Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur (Vol. 26)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arthur Miller 1915–

American dramatist, essayist, novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 6, 10.

Miller's fame as a dramatist derives from his four plays first produced between 1947 and 1955: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge. These dramas have been praised for their examinations of individual and social commitment, and have earned Miller the reputation of a moralist.

Family conflicts, particularly between fathers and sons, appear throughout Miller's early work. In All My Sons, Joe Keller chooses to sell inferior airplane parts during World War II in order to save his business. At the end of the play, Keller is forced by his idealistic son Chris to take responsibility for his partner's imprisonment and for the deaths of American pilots. Death of a Salesman, Miller's most famous play, is a critique of America's preoccupation with materialism after World War II. Originally titled Inside of His Head, Death of a Salesman depicts the mental deterioration of Willy Loman, a salesman whose superficial doctrine for success turns into tragedy when he realizes that he is no longer wanted by his company.

The Crucible sparked much controversy. Based on the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, many critics believed The Crucible was a thinly-disguised attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, before which Miller was called to testify in 1956. He was charged with contempt of Congress for his refusal to identify writers seen at Communist-sponsored meetings that he himself had attended. Despite the topical tone of the play, John Gassner remarked that The Crucible "will remain alive long after every carping criticism directed at its political implications has been forgotten." Gassner's prediction has proven correct; The Crucible is still widely read and produced today.

Miller has won numerous awards for his work. In 1947 he received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Antoinette Perry (Tony) award for All My Sons. Death of a Salesman won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1949. Miller also received a Tony in 1953 for The Crucible and an Emmy in 1967 for Death of a Salesman.

John Gassner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'] is not quite the masterpiece of dramatic literature that the enthusiasts would have us believe. It is well written but is not sustained by incandescent or memorable language except in two or three short passages. Moreover, its hero, the desperate salesman Willy Loman, is too much the loud-mouthed dolt and emotional babe-in-the-woods to wear all the trappings of high tragedy with which he has been invested. It is, indeed, a feature of the play's rather trite orientation that Willy, whose ideals are so banal and whose strivings are so commonplace, is sent to his death in a catafalque as if he were worthy of [Ludwig van] Beethoven's Eroica symphony. For writers of the stamp of Molière and [George Bernard] Shaw, Willy would have been an object of satirical penetration rather than mournful tenderness and lachrymose elegy. By contrast with even contemporary dramatists of a fine grain like [Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Sherwood Anderson], Mr. Miller has written his story on the level of drame bourgeois . Although his intellect denies assent to the main character's fatuous outlook, some commonplaceness attends the sentiments of the writing, the overvaluation of Willy as a hero, and the selection of a bumptiously kind-hearted bourgeois, Charley, as the proper foil for the unsuccessful salesman. Charley is the model of right living because he was practical-minded and made a success of his business, and because his son Bernard married and became a lawyer who is now on his way to Washington to argue a case and takes his tennis rackets along, presumably to hobnob with successful people. No one in the play stands for values that would not gain the full...

(The entire section is 22,833 words.)