Arthur Miller

November 6, 2012 2:02 pm
Arthur Miller (1915-2005), American dramatist, whose works are concerned with the responsibility of each individual to other members of society. Simply and colloquially written, Miller’s plays sprang from his social conscience and from his compassion for those who are vulnerable to the false values imposed on them by society. Some critics regard Miller’s work as the most serious attempt in recent American drama to achieve the tragic force of ancient Greek plays.

Born in New York City, Miller was the son of a coat manufacturer who suffered financial ruin in the Great Depression of the 1930s. After graduating from high school, Miller worked and saved money for college. From 1934 to 1938, he studied at the University of Michigan. As a student, Miller won awards for his comedy The Grass Still Grows. After graduation, he returned to New York City to write.
Miller’s first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), opened to poor reviews and closed after four performances. His first successful play was All My Sons, which the New York Drama Critics’ Circle chose as the best play of 1947. All My Sons revolves around Joe Keller, the family patriarch, who has sold defective parts for war planes and allowed his partner to take the blame. A study of the effect of opportunism on family relationships, it foreshadowed much of Miller’s later work. Another of Miller’s early achievements was the novel Focus (1945), an attack on anti-Semitism that was well received.
Miller’s major achievement was the play Death of a Salesman (1949). It won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the 1949 Tony Award for best play, and the 1949 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of the year. It is considered a milestone in America drama.
Death of a Salesman tells, in almost poetic terms, the tragic story of Willy Loman, an average man much like Miller’s father. Loman is a traveling salesman who has devoted his life to the pursuit of “success.” His misguided philosophy has ruined the lives of his wife and two sons. When Loman is too old to travel, he loses his job. In a series of scenes, brilliantly dramatized by the playwright, Loman relives his experiences. Eventually his mind begins to fail, and he commits suicide.
Although Miller generally wrote in a realistic style (see Realism), much of Death of a Salesman is conveyed expressionistically (see Expressionism) through Willy Loman’s mind and memory. As Loman becomes more and more absorbed by scenes from his past, the action progressively takes place in his mind. The play becomes a collage of memories with rapid, surreal shifts in setting and time. Its expressionistic setting is ideally suited to the dialogue, which, though recognizably colloquial, is eloquent and lyrical.
In Miller’s plays, the past exerts an inescapable influence on the present. Embattled fathers and sons and competitive brothers, all guilt-ridden, must atone for their betrayals. Willy Loman, Miller’s most famous guilty father, like Joe Keller in All My Sons, commits suicide, thereby completing the disfiguring role model he has bequeathed to his sons. In A View from the Bridge (1955), Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, kills himself after finally recognizing that his betrayal of his niece’s boyfriend, an illegal alien, has been motivated by jealousy.
Individual guilt often unfolds in Miller’s plays against momentous backdrops: for example, the Depression, the Holocaust, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigations of the 1950s. For Miller, theater served as a forum for social and political enlightenment. His play The Crucible (1953), although concerned with the Salem witchcraft trials, was actually aimed at the then widespread congressional investigation of subversive activities in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The drama won the 1953 Tony Award. Miller himself appeared before the HUAC in 1956. He was convicted of contempt for refusing to name “leftist” associates, but the conviction was later appealed and reversed.
Questions of guilt and individual responsibility persist in Miller’s later dramas, including Incident at Vichy (1964), about French Jews sent to death camps during the German occupation of France in World War II; The Price (1968), in which two brothers confront memories of the Great Depression; and The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977), on the Soviet treatment of dissident writers.
In The American Clock (1980) Miller created a series of dramatic vignettes about the Great Depression based on Hard Times (1970) by American writer Studs Terkel. His short stories were collected in I Don’t Need You Any More (1967) and Homely Girl, A Life, and Other Stories (1995). Miller’s observations on drama, including his own plays, appeared in The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (1978; 2nd edition, 1994).
Miller’s autobiography, Timebends: A Life, was published in 1987. In this lengthy memoir, Miller traced in scrupulous detail the genesis of each of his plays from his own domestic and political history and portrayed himself as a social and political spokesman for his generation. He also broke his public silence about his troubled marriage to motion-picture star Marilyn Monroe, from 1956 to 1961. Miller wrote the screenplay The Misfits (1961) for Monroe. His drama After the Fall (1964) is a semiautobiographical play based on his unhappy marriage. A year after his divorce from Monroe, Miller married photographer Inge Morath.
Miller’s creativity continued into his 70s and 80s, although he never repeated his earlier success. In The Ride Down Mount Morgan (1991), a somewhat surreal drama, a man in a hospital bed revisits his bigamous marriages. Broken Glass (1994), a play about Jewish identity, is set in Brooklyn in 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht. Resurrection Blues(2002) is a satire on a media-saturated world. With his last play, Finishing the Picture (2004), about a director stymied by an unstable movie star, Miller seemed to revisit his own past.
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