In the wake of the early to mid-twentieth century, a period of postwar devastation and depression in the United States, Arthur Miller penned plays that scrutinized a troubled and self-reflecting American generation trying to pick up the pieces of historical change. In so doing, he redefined American theater and opened the world’s eyes to an otherwise unglamorous side to the “American Dream.”
Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in Harlem, New York, to a Polish and Jewish immigrant family. His father’s clothing manufacturing business, once prosperous, failed as a result of the Great Depression, putting the Miller family in dire financial straits and young Arthur to work after graduating high school. Miller saved up enough money to enroll in the University of Michigan in 1934, during which he edited for the Michigan Daily and began writing fiction.
Ironically, a novel, not a play, was what first boosted Miller into commercial success; Miller’s Focus (1945), set and published in the aftermath of World War II, recounts a Gentile man’s somber experience with racism and anti-Semitism in New York. Shortly after, Miller wrote the play All My Sons, written and staged on Broadway in 1947, about the consequences of a businessman’s faulty practices and his subsequent feelings of guilt. The play became a commercial and critical sensation, earning Miller his first Tony Award for Best Author.
Only two years later, in 1949, Miller penned his most famous play, Death of a Salesman, about Willy Loman, a failing salesman who struggles to support his family and adapt to American society’s fast-paced changes. Death of a Salesman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and six Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Direction, and Best Author (Miller’s second). It ran for more than seven hundred performances and has been translated into several languages; critics have regarded it as a classic in American theater and literature.
Another noteworthy play of Miller’s that garnered public attention (and the government’s ire) was The Crucible, written in 1953. The play is set during the famed witchcraft trials of Salem, Massachusetts, in the late seventeenth century and narrates the fate of an adulterous farmer, John Proctor, who is accused of witchcraft and stripped of all his identity following such accusations. Though the play won the Tony Award for Best Play, it placed Miller under scrutiny by the U.S. Congress for alleged subversion and communist activities—a near-poetic, Proctor-esque development. In 1956, Miller was convicted of contempt by the House Un-American Activities Committee for failure to cooperate with authorities, though the conviction was overturned the following year.
From 1956 to 1961, Miller was married to famed Hollywood celebrity Marilyn Monroe; the couple divorced as a result of relationship difficulties and Monroe’s drug abuse, from which she would pass away the following year at the age of thirty-six. Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, about a New York couple’s short failed marriage resulting in the suicide of the wife, was said to be too closely based on the playwright’s marriage with Monroe and became the subject of public and critical disapproval.
The following years, Miller wrote other plays centered on his usual themes of depression, guilt, family, prejudice, and self-doubt in postwar America—including Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), and The American Clock (1980)—and in 1987, he published his autobiography, titled Timebends: A Life.
Miller passed away at the age of eighty-nine in Connecticut on February 10, 2005—incidentally the fifty-sixth anniversary of the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman.
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