context of the family. The meaning of this displacement includes the loss not only of mother, father or brother but also a psychological state of being, a cultural and religious inheritance, a position in the community and in human history. "I Don't Need You Any More" illustrates the process by which a child becomes isolated from his family, losing that state of equilibrium, identity and completeness that Miller defined...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)

Robert A. Martin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When The Crucible opened on January 22, 1953, the term "witch-hunt" was nearly synonymous in the public mind with the Congressional investigations then being conducted into allegedly subversive activities. Arthur Miller's plays have always been closely identified with contemporary issues, and to many observers the parallel between the witchcraft trials at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and the current Congressional hearings was the central issue of the play.

Miller has said that he could not have written The Crucible at any other time, a statement which reflects both his reaction to the McCarthy era and the creative process by which he finds his way to the thematic center of a play. If it is true, however, that a play cannot be successful in its own time unless it speaks to its own time, it is also true that a play cannot endure unless it speaks to new audiences in new times. The latter truism may apply particularly to The Crucible, which is presently being approached more and more frequently as a cultural and historical study rather than as a political allegory. (p. 279)

The Crucible has endured beyond the immediate events of its own time. If it was originally seen as a political allegory, it is presently seen by contemporary audiences almost entirely as a distinguished American play by an equally distinguished American playwright. As one of the most frequently produced plays in the American theater, The Crucible has attained a life of its own; one that both interprets and defines the cultural and historical background of American society. Given the general lack of plays in the American theater that have seriously undertaken to explore the meaning and significance of the American past in relation to the present, The Crucible stands virtually alone as a dramatically coherent rendition of one of the most terrifying chapters in American history. (p. 290)

Robert A. Martin, "Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible': Background and Sources," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1977, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), September, 1977, pp. 279-92.

June Schlueter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When the twentieth century is history and American drama viewed in perspective, the plays of Arthur Miller will undoubtedly be preserved in the annals of dramatic literature. Few will dispute that Miller's plays, along with those of O'Neill and Albee and Williams, constitute the "best" of American theater. This may, however, be more a comment on the state of American drama than on the excellence of Arthur Miller, for, in a larger perspective, there is little in Miller's drama other than well-plotted social and psychological realism, coming decades after the form was established by Ibsen and Shaw.

When Miller defends such realism in his "Preface to an Adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People" (1951)—one of 23 essays and three interviews collected in [The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller]—one experiences a déjà vu and wonders why what by then was a donnée of the modern theater needed defense….

With a few exceptions, the essays and interviews which constitute this book are singularly unnoteworthy. Miller's views on the state of the theater reflect a professional's, not a literary critic's, awareness; his ideas concerning form are anachronism offered as innovation; and his prefaces, while helpful as such, are incomplete in isolation. The exceptions are Miller's two anti-Aristotelian documents, "Tragedy and the Common Man" (1949) and "The Nature of Tragedy" (1949)…. (p. 345)

June Schlueter, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), February, 1978.