illustrated portrait of American playwright Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 2293 words.)

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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 evidence of this in Willy Loman's sure progress towards death or even in Biff's belated and untested declarations of faith in a realistic future. Even The Crucible proved only that men could be brave in the face of their fate, not that they could do much to avoid unjustified persecution. To recant or to remain obdurate was still to be subject to circumstances not of one's own making. It is only with his most recent work that Miller has been able to reconcile man's freedom to act with the determining factors of his own nature. In After the Fall and in Incident at Vichy he draws, with Sartrean finesse, the lines which connect individual choice with social injustice and immorality. He probes, for virtually the first time, the real nature of evil and the human origin of cruelty and deceit. (p. 19)

Miller spent the war years in America, safe from any threat of invasion and thus direct persecution and remote from the incomprehensible brutality of Nazi terror. With the end of the war he was left to face a number of paradoxes and his attempt to resolve them is the story of his development as a writer. The treachery and brutality of the war years forced him to reassess his vision of human nature. The naive optimism of the pre-war world, the pathetic faith in political solutions bowed before the realities of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The world was open to ambiguity again and Miller was sensitive enough to reflect this.

As a Jew who had survived and indeed suffered little inconvenience he felt an ill-defined sense of guilt. This guilt appears throughout his work in a sublimated form…. To many critics he seemed to be consciously avoiding specifically Jewish characters while continuing to use a Jewish idiom. Only with After the Fall, his painfully autobiographical work, do we discover the real source of this guilt as Quentin, Miller's protagonist, confesses to feeling the "guilt of the survivor." To be a Jew and to have survived is to be inexplicably favoured and hence to be a hostage to the past. This play, then, resolved many of the problems which had vexed Miller throughout his writing career. It served to exorcise his personal sense of guilt but, more significantly, provided evidence that he had finally evolved a consistent concept of the relation between human freedom and human limitations. (pp. 19-20)

In these most recent plays … man is unequivocally in control of his own destiny. If he chooses to see himself as a victim this is evidence of his failure of nerve and not of the impossibility of positive action. Man's absurdity, in other words, is of his own making. (p. 20)

The paramount need to accept the consequences of one's actions: the need to "take one's life in one's hands," as Holga had put it in After the Fall, is underlined in The Price by Solomon. At eighty-nine he had thought his life finished until contacted by Victor. Now, faced with the prospect of disposing of the furniture, he seems to get a new lease on life. He is suddenly aware that there are "more possibilities." This, indeed, is the very heart of the play. Victor has been living his life as though there were no alternatives…. The furniture itself, stored for sixteen years in a single room and left untouched, is in many ways an appropriate image for Victor himself. When Solomon says of the furniture that its main drawback lies in the fact that it has "no more possibilities" the comment could obviously apply equally well to Victor's own self-image. But even after the need for some kind of positive action had been demonstrated both by Solomon and Walter he is still unwilling to concede the truth of Esther's comment that, "You can't go on blaming everything on … the system or God knows what else! You're free and you can't make a move." (pp. 21-2)

[In Death of a Salesman] the two brothers, Happy and Biff,… reflect the two sides of Willy's warring personality. Happy values only material things. He looks for some kind of consolation in his relationship with women and, though vaguely conscious of some insufficiency, measures himself solely by reference to his success in business. Biff, on the other hand, is aware of other values than the purely material and is capable finally of the kind of genuine humanity which Willy only approaches in moments of rare sensitivity.

In The Price Miller makes use of a similar device. The two brothers represent profoundly different approaches to life—approaches which not only coexist in the world but which constitute the basis of most individual lives. This is the significance of Walter's remark that "we're brothers. It was only two seemingly different roads out of the same trap. It's almost as though … we're like two halves of the same guy. As though we can't quite move ahead—alone." (p. 22)

Victor is revealed as a weak and irresolute individual, unwilling to concede responsibility for his own life and consciously avoiding painful realities by retreating into illusion. Walter, on the other hand, is a man who, like Biff, has gradually come to recognise the inconsequence of wealth and success and who now tries to pass his insight onto others. He recognises the need to acknowledge the reality of human weakness and to accept responsibility for one's own actions. (pp. 22-3)

[The] conflict is not simply defined by the individual brothers in some kind of moral polarity. If Walter has a clearer understanding of reality and the need to accept responsibility for one's actions he lacks Victor's moral sensitivity. Yet the struggle is to find an interpretation of existence which depends neither on a naive endorsement of human perfectibility or a cynical pose of alienation. The real problem lies in acknowledging the imperfection of man and the inadequacy of society and yet continuing to place one's faith in human potential. In the words of the wise Solomon, "it's not that you can't believe nothing, that's not so hard—it's that you've still got to believe it. That's hard. And if you can't do that … you're a dead man."… As a piece of moral philosophy this is no different in kind from Quentin's final perception, in After the Fall, that it is perhaps enough to know that "we meet unblessed; not in some garden of wax fruit and painted trees, that lie of Eden, but after, after the Fall." To accept imperfection in individuals and in society is not to capitulate before despair. Rather it is the first stage in the reconstruction of meaning and purpose. But there is a price to pay for such a revaluation. It means granting the death of innocence; it necessitates the acceptance of responsibility for one's actions. However, the price for ignoring the challenge is even greater. It involves the destruction of human relationships and the erosion of identity—a price paid by both Victor and Walter. At the end of the play, however, purged of all illusions and forced to face the reality of their lives they have at least a chance to recreate not only themselves but also the society which they in part represent. In this way the social element of Miller's work is traced to its origin in the nature of individual experience and the essence of the human condition. (p. 23)

The Price marks a sharp improvement over his last two plays. It avoids the pretentious dialogue of After the Fall and the simple-minded manipulation of Incident at Vichy. It acknowledges, too, a sense of ambiguity lacking even from his earlier successes. Despite the somewhat contrived nature of the debate between the two brothers and the unconvincing nature of the minor characters—Solomon and Esther never become anything more than caricatures—there is some justification for feeling that Miller has at last emerged from the personal and artistic difficulties which he has experienced since the mid-fifties. (p. 25)

C.W.E. Bigsby, "What Price Arthur Miller? An Analysis of 'The Price'," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1970, Hofstra University Press), January, 1970, pp. 16-25.

Barry Gross

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[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 relation—the prerogatives of the poetic mode," whereas no such problem existed in Eliot's more successful Murder in the Cathedral which "had the unquestioned right to the poetic" because its situation was "social, the conflict of a human being with the world." It is, of course, Miller's thematic and philosophic intention to draw us in two opposite directions in All My Sons, to dramatize the polar conflict between the familial and the social. But he fails to counter the natural unwillingness of our minds to give to the social relation the prerogatives of the prosaic mode. We grant All My Sons the unquestioned right to the prosaic as long as its situation is familial, but if the situation is also to be social, then Miller must extend his play to the poetic, not just in language but also in concept…. [The] foreground the Keller family occupies looms too large, so large as to obliterate any other context which might or should be behind or around it.

The absence of the larger context does not represent a failure in technique alone—it also represents, and more unaccountably, a failure in content…. [For] its stated intentions, the play is not straightforward enough…. In All My Sons Miller is not guilty of presuming to teach, or even of presuming to preach, but of not doing it with sufficient force and directness, of not pinpointing with sufficient sharpness Chris' amorphous and formless sentiments. That the world should be reordered is not at issue; how it should is.

"Where the son stands," Miller says in "The Shadow of the Gods," "is where the world should begin," but this does not happen in All My Sons anymore than it does in the "adolescent" plays Miller criticizes. It is undeniably true that "the struggle for mastery—for the freedom of manhood … as opposed to the servility of childhood—is the struggle not only to overthrow authority but to reconstitute it anew," but by this token Chris has achieved neither mastery nor manhood by the play's end…. If we are to take Chris' stated sentiments about the men who died so that he might live seriously, then he is in the position at the beginning of All My Sons that Miller … [as revealed in an article] sees the Jewish psychiatrist in at the end of Incident at Vichy: his is "the guilt of surviving his benefactors" and whether he is "a 'good' man for accepting his life in this way, or a 'bad' one, will depend on what he makes of his guilt, of his having survived." By that criterion, Chris Keller is a bad man when All My Sons begins and he is no better when the play ends. (pp. 22-4)

Barry Gross, "'All My Sons' and the Larger Context," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1975, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), March, 1975, pp. 15-27.

Stanley Kauffmann

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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 grasp at us: the idea of a man who has sold things without making them, who has paid for things without really owning them; an insulted extrusion of commercial society battling for some sliver of authenticity before he slips into the dark.

But to see the play again is to see how Arthur Miller lacked the control and vision to fulfill his own idea. First consider the diction of the play, because a play is its language, first and finally. Salesman falters badly in this regard. At its best, its true and telling best, the diction is first-generation Brooklyn Jewish. ("Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.") But often the dialogue slips into a fanciness that is slightly ludicrous…. When Miller's language is close to the stenographic, the remembered, it's good; otherwise, it tends to literary juvenility, a pretended return from pretended experience.

Thematically, too, the play is cloudy. It's hard to believe that, centrally, Miller had anything more than muzzy antibusiness, anti-technology impulses in his head. Is Willy a man shattered by business failure and by disappointment in his sons?… The figure that comes through the play is not of a man brought down by various failures but of a mentally unstable man in whom the fissures have increased. Willy is shown to be at least as much a victim of psychopathy as of the bitch goddess. When was he ever rational or dependable? Is this a tragedy of belief in the American romance or the end of a clinical case?…

What we are left with is neither a critique of the business world nor an adult vision of something different and better but the story of a man (granting he was sane) who failed, as salesman and father, and who made things worse by refusing to the end to admit those failures, which he knew were true. That is one play, and possibly a good one if it were realized; but it is quite a different one from a play that, in its atmosphere and mannerisms, implies radical perception about deep American ills. (p. 20)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 19, 1975.

Irving Jacobson

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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 in his essay as man's fundamental state of satisfaction. "Monte Sant' Angelo," however, presents a set of experiences by which an adult comes to feel himself at home in the larger world outside the family structure, reconstructing that earlier state of satisfaction with later materials and experiences….

[In "Monte Sant' Angelo"] Appello maintains his identity as an American but also enjoys status as a "son of Italy" with an assured place in a long family line of some prominence. He can trace that line from town to town [in Italy] and receive immediate recognition for the very fact of his name. (p. 507)

Dissociated from an historical past, [his friend Bernstein] senses himself dissociated from a personal past as well. Just as Martin, in "I Don't Need You Any More," when asked to demonstrate his spelling to his family "could not bear the indignity, the danger, that lay in having to produce something in exchange for their giving him a place among them," so Bernstein feels insecure in not being able to assume that his place in the world is his by birthright, an absolute position from which he might expand his resources with freedom and ease. (p. 508)

Mauro di Benedetto functions as a catalyst for transformation in Bernstein's life. The similarity between his own neglected and Benedetto's vestigial Jewishness forms an emotional bridge between him and Europe. Revitalizing a positive sense of his own family past, the common ethnic background between Bernstein and Benedetto functions as Bernstein's equivalent for Appello's family line, releasing his capacity for excitement and giving him a new sense of placement in the world. (p. 509)

Bernstein's deduction that the man is Jewish accounts for part of this. Although it is not entirely clear from the story itself why Bernstein reddens when Benedetto says he sells cloth, it seems possible that Bernstein associates the trade with being Jewish…. Jews in Europe were traditionally active in interurban trade because of special legal and social factors. Also, Appello translates the name, Mauro di Benedetto, as Morris of the Blessed, or Moses. Further, the man says that he follows the same route and pattern his family has followed for generations, making certain he is home by sundown each Friday night—the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. But the key factor that leads Bernstein to a conclusion about Benedetto, and the one that draws the most direct lines of connection between them, is the meticulous way the man unknots his bundle and then wraps a loaf of bread in it. This makes Bernstein announce to Appello, with "a new air of confidence and superiority in his face and voice" that Benedetto is Jewish. He explains: "It's exactly the way my father used to tie a bundle—and my grandfather. The whole history is packing bundles and getting away. Nobody else can be as tender and delicate with bundles. That's a Jewish man tying a bundle."… (pp. 509-10)

Yet not only is Benedetto unaware that he is Jewish, but he hasn't the vaguest idea what the two Americans' eager questions about his background mean…. [He] has no knowledge of what a Jew or Hebrew is. In that sense, he can be called a vestigial Jew, maintaining in his life pattern remnants of behavior that had religious significance for someone in the past but which have become merely a "manner of the family," an eccentric set of habits.

Thus, some part of the intensity with which Bernstein responds to Benedetto might be explained by his being a vestigial Jew, almost as unconscious of his own background as Benedetto. The encounter brings him to the realization, at the end of the story, that "his life had been covered with an unrecognized shame," a denial of his own religion and, with that, his own access to history…. (p. 510)

The effect of the experience is to remove Bernstein from an isolation that has been, in part, self-imposed, and it places his life in the kind of context within which he can form relationships. He can both understand what he had once called Appello's "ancestor complex" and feel that the past [is] his own as much as Appello's…. This new sense of belonging makes it possible for him and Appello to achieve a new kind of rapport, a new commonality of spirit…. (pp. 510-11)

Bernstein's experience in Monte Sant' Angelo makes it possible for him to yield to his own emotions. In Miller's story there is a sense in which Appello represents the emotional and expressive aspects that are lacking or repressed in Bernstein's personality….

Bernstein comes to feel "at home" in the larger world outside the family structure. Significantly, the means by which he accomplishes this relate intimately to his own sense of family. Mauro di Benedetto is not only a Jew but one, more specifically, who reminds Bernstein of his own father and grandfather. By association, he can be interpreted as a paternal figure—not merely an interesting or admirable man who also seems Jewish, but a kind of father. Suitably, then, he is both Jewish, like Bernstein, and Italian, like Appello. (p. 511)

In both "I Don't Need You Any More" and "Monte Sant' Angelo," the isolated ego, incapable of thriving alone, seeks to strengthen itself through relationships with other men. Given his father's concern and approval, Martin, if only temporarily, feels supported by a community of manhood. (p. 512)

Irving Jacobson, "The Vestigial Jews on Monte Sant' Angelo," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1976 by Newberry College), Fall, 1976, pp. 507-12.

Robert A. Martin

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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

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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.


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