Arthur Miller: A Biography

Yiddish-speaking playwright who became America's playwright.

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"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.

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Saul Austerlitz

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