Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur (Vol. 15) - 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, seeking, instead, a state of "heightened consciousness" for his heroes and audience. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 6, 10, 26, 179.

P. P. Sharma

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[That the theme of the search for self-identity] is crucial to a proper understanding of [Death of a Salesman] and that Miller is in no small degree preoccupied with it, is supported by the frequency of its overt statement in the dialogue of the characters. 'The man', says Biff, referring to his father, 'didn't know who he was', and 'I know who I am …' Thus, the theme can be traced not only in the case of Willy but also in that of Biff. By showing that the father has failed in the search for self-identity, whereas the son is on the fair road to success, Miller has effectively used both the negative and the positive strategy to strengthen and reinforce his overall concern. The play has generally been interpreted as a conflict between Willy and his milieu; the conflict between father and son has been passed over as only a tangential and peripheral matter. The approach adopted in this paper, however, is to shift the centre of gravity to father-son conflict and then to examine why Willy dies unenlightened and in what manner Biff achieves an awareness about himself…. (p. 74)

Although Willy is aware, maybe dimly and imperfectly, that he is not cut out for success in the world of trade and commerce, he nevertheless nurses the dream of getting the better of everybody else. And this leads him into an alienation from himself, obscuring his real identity. (p. 75)

Presumably, his life would have been more satisfying if he had … engaged in some pioneering work or free enterprise. However, as matters stand, he has given his real nature a horrible wrench in an attempt to mould it, as has been rightly suggested, 'in accordance with what he believes others expect of him'. This other-directedness on his part is his acceptance to have his identity determined by 'images of himself proffered from the outside by other people'.

What Willy really cares for is not identity or integrity but personality, which would include such outward characteristics as wearing a smile, winning friends by a show of bonhomie, to be, in Willy's ridiculously...

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Orm öVerland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


The process of playwriting is given a peculiar wavelike rhythm in Miller's own story of his efforts to realize his intentions from one play to the other. Troughs of dejection on being exposed to unexpected critical and audience responses to a newly completed play are followed by swells of creativity informed by the dramatist's determination to make himself more clearly understood in the next one. This wavelike rhythm of challenge and response is the underlying structural principle of Miller's "Introduction" to his Collected Plays. Behind it one may suspect the workings of a radical distrust of his chosen medium. The present essay will consider some of the effects both of this distrust of the theater as a means of communication and of Miller's theories of dramatic form on his career as a dramatist.

Arthur Miller is not alone in asking what he is trying to say in his plays, nor in being concerned that they may evoke other responses than those the playwright thought he had aimed at. From the early reviews of Death of a Salesman critics have observed that a central problem in the evaluation of Miller's work is a conflict of themes, real or apparent, within each play. (p. 1)

Miller himself has often spoken of modern drama in general and his own in particular in terms of a split between the private and the social. (p. 2)

[For Miller synthesis of the private and the social] has largely been a question of dramatic form, and the problem for the playwright has been to create a viable form that could bridge "the deep split between the private life of man and his social life." In addition to his frustration with audience responses and his desire to make himself more clearly understood, part of the momentum behind Miller's search for new and more satisfactory modes of expression after the realistic All My Sons has been the conviction that the realistic mode in drama was an expression of "the family relationship within the play" while "the social relationship within the play" evoked the un-realistic modes. (p. 3)

When Miller is slightly dissatisfied with his first successful play [All My Sons], it is because he believes that he had allowed the impact of what he calls one kind of "morality" to "obscure" the other kind "in which the play is primarily interested."… These two kinds of "morality" are closely related to the two kinds of "motivation"—psychological and social—that … critics have pointed to. The problem may be seen more clearly by observing that the play has two centers of interest. The one, in which Miller claims "the play is primarily interested," is intellectual, the other emotional. The former is mainly expressed through the play's dialogue, the latter is more deeply embedded in the action itself.

Joe Keller gradually emerges as a criminal. He has sold defective cylinder heads to the air force during the war and was thus directly responsible for the deaths of twenty-one pilots. The horror of this deed is further brought home to the audience by the discovery that Keller's elder son was a pilot lost in action. This is what we may call the emotional center of interest, and most of the plot is concerned with this past crime and its consequences for Keller and his family. But it is this emotional center that for Miller obscures the real meaning of the play.

Miller wanted his play to be about "unrelatedness":

Joe Keller's trouble, in a word, is not that he cannot tell right from wrong but that his cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with his world, his universe, or his society…. In this sense Joe Keller is a threat to society and in this sense the play is a social play…. [The] crime is seen as having roots in a certain relationship of the individual to society, and to a certain indoctrination he embodies, which, if dominant, can mean a jungle existence for all of us no matter how high our buildings soar.

This, then, is the intellectual center of the play. Any good drama needs to engage the intellect as well as the emotions of its audience. Miller's problem is that these two spheres in All My Sons are not concentric. When a play has two centers of interest at odds with each other, the emotional one will often, as here, have a more immediate impact on the audience because it is more intimately related to the action of the play. Invariably action takes precedence over the sophistication of dialogue or symbols.

Death of a Salesman (1949) may serve as further illustration of the point made about the two centers of interest in All My Sons…. [The] key scene of the play could be the one in Howard Wagner's office or the one in the hotel room depending on whether the play was "political" or "sexual." There is no doubt, however, as to which scene has the greater impact in the theater. The hotel room scene is carefully prepared for…. The point is, however, that it is primarily on the stage that this scene makes such an over-whelming impact that it tends to overshadow the other scenes that together make up the total image of Willy's plight. If the play is read, if one treats it as one would a novel, balance is restored and a good case may be made for a successful synthesis of "psychological" and "social" motivation…. (pp. 3-4)

Miller seems to have become increasingly aware of the difficulty of making a harmonious whole of his vehicle and his theme. His story would have sexual infidelity (consider for instance the prominence this factor must have in any brief retelling of the plot of Death of a Salesman or The Crucible) or another personal moral failure at its center, while the significance the story held for the author had to do with man's relationship to society, to the outside world. The one kind of "morality" continues to obscure the other. When starting out to write A View from the Bridge (1955), Miller had almost despaired of making himself understood in the theater: no "reviews, favorable or not," had mentioned what he had considered the main theme of The Crucible (1953). Since he, apparently, could not successfully merge his plots and his intended themes, he arrived at a scheme that on the face of it seems preposterous: he would "separate, openly and without concealment, the action of the next play, A View from the Bridge, from its generalized significance."… (pp. 4-5)

With such an attitude to the relationship between story and theme or "action" and "significance" there is little wonder that Miller was prone to writing plays where critics felt there was a conflict of themes. For while Miller's imagination generates plots along psychoanalytic lines, his intellect leans towards socio-economic explanations….

[The] historical antecedents and the widespread use of narrators in modern drama should not be lost sight of when considering this aspect of Arthur Miller's plays. Miller's narrators, however, are closely connected with his reluctance to let his plays speak for themselves. They are born from his long and troubled struggle with dramatic form. (p. 5)

[Although Miller has discussed Death of a Salesman in terms of a prose narrative, it] succeeds precisely because Willy's story is shown on the stage, not told. The possible uncertainty as to motivation does not detract from the intense and unified impact of the drama in the theater. The characters reveal themselves through action and dialogue supported by what Miller has called the play's "structural images."… All the more striking then, the need Miller evidently felt to have the characters stand forth and give their various interpretations of Willy's life after the drama proper has closed with Willy's death. The chorus-like effect of the "Requiem" is obviously related to Miller's conscious effort to write a tragedy of "the common man," a drama which places man in his full social context, which in his essay "On Social Plays" is so clearly associated in Miller's mind with Greek drama. From another point of view the "Requiem" may also be seen as the embryo of the narrator figure who becomes so conspicuous in A View from the Bridge and After the Fall: after the play is over the characters stand forth and tell the audience what the play is about.

Miller's reluctance to...

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Lawrence D. Lowenthal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Incident at Vichy] is an explicit dramatic rendition of Sartre's treatise on Jews, as well as a clear structural example of Sartre's definition of the existential "theatre of situation."

[The] affinity between Sartre and Miller is understandable when one considers the existential development of Miller's later plays. Beginning with The Misfits, Miller's works begin to shift the tragic perspective from man's remediable alienation from society to man's hopeless alienation from the universe and from himself. After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, and The Price are all organized around "absurdist" themes of metaphysical anxiety, personal solitude, and moral ambivalence. Quite...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)

C. J. Gianakaris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The original title Arthur Miller chose for his play of 1949 was The Inside of His Head. But before the drama finally was produced or published, it had been rechristened Death of a Salesman, becoming perhaps the most popular serious drama yet written by an American playwright. Miller's ultimate choice of title succeeds in capturing the central theme of that brilliant work. Yet the earlier title is suggesive of the dramaturgical stratagems Miller was considering. Overtly designated in the title The Inside of His Head, for instance, was Miller's desire to enter into the mind of his protagonist, thereby psychologically to explore the inner recesses of human motivation and behavior. Most observers of...

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John Elsom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] consideration of Death of a Salesman [has been cluttered] with false analogies. The contradictory rules of capitalism were represented as the modern, humanistic equivalent to the conflicting laws of the ancient gods; while the gradual stripping-off of layers of illusion, the 'facing of facts about oneself', was compared to Oedipus's journey from Thebes to Colonus.

There is certainly a formal debt to the Greeks in Death of a Salesman, in the way in which the play is laid out; and the same could be said for almost any other serious play of the period. But … to stress the form at the expense of Miller's observation and almost intuitive moral insights is to trivialise the play. There is no analysis of capitalism in Death of a Salesman…. Willy is not so much a victim of inexorable economic forces as he is of what Hickey in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh called 'pipe-dreams'…. What Miller kills in his play is not one anonymous salesman who could have been destined for better things, had circumstances allowed, but selling as a way of life.

Technically, Loman never can be a tragic hero in the Greek sense, because Miller lets us know from the start exactly what he is like…. [We] realise that he is a salesman who has lost his small ability to sell, and is therefore in danger of losing his job as well, his livelihood, his family and, above all, his self-respect. What follows simply confirms our first impresssions—the way in which Willy wants his son, Biff, to succeed where he has failed, thus ruining Biff's life with impossible aspirations; his pride and his bumming; his suicide and his unmourned death. We do not learn about Loman's dilemmas through Loman's eyes, because we always know more about his failure than he does. He is an object lesson, carefully observed by a diligent writer: he is not discovering hard realities on our behalf.

At its lowest level, Death of a Salesman is little better than a naturalistic sob-story…. Some scenes are embarrassing in their statements of the obvious…. (pp. 430-31)

What is still impressive, however, is Miller's command of detail. (p. 431)

John Elsom, "Likely Lads," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), Vol. 102, No. 2630, September 27, 1979, pp. 430-31.∗