1915 - 2005
Popular Playwright Best Known for Death of a Salesman 1951 –
Arthur Miller’s father, a Jewish immigrant and clothing manufacturer, suffered a series of financial setbacks during the 1930s. Like many other workers and entrepreneurs, he was ruined by the Great Depression. And like many other children who grew up during the depression, Miller never forgot the devastation of poverty. As a result of this family’s experiences, he became convinced that people have a responsibility to assist each other and that all people, no matter how poor or humble, deserve consideration and sympathy. The plays that ultimately made him famous broadcast these ideas throughout American culture, sometimes in spite of harsh public criticism.
An athletic boy who grew up in Brooklyn, Miller did not display a clear interest in intellectual pursuits until he entered the University of Michigan in 1934. While studying English and journalism, he became involved with campus theatrical organization and won awards for this play The Grass Still Grows. After college the participated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, working on a variety of projects – including as a scriptwriter for radio programs – which were financed by the federal government to help combat the effects of the depression. Unable to fight in World War II because of a lingering sports injury, he continued to write during the wars years. His first Broadway production, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1994), closed after six performances, but his first novel, a protest against anti-Semitism called Focus (1945), was a critical success.
Miller began to find his dramatic voice with his second Broadway play, All My Sons, which was first performed in 1947. Although it did not impress audiences, it won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award that year and convinced many critics that Miller would rival Tennessee Williams as a premier playwright of the era. The story of a factory owner who manufactures defective airplane parts for the U.S. Air Force during World War II, All My Sons introduced Miller’s most lasting themes: the corrosiveness of guilt, the inescapable nature of human responsibility, the tensions between fathers and sons. Always concerned with providing a moral, Miller created a play that was both philosophically important and accessible.
With his 1949 masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, he perfected his style and his message. In Willy Loman, a salesman whose fantasies about success ultimately disrupt his relationships at work and at home, Miller created perhaps the most famous character in American theater. By exploring the tragic potential of a common man’s life, he also changed the public’s expectations about appropriate subject matter for the stage. His sympathetic portrayal of the desperate and ineffectual Loman ushered in a new era of American plays about ordinary people. It also earned him the 1949 Pulitzer Prize. Death of a Salesman has been performed almost continuously since its debut, in countless revivals and in theaters around the world.
Miller’s concern for the common American citizen was not always considered an admirable trait, however. In the early 1950s, while the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in the hostilities of the cold war, the government sponsored investigations into the lives of people who may have been sympathetic to the Soviet Union’s communist ideals. Protesting what the thought was a violation of Americans freedoms, Miller wrote The Crucible (1953), a play that compared the activities of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (known as HUAC) to the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century and criticized them both as products of unreasonable paranoia. The Crucible won the 1953 Tony Award, but Miller was then called to testify before HUAC to defend his writings. Though Miller never supported the Soviet Union, he refused to cooperate with the committee, proclaiming his rights to free speech, and was cited for contempt of Congress 1956. HUAC’s activities have since been condemned by most Americans, but Miller’s defiance was dangerous in the mid-1950s and nearly cost him his livelihood.
After surviving HUAC’s scrutiny, Miller continued to be an influential figure in literary circles. He also became a familiar figure in popular culture after he married actress Marilyn Monroe in 1956. He wrote the screenplay for Monroe’s 1961 film, The Misfits, but their marriage did not last, and they were divorced that same time.
Miller’s works since the mid-1960s hasn’t received the same acclaim as his earlier plays. Critics, seeking more subtle representations of modern problems, have objected to his transparent plots and his insistence that each play convey a moral lesson. And audiences have responded to his plays, short stories, and memoirs with less fervor than they had in the 1940s and 1950s. Nevertheless, in the continual film and stage adaptations of his greatest works – Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and The Crucible – Miller remains a vital force in American culture, a defender of basic freedoms and a champion of human dignity.
More detailed information can be found in the "Extraordinary American Writers" John Tessitore, and issued by The Scholastic Inc. in the USA.Information should be used just for educational purposes.