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As part of the Jon Hopwood Recovery Project
The Holy Grail for 20th-century American writers was something called "The Great American Novel," a quest that remained unfulfilled. In the late 1960s a critical consensus began to emerge that F. Scott Fitzgerald had come close with his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, a story about the dehumanization of Americans by materialism. Close, but no cigar. The critical rap on Fitzgerald by his contemporaries was that he had a marvelous talent, but that he was philosophically ignorant. This lack of consciousness, and his pandering to the upscale markets that bought his short fiction, were considered severe shortfalls that prevented him from achieving true greatness, other than his greatness of that peculiar American type, the failure who was once a young genius. By the 1960s, when different standards became the criteria by which "greatness" was adjudged, a controlling consciousness was no longer considered de rigueur for greatness. "The Great Gatsby" was close to the Great American Novel, but The Quest for the Grail continued.
Perhaps American critics and other cultural arbiters were looking for the "Great American Novel" in the wrong place. Amending it to "The Great American Work of Fiction," that distinction likely would fall upon Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. While Miller was nowhere near as acclaimed a master as Eugene O'Neill, who had virtually ceased being produced on Broadway by the time Miller made his ascent up through the ranks of American playwrights, nor as popular as his contemporary Tennessee Williams, no play had the impact on an audience or on American culture as Salesman did. That it continues to be revived successfully a half-century after its debut on Broadway is testimony to its greatness, and that of its author.
Death of a Salesman is not the finest American play ever written. Indeed, when reading it one is often struck by the crudeness of its writing and the feebleness of its rhetorical strategies. Plays aren't meant to be read, however; they are meant to be performed, and watching Death of a Salesman is the most harrowing experience offered by the American theater. There were tales in 1949 of grown men, hardened by the Depression and WWII, breaking down in tears at the climax of the play. In terms of its power to move an audience, Miller had created the greatest work of American fictive writing; his career would be overshadowed by that one work, which ensured his greatness, for the rest of his life. Ironically, he would die on the 56th anniversary of the play's premiere.
The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City. His father manufactured womens coats, but his business was devastated by the Depression, seeding his son's disillusionment with the American Dream and those blue-sky-seeking Americans who pursued it with both eyes focused on the Grail of Materialism. Due to his father's strained financial circumstances, Miller had to work for tuition money to attend the University of Michigan. It was at Michigan that he wrote his first plays. They were successes, earning him numerous student awards, including the Avery Hopwood Award in Drama for "No Villain" in 1937. The award was named after one of the most successful playwrights of the 1920s, who simultaneously had five hits on Broadway, the 'Neil Simon (I)' of his day. Now almost forgotten except for his contribution to "Gold Diggers of 1933," Hopwood achieved a material success that the older Miller could not match, but he failed to capture the immortality that would be Miller's. Hopwood's suicide, on the beach of the Cote d'Azur, inspired Norman Maine's march into the SoCal surf in A Star Is Born (1937). It seemed to encapsulate the American dilemma: the achievement of success was no panacea for an America soul-sick from its pursuit.
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Miller tasted success at a tender age. In 1938, upon graduating from Michigan, he received a Theatre Guild National Award and returned to New York, joining the Federal Theatre Project. He married his college girlfriend, Mary Grace Slattery, in 1940; they would have two children, Joan and Robert. In 1944, he made his Broadway debut with The Man Who Had All the Luck," a flop that lasted only four performances. He went on to publish two books, Situation Normal in '44, and Focus in 1945, but it was in 1947 that his star became ascendant. His play All My Sons, directed by Elia Kazan, became a hit on Broadway, running for 328 performances. Both Miller and Kazan received Tony Awards, and Miller won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It was a taste of what was to come.
Death of a Salesman
In 1983, Arthur Miller himself directed a staging of Death of a Salesman in Chinese at the Beijing Peoples' Art Theatre. He said that while the Chinese, then largely ignorant of capitalism, might not have understood Loman's career choice, they did have empathy for his desire to drink from the Grail of the American Dream. They understood this dream, which Miller characterizes as the desire "to excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved, and above all, perhaps, to count." It is this desire to sup at the table of the great American Capitalists, even if one is just scrounging for crumbs, in a country of which President Calvin Coolidge said, "The business of America is business," this desire to be recognized, to be somebody, that so moves Death of a Salesmanaudiences, whether in New York, London or Beijing.
Arthur Miller never again attained the critical heights nor smash Broadway success of Death of a Salesman, though he continued to write fine plays that were appreciated by critics and audiences alike for another two decades. Disenchanted with Kazan over his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the two parted company when Kazan refused to direct The Crucible, Miller's parable of the witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Defending her husband, Kazan's wife Molly told Miller that the play was disingenuous, as there were no real witches in Puritan Salem. It was a point Miller disagreed with, as it was a matter of perspective--the witches in Salem were real to those who believed in them. Directed by another Broadway legend, Jed Harris, the play ran for 197 performances and won Miller the 1953 Tony Award for Best Play. Miller had another success with "A View from the Bridge," a play about an incest-minded longshoreman written with overtones of classical Greek tragedy, which ran for 149 performances in the 1955-56 season.
It was in 1956 that Miller made his most fateful personal decision, when he divorced his wife Mary and married movie siren-cum-legend Marilyn Monroe. With this marriage Miller achieved a different type of fame, a pop culture status he abhorred. It was a marriage doomed to fail, as Monroe was, in Miller's words, "highly self-destructive." In his beautifully written 1989 autobiography Timebends, Miller wrote that a marriage was a conspiracy to keep out the light. When one or more of the partners could no longer prevent the light from coming in and illuminating the other's faults, the marriage was doomed.
In his own autobiography, A Life, Elia Kazan said that he could not understand the marriage. Monroe, who had slept with Kazan on a casual basis, as she did with many other Hollywood players, was the type of woman someone took as a mistress, not as a wife. Miller, however, was a man of principle. He was in love. "[A]ll my energy and attention were devoted to trying to help her solve her problems," Miller confessed to a French newspaper in 1992. "Unfortunately, I didn't have much success."
The conspiracy collapsed during the filming of The Misfits (1961), with Oscar-winning director John Huston (one of the more literate filmmakers in Hollywood who himself started out as a screenwriter) shooting the original script Miller had written expressly for his wife. The genesis of the story had come to him while waiting out a divorce from his first wife Mary in Nevada. Monroe hated her character Roslyn, claiming that Miller had made her out to be the dumb blond stereotype she so loathed and had been trying to escape. Withering in her criticism of Miller, and ultimately unfaithful to him, she and Miller separated.
Norman Mailer, in his dubious 1973 biography Marilyn, ridiculed Arthur Miller for not doing enough to help Monroe, for not being man enough to keep her. Movie critic Pauline Kael, in turn, lambasted Mailer, saying it was simply a matter of petty machismo and jealousy, that the nearly eight-year-younger Mailer resented Miller (who, unlike Mailer, was never shy about his Judaism), his respectable reputation and his conquest of Marilyn. Ironically, Mailer had lived in the same Brooklyn boarding house as Miller did, after World War II. What Mailer seemed to resent most of all was never being invited over to meet the Missus when they lived close by one another in Connecticut in the late 1950s.
According to Arthur Miller in his autobiography Timebends, he had written a screenplay dealing with corruption on the New York waterfront called The Hook. Elia Kazan had agreed to direct it, and in 1951 they went to see Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures about making the picture. Cohn agreed in principle to make The Hook, but his minions were troubled by the portrayal of corrupt union officials. When Cohn asked that the antagonists of the script be changed to Communists, Miller refused. Cohn sent Miller a letter telling him it was interesting that he had resisted Columbia's desire to make the movie pro-American.
Elia Kazan later made a movie about corruption on the waterfront that did include corrupt union officials, based on articles by Malcolm Johnson. He asked Arthur Miller to write the script, but Miller declined due to his disenchantment with Kazan's friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Budd Schulberg, a fellow HUAC informer, developed the story and wrote the script. The movie was produced by Sam Spiegel and distributed through Columbia. On the Waterfront (1954), which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, is considered a classic and was one of the first films named to the National Film Preservation Board's National Film Registry in 1989.
In 1956, Arthur Miller was forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1956, after he had sought a passport to accompany his wife, Marilyn Monroe, to England for the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). In 1954 the US State Department had refused to renew his passport (first issued in 1947) on the grounds that he was a "fellow traveler". Subsequent to his 1956 request, HUAC subpoenaed Miller to testify about the unauthorized use of American passports. The justification of the subpoena was that the State Department was withholding approval of his latest request due to derogatory information about Miller's past.
In his HUAC testimony, Miller admitted to involvement with many Communist-front organizations and having had sponsored many Communist-backed causes in the 1940s. When Miller was asked whether he had signed an application to join the Communist Party in 1939 or '40, he explained that he believed he had signed an application for a course on Marxism. The date was significant for it was the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939 (thus enabling the launching of World War II by allying the USSR with Germany, partitioning Poland between the two countries, and allowing Adolf Hitler to concentrate his war machine on the West), that led many American Communist Party members, like friendly witness Elia Kazan, to repudiate the Party. To have stuck with the Party or to have joined after the Pact would tar one as a Stalinist.
Claiming he could not remember, Miller refused to deny that he had signed statements attacking H.U.A.C. and the Smith Act, and signing a statement against outlawing the Communist party. The Alien Registration Act of 1940, a.k.a. the Smith Act, had been used to destroy the Communist Party. It banned knowingly or willfully advocating, abetting, advising, or teaching the necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing the government of the U.S. or any of its subdivisions by force or violence, or by assassination of its officials. It also outlawed the printing, publishing, editing and distribution of materials advocating violent revolution, and made it a crime to organize, help or make attempts to organize any group advocating the same. The U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the Smith Act in 1951. Upholding the conspiracy convictions of 11 Communist Party leaders, the Court, applying a clear and present danger test, held that free speech could be curbed in order to suppress a serious evil.
Arthur Miller told H.U.A.C. that he opposed the Smith Act because it might limit "advocacy," which was essential to literature. The right to free expression for artists had to be preserved. Miller's culpability hanged upon his helping a group, i.e., the Communist Party, which advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Miller testified that he had attended Communist party writers' meetings four or five times. When he was asked to confirm the identity of the chairman of a 1947 "meeting of Communist party writers" that he had attended, Miller refused to name names. He stated that though he "would not support now a cause dominated by Communists . . . my conscience will not permit me to use the name of another person and bring trouble to him."
Section 6 of The Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 made it illegal for any member of a registered Communist or Communist-front organization, or an organization under order to be filed as Communist or Communist-front, to apply for or use a passport if they had knowledge of the actual or impending registration. The provision was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 as violating the Fifth Amendment's due process clause. The Court held that the law infringed on the right to travel, and limited "freedom of association."
Faulting Section 6 for being too broad in its application, the Court held it to be unconstitutional as it penalized organization members regardless of their knowledge of its illegal aims, whether they were active or not, and whether they intended to further the organization's illegal aims or not. The law was too broad as it effected "Communist-action" and "Communist-front" organizations whether or not a member believed or knew that they were associated with such an organization, or whether they knew that the organization sought to further the aims of world Communism. (However, the next year, the Court upheld State Department area restrictions on passports, finding that its passport policies did not violate the First Amendment as they inhibited action rather than expression. This distinction was again upheld in 1981.)
In 1956, however, Section 6 of The Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 was still the law of the land, and it was the law with which H.U.A.C. went after Miller. H.U.A.C. gave Miller an additional ten days to return and answer questions, with the implication that he would be cited for contempt if he did no do so. Miller's lawyers counseled that since the committee's line of questioning had nothing to do with passports, he was not in contempt of Congress for choosing not to answer a question about an unrelated subject. He refused to participate in any further questioning.
The State Department issued Miller a six-month temporary passport to accompany Monroe to England, but upon his return, he was indicted by a federal grand jury after the U.S. House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite him for contempt. He was convicted of contempt in federal court, fined $500 and given a thirty-day suspended prison sentence. In 1958, his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Citing a 1955 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that H.U.A.C had not sufficiently warned Miller of the penalty for refusing to answer a congressional committee's questions.
Arthur Miller won the respect of the left and libertarians for doing what many others in his position did not: Stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, regardless of the personal cost. His moral courage, which was on display in his life as well as his literature, made him a true American hero.
After the Fall
Arthur Miller never again achieved success on Broadway with an original play. In the 1980s, when he was hailed as the greatest living American playwright after the death of Tennessee Williams, he even had trouble getting full-scale revivals of his work staged. One of his more significant later works, "The American Clock", based on Studs Terkel's oral history of the Great Depression Hard Times, ran for only 11 previews and 12 performances in late 1980 at the Biltmore Theatre.
Arthur Miller wrote plays, screenplays, novels, short stories, non-fiction, and an autobiography, but it will be for Death of a Salesman that he will be remembered. It is the "Great American Fiction" of the 20th century, if not the Great American Play, perfectly encapsulating what was wrong with America in that tumultuous century. The play has become a standard warhorse, now revived each decade on Broadway, and all over the world.
Arthur Miller based his works on American history, his own life, and his observations of the American scene. Though uniquely American, they simultaneously were universal stories about an individual's struggle with his society, his family, and especially, himself. Miller's characters suffer from anxiety, depression, and guilt, and it was the genius of Miller to portray their pain and sorrow realistically, creating works that were familiar, yet uncanny in their power to move an audience. Miller's stature is based on his refusal to avoid moral and social issues in his writing, even when the personal cost was terrible. Miller might not have been the greatest writer in America, but his bravery and his willingness to fight for what he believed in his chosen art form made him a great American whose name will live on in world letters.
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