Arthur Miller's Jewish Themes

Judaism and Jewish identity in the work of Arthur Miller.

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Abridged and reprinted with permission from the Forward (July 30, 2004).

As the drama critic Martin Gottfried pointed out in his biography, Arthur Miller: His Life and Work (Da Capo Press, 2003), Miller is the only great British or American playwright to "write a play about what it means to be Jewish, apparently trying to deal with his own Jewishness."

Gottfried was speaking of Broken Glass, a 1994 drama set on the eve of the Holocaust, but Miller laced his writings with Jewish themes and characters for more than half a century, since his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan.

First Confrontations with Jewishness

After graduating in the spring of 1938, Miller wrote two Jewish-themed plays in two years: The Grass Still Grows, an autobiographical family comedy with socialist overtones, and The Golden Years, an epic account of Cortez's conquest of the Aztec Kingdom that doubled as a metaphoric excoriation of the Allies for attempting to appease Hitler.

Miller failed to get either play produced and became convinced that the New York theatre establishment was scared to tackle overtly Jewish material. But in 1945 Miller scored a commercial success with his only novel, Focus, which, along with Laura Z. Hobson's Gentleman's Agreement, broke new societal ground in shining a critical light on the persistence of anti-Semitism. In several of his subsequent works, including After the Fall, Miller would grapple with the question of whether morality could exist in the shadow of the Holocaust.

Death of a Salesman

Despite his undeniable penchant for delving into Jewish issues throughout his literary career, any attempt to justify the inclusion of Miller in a Jewish canon would be seriously diminished if it failed to find a way to incorporate Death of a Salesman. Yet such efforts are trivialized if they simply consist of dragging Willy Loman out of the Jewish closet--a pitfall difficult to avoid, given Miller's refusal to grant much significance to the ethnic origins of his most famed character. In his 1987 autobiography, Timebends, Miller described the Lomans as Jews who were "light years away from a... Jewish identity," and, more than a decade later, during a 1999 interview cited by Gottfried, Miller downplayed the issue, remarking that "ethnic particularity seems to me such an artificial limitation."

Jewishness, however, can be an elusive trait, manifesting itself in ways both deeper and subtler than a surname or synagogue attendance. As the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom has argued: Willy Loman is "not supposed to be Jewish," but "something crucial in him is Jewish" and the "play does belong to that undefined entity we can call Jewish literature."

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Ami Eden

Ami Eden is the Editor-In-Chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He was previously the National Editor of the Forward.