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."

"Attention must be paid," Linda Loman demands of her son, and by extension, the audience, in the first act of Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman’s struggling salesman is crushed under the weight of his own failure, and the failure of his dreams for his son Biff. "I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you," Biff tells his father. "You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy!....I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!" The American Dream flips over to reveal its underside, abject failure, and the terror of admitting defeat.

The Crucible (1953) drew on a shameful episode in American history, treating the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century as a loaded parable for the Red scare of the 1950s. Prodded by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s politically motivated manipulation of facts, the House Un-American Activity Committee closely investigated the links between theater and film artists and Communism. Miller’s play casts the Red Scare, by extension, as another in a line of morally ill-informed, hysterically inclined outbreaks of homegrown repression.

In The Crucible, John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth are undone by the illogic of their repressive Christian judges. In their contorted frame of reference, only women who admitted to being witches could be freed from prison; those who refused to acknowledge their dealings with the Devil would be found guilty, and put to death. John is another in Miller’s line of flawed but decent protagonists, his dalliance with Abigail Williams, the leader of the purported witches, his lone fall from grace. Proctor’s confrontation with the judge, Danforth, evokes the way Miller might have defended his reputation to HUAC. "Because it is my name. Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

Miller was eventually called before HUAC himself in 1956, where he testified about his own dalliances with Communism, but refused to name other names. Miller was found in contempt of Congress, a ruling that was eventually overturned in 1958. At the same time, Miller was being thrust into the public eye in a fashion he had never previously experienced, marrying actress Marilyn Monroe in 1956. Their union lasted five years--long enough for Miller to write an original screenplay that would serve as a vehicle for her. The Misfits (1961), co-starring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, was a famously vexed production, and by the time the film premiered, the couple had divorced. Miller would go on to write the play After the Fall (1964), which would be widely understood as a scathing portrait of his marriage to Monroe.

Miller’s work was Jewish in inclination, its interest in ethnicity and family shifting from the Jewish world of his youth to the Italian immigrants of A View from the Bridge (1956) and the anguished Lomans of Death of a Salesman. Only in his 1945 novel Focus did Miller explicitly turn his attention to Jewish characters, and explicitly Jewish subject matter.

The novel’s protagonist, Newman, is a non-Jew who doesn't care much for the Jews and other minorities who are moving into his neighborhood. When the book starts, he buys a new set of glasses, and people begin to mistake him for a Jew. Although the premise sounds comical, the novel quickly changes gears--Newman joins a white-supremacist group called Christian Front and terrorizes Finkelstein, a Jewish candy-store owner. The ending is weirdly tragic and hopeful at the same time: Finkelstein has a bright future ahead of him, but at the cost of his past. Meanwhile, Newman is consumed by the consequences of his bigotry, and eventually loses everything--his wife, his neighborhood, and his self-respect.

In later years, Miller wrote a well-regarded memoir, Timebends (1987), and was the winner of numerous lifetime achievement awards, including the Jerusalem Prize and the National Medal of Arts. Miller’s theatrical style has been enormously influential on a new generation of American playwrights, including Kushner, August Wilson, and Sam Shepard. He died in 2005, one of the most lauded figures in 20th century American letters.

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Saul Austerlitz

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