Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur (Vol. 26) - Essay


(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 approval of Mr. Bruce Barton, Mr. Dale Carnegie, and the anonymous editors of the Gideon bible. The Promethean soul is inconspicuous in 'Death of a Salesman.' The mind and the spirit that manifest themselves in it are rather earthbound and not in themselves interesting.

Once these reservations are made, however, one cannot deny that the play has singular merits, that it is often moving and even gripping, that it is penetrative both in characterization and in social implication. It expresses a viewpoint...

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Sighle Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The questions of whether or not Death of a Salesman is a great dramatic structure, or whether or not its writing is splendid or only roughly adequate, can hold but secondary importance in any discussion of the play. Above them one fact shines: Willy Loman, egotistical, greedy, affectionate, lonely, has risen up as a modern Everyman.

But the very way in which Willy speaks so immediately to so many people has brought his problems into sharp and varied scrutiny…. [The play] speaks not only to, and for the problems of, an American audience but to countries whose insecurity is even more obvious than that of the U.S. represented by Willy—countries which often look toward the U.S. as an easy and automatic way out of their troubles. To them, as to Americans, the self-destroyed Willy rises up in warning.

So powerfully projected and personally received has been this story of Willy Loman that a not-surprising doubt has risen up about it. People see in it an accurate picture of their own mental stresses and feel defensive about Willy. Many of them wonder: was Willy really responsible for his death, or was he, as Luke Carroll in the Herald Tribune put it, "a pathetic little man caught in an undertow that's much too strong for him"? (pp. 110-11)

Was Willy the victim of brute economics? or of an unbounded, irrational desire for success? or of the thoughtless ingratitude of his sons? These questions and many others have remained with the Salesman's audience long after the final curtain has gone down.

Perhaps the largest single group that thinks of Willy as a helpless "little man" is made up of those who see economics as the all-powerful factor in the play. They make the most of the epitaph spoken by Willy's friend, Charley: "Nobody dast blame this man. For a salesman there is no rock-bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine…. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory." The territory, they say (and have said all along) is to blame. Willy had no chance against the capitalistic system.

The other half of the group is at the opposite extreme of belief. They also feel that economics is the determining power in the play, but they believe that Miller, in criticizing "the territory" is trying to undermine democracy….

Such a group contends that Miller has stacked the cards against Willy and used his single tragedy to point an unjustifiable finger at salesmanship itself. If Willy died, they say in effect, Arthur Miller killed him. (p. 111)

Far from painting a one-sided economic picture, Miller is almost painfully scrupulous in showing that Willy's tragedy must not be set at the door of his particular type of work (symbolic though that surely is). Willy's braggadocio, his confidence that he and his sons, by divine right of personality, are above the laws that bind ordinary men, put his acts in the realm of universal moral censure—not in the cubbyhole of an ideology. (p. 112)

The very multiplicity of problems which...

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Robert Warshow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the things that have been said of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's new play about the Salem witchcraft trials, is that we must not be misled by its obvious contemporary relevance: it is a drama of universal significance. This statement, which has usually a somewhat apologetic tone, seems to be made most often by those who do not fail to place great stress on the play's "timeliness." I believe it means something very different from what it appears to say, almost the contrary, in fact, and yet not quite the contrary either. It means: do not be misled by the play's historical theme into forgetting the main point, which is that "witch trials" are always with us, and especially today; but on the other hand do not hold Mr. Miller responsible either for the inadequacies of his presentation of the Salem trials or for the many undeniable and important differences between those trials and the "witch trials" that are going on now. It is quite true, nevertheless, that the play is, at least in one sense, of "universal significance." Only we must ask what this phrase has come to mean, and whether the quality it denotes is a virtue. (p. 189)

The "universality" of Mr. Miller's play belongs neither to literature nor to history, but to that journalism of limp erudition which assumes that events are to be understood by referring them to categories, and which is therefore never at a loss for a comment. Just as in Death of a Salesman Mr. Miller sought to present "the American" by eliminating so far as possible the "non-essential" facts which might have made his protagonist a particular American, so in The Crucible he reveals at every turn his almost contemptuous lack of interest in the particularities—which is to say, the reality—of the Salem trials. The character and motives of all the actors in this drama are for him both simple and clear. The girls who raised the accusation of witchcraft were merely trying to cover up their own misbehavior. The Reverend Samuel Parris found in the investigation of witchcraft a convenient means of consolidating his shaky position in a parish that was murmuring against his "undemocratic" conduct of the church. The Reverend John Hale, a conscientious and troubled minister who, given the premises, must have represented something like the best that Puritan New England had to offer, and whose agonies of doubt might have been expected to call forth the highest talents of a serious playwright, appears in The Crucible as a kind of idiotic "liberal" scoutmaster, at first cheerfully confident of his ability to cope with the Devil's wiles and in the last act babbling hysterically in an almost comic contrast to the assured dignity of the main characters. Deputy Governor Danforth, presented as the virtual embodiment of early New England, never becomes more than a pompous, unimaginative politician of the better sort.

As for the victims themselves, the most significant fact is Miller's choice of John Proctor for his leading character…. It is all too easy to make Proctor into the "common man"—and then, of course, we know where we are: Proctor wavers a good deal, fails to understand what is happening, wants only to be left alone with his wife and his farm, considers making a false confession, but in the end goes to his death for reasons that he finds a little hard to define but that are clearly good reasons—mainly, it seems, he does not want to implicate others. You will never learn from this John Proctor that Salem was a religious community, quite as ready to hand a Quaker as a witch. The saintly Rebecca Nurse is also there, to be sure, sketched in rapidly in the background, a quiet figure whose mere presence—there is little more of her than that—reminds us how far the dramatist has fallen short.

Nor has Mr. Miller hesitated to alter the facts to fit his constricted field of vision. Abigail Williams, one of the chief accusers in the trials, was about eleven years old in 1692; Miller makes her a young woman of eighteen or nineteen and invents an adulterous relation between her and John Proctor in order to motivate her denunciation of John and his wife Elizabeth. The point is not that this falsifies the facts of Proctor's life (though one remembers uneasily that he himself was willing to be hanged rather than confess to what was not true), but that it destroys the play, offering an easy theatrical motive that even in theatrical terms explains nothing, and deliberately casting away the element of religious and psychological complexity which gives the Salem trials their dramatic interest in the first place. In a similar way, Miller risks the whole point of Death of a Salesman by making his plot turn on the irrelevant discovery of Willy Loman's adultery. And in both plays the fact of adultery itself is slighted: it is brought in not as a human problem, but as a mere theatrical device, like the dropping of a letter; one cannot take an interest in Willy Loman's philandering, or believe in Abigail Williams' passion despite the barnyard analogies with which the playwright tries to make it "elemental."

Mr. Miller's steadfast, one might almost say selfless, refusal of complexity, the assured simplicity of his view of human behavior, may be the chief source of his ability to captivate the educated audience. He is an oddly depersonalized writer; one tries in vain to define his special quality, only to discover that it is perhaps not a quality at all, but something like a method, and even as a method strangely bare: his plays are as neatly put together and essentially as empty as that skeleton of a house which made Death of a Salesman so impressively confusing. He is the playwright of an audience that believes the frightening complexities of history and experience are to be met with a few ideas, and yet does not even possess these ideas...

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George Jean Nathan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As [August] Strindberg was the most positive influence on O'Neill so [Henrik] Ibsen is the most positive on Arthur Miller. O'Neill as a consequence was primarily interested in analyzing the grinding emotions of man and woman that often lie below the calmer surface emotions. Miller as a consequence is primarily interested in man's sociological aspects. Above all, O'Neill as a dramatist was concerned with character, whereas Miller seems in large part to be concerned with theme and with character only incidentally…. [In] The Crucible, his latest play, we find all theme and no character. His people are spokesmen for him, not for themselves. They possess humanity, when they possess it at all, only in the distant...

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Brooks Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"A View from the Bridge" has power and substance. It is based on a story that Mr. Miller once heard in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lives. Eddie, an ordinary longshoreman, is unconsciously in love with his niece—the daughter of his wife's dead sister. Early in the play two of his wife's Italian relatives are smuggled in and start to live furtively in Eddie's apartment. Catherine, the niece, falls in love with the younger Italian brother and proposes to marry him.

Eddie does not understand why he opposes the marriage so violently, nor do any of the other people who are involved. Searching around for a plausible reason, Eddie convinces himself that the young Italian is a homosexual whose only...

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Richard J. Foster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sooner or later most discussions of the merits of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman turn to the question of the possibility of modern tragedy. Given the conditions of the modern world, the question runs, is it possible to write true tragedy in our time? Of course the very asking of the question sounds the negative. But there are likely to be answerers around who will invoke the names of certain moderns—Ibsen, or Strindberg, or O'Neill, or [Sean] O'Casey, or even Arthur Miller—who are alleged to have made tragedies out of the common materials of modern life. And Miller himself, in response to commentators who have denied that Salesman is a tragedy, has vigorously affirmed, in an essay called...

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Richard A. Duprey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the accents of ordinary speech, in the idiom of the mundane, the conventional, the everyday, Arthur Miller has pitted his not inconsequential talents as a playwright against the difficult, if not absolutely impossible, problem of fashioning a tragic hero out of the common clay of contemporary man. With Death of A Salesman many thought he had achieved that self-set goal and largely as a result of that play, having never really found a true success since, Miller attained something close to first rank status among American playwrights.

Arthur Miller is, in a certain sense, Henrik Ibsen warmed over for a contemporary audience. Like O'Neill, he would be a new Sophocles and like O'Neill he falls...

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Henry Popkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miller expresses regret, in the Introduction to his Collected Plays, that he failed to make his villains sufficiently wicked; he thinks now that he should have represented them as being dedicated to evil for its own sake. I suspect that most students of The Crucible will feel that he has made them quite wicked enough. For one thing, he has established their depravity by inserting a number of clear references to the investigators and blacklisters of his own time. He has made Proctor ask, significantly: "Is the accuser always holy now?" To the automatic trustworthiness of accusers he has added the advantage of confession (always efficacious for former Communists), the necessity of naming the names of...

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R. H. Gardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some have interpreted [Death of a Salesman] as an attack upon the "American dream"—which I take to mean the idea that ours is a land of unlimited opportunity in which any ragamuffin can attain riches and any mother's son become President. Others have chosen to regard it as a contemporary King Lear—the tragedy of the common old man of today, as opposed to that of the extraordinary old man of Shakespeare's time. The symbolic significance of the hero's name (low man) and the fact that Mr. Miller gave him an occupation associated in the public's mind with the average white-collar worker have both been cited as evidence to support this view. Still others have sought to explain the play thematically, as...

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C.W.E. Bigsby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In a sense], Miller could be said to have paved the way for that revival of the American theatre which started in 1959, for like O'Neill before him he was a playwright prepared to confront seriously aspects of the human situation ignored by a theatre obsessed with psychology and sociology…. His achievement lies not in his sensitivity to contemporary issues but in his ability to penetrate to the metaphysical implications of those issues. Nevertheless Miller never entirely shakes himself free of the influence of the commercial theatre while even in theatrical form he has tended towards conservatism. In his introduction to The Collected Plays … he disapproves of certain new trends and emphasizes that a play...

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Lois Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Willy Loman, the salesman who sacrifices himself upon the altar of the American dream, has become as much of an American culture hero as Huck Finn. Like [Mark] Twain's boy, Willy has met with enormous public success and is capable of moving the middlebrow audience as well as the intellectual sophisticate. The latter, however, has belabored Death of a Salesman to no end with two questions: Is the play primarily a socio-political criticism of American culture, or, does Willy Loman fall far enough to be a tragic figure?

While these issues are continually provocative, they, as Miller points out in his famous Introduction to the Collected Plays, have been explored ad nauseum and to the point...

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John H. Ferres

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For a play that was often dismissed as a political tract for the times, Arthur Miller's The Crucible has survived uncommonly well. In addition to wide use in English and drama courses, it has become a staple of courses in American Civilization both in high school and college. In the theater its popularity continues undiminished, both in this country and abroad…. Next to Death of a Salesman, The Crucible remains Miller's most popular play. (p. 8)

The contemporary appeal of The Crucible can hardly be attributed to any analogy it draws between the Salem witch hunts of 1692 and Joe McCarthy's Communist hunts, however, since the majority of those who see or read the play today are...

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Marvin Kitman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is hard for me to say whether I liked [Playing for Time] itself. Ice cream is something you like, vanilla or chocolate. The movie was a morbid, frequently horrifying drama—as sickening and shocking a television experience as I've had since Holocaust….

The situation was not helped by the German guards coming across as music lovers, making you think at times that Auschwitz was a perverted camp in the Berkshires. Especially disturbing was the incomplete portrait of Dr. Mengele, Herr Kommandant. What did this little man in the white lab coat do, I kept thinking, aside from listening to good classical music?

The basic shortcoming was Miller's script. He never really...

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Neil Carson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An individual's assessment of Miller as a playwright will depend,… on his own biases and presuppositions. If he is primarily interested in theatrical experimentation and novelty, he will find little to interest him in the plays. Miller's explorations of form have never taken him far from the highroad of realism…. From the rich storehouse of theatrical trickery accumulated in this century by the expressionists, symbolists, surrealists or absurdists, Miller has borrowed practically nothing.

This is not to suggest that Miller has been indifferent to dramatic form. Quite the contrary. Indeed each new play has been a fresh attempt to find a suitable vehicle for his dramatic vision. When he has...

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