Arthur Miller: A Biography

Yiddish-speaking playwright who became America's playwright.


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“Arthur Miller’s was a great voice, one of the principal voices, raised in opposition, calling for resistance, offering critical scrutiny and lamentation,” said Tony Kushner, one of Miller’s foremost disciples, in his celebratory essay “Kushner on Miller.” In his plays and other writings, Miller’s voice was notable for its aura of authority, of bearing witness to the agonies of everyday Americans. It was also a distinctly Jewish voice, with echoes of the Bible and the sages in its brooding melancholy and moral vigor. “It’s Jewish…in its faith that words have an awesome, almost sacred, power, force, weight,” says Kushner. “God, or the world, is listening, Arthur Miller reminds us, and when you speak, when you write, God, or the world, is also speaking and writing.”

Miller was born in 1915 in New York City, where his father owned a clothing company. The Depression wiped out his business, and Miller’s family lost their home as well. Miller began to write plays while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

Arthur Miller

Miller’s early plays revolve around the conflict between parents and children, the older generation and the younger. Submerged truths float to the surface, propelled by the force of family dysfunction and the ethical crusading of youth. Both All My Sons (1947), winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Death of a Salesman (1949), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award, reach their emotional pinnacle when sons confront their fathers, demanding recognition of buried secrets. Chris, in All My Sons, demands that his beloved father acknowledge his own moral culpability in sending out cracked engine-heads from his factory that caused the death of 21 pilots during World War II, including his other son, Larry. “You can be better!” he cajoles his parents. “Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that’s why he died.”

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Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.

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