It’s the birthday of American playwright Arthur Miller (1915) (books by this author), best known for plays that examined the American dream and social conscience, like All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), and The Crucible (1953).
Miller was born in Harlem, New York, and grew up wealthy in Manhattan. His father was a successful coat manufacturer and the family had a chauffeur and a summer home in Far Rockaway. But during the Wall Street Crash (1929), the family lost everything and moved to an apartment in Flatbush in Brooklyn, where Miller shared a bed with his grandfather. Still, he recalled a boyhood of skating, football, and baseball in the streets. The Depression began when Miller was 14, and he delivered bagels on his bicycle to help the family make ends meet. He decided to be a writer after reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
It was at the University of Michigan that he had his first taste of success in the theater. His play No Villain (1934) won $250.00 in a contest. After he graduated, he joined the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and earned $22.77 a week. In 1944, after moving back to New York City, Miller had his first professional premiere with his play The Man Who Had All the Luck, but it closed after four performances. He refused to give up, though. He said, “With the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do.”
Miller’s next produced play, All My Sons (1947), ran for 328 performances and won a Tony Award. It premiered 18 months after V-J Day and audiences were ready for a back-from-the-war story. It was directed by Elia Kazan, who would collaborate with Miller on several other projects, until they had a falling out in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities hearings, during which Kazan decided to name the names of colleagues who were sympathetic to Communism. Miller refused, was cited for contempt, and had his passport revoked (1956). Miller saw a connection between the HUAC hearings and the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, and this inspired him to write the play The Crucible (1953).
Miller’s most famous play remains Death of a Salesman (1949), whose full title is Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. Miller’s original title for the play was The Inside of His Head. He wrote the play in six weeks and based the character of traveling salesman Willy Loman on his Uncle Manny, another boastful ne’er-do-well with two sons, like Willy Loman. In the play, Loman laments his station in life, saying, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit.” The play won a Tony, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, but Miller was not universally beloved. One critic found his work too obvious, calling the social commentary in his plays “like neon signs in the diner window” and actor Peter O’Toole dismissed Miller as “a bore.”
Arthur Miller wrote more than 60 plays during his lifetime, including A View from the Bridge (1955) and After the Fall (1964), a thinly veiled examination of his five-year marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962. When Miller married Monroe, writer Norman Mailer quipped, “The Great American Brain meets the Great American Body.” Monroe called Miller “Papa,” and Miller wrote the screenplay for what would be her last film, The Misfits (1961), which also starred Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. His final play before his death (2005) was Finishing the Picture (2004), a fictional account of the deterioration of the Miller-Monroe marriage during the filming of The Misfits. When asked about how he crafted his plays, Miller responded, “It’s the careful construction of hard actions, facts, the geometry of relationships.”
Arthur Miller said, “The mission of the theater, after all, is to change, to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities.”
And of the theater he said: “It’s the simplest way for one citizen to address other citizens. … It needs nothing but a board and a man to stand on it.”