Arthur Miller


This Knol was written by Jon Hopwood
It is being distributed here under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
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
Staged by Elia Kazan, Death of a Salesman opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, and closed 742 performances later on Nov 18, 1950. The play was the sensation of the season, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Play and Best Author for Miller. Miller also was awarded the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play made lead actor Lee J. Cobb, as Willy Loman, an icon of the stage comparable to the Stanley Kowalski of Marlon Brando: a synthesis of actor and role that created a legend that survives through the bends of time. A contemporary classic was recognized, though some critics complained that the play wasn't truly a tragedy, as Willy Loman was such a pathetic soul. The fall of such a small person as Loman could not qualify as tragedy, as there was so little height from which to fall. Miller, a dedicated progressive and a man of integrity, never accepted the criticism. As Willy's wife Linda said at his funeral, "Attention must be paid," even to the little people who were crucified alongside the capitalist gods in the pursuit of the American Dream.

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.
Marriage to Marilyn

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.
Arthur Miller would later reunite with Kazan to launch the new Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, with the play After the Fall, a fictionalization of his relationship with Monroe. After the Fall ran for 208 performances in repertory in 1964 and 1965 and won 1964 Tony Awards for Jason Robards and Kazan's future wife Barbara Loden, playing the Miller and Monroe stand-ins Quentin and Maggie. Miller's own Incident at Vichy played in repertory with After the Fall in the 1965 season, but lasted only 32 performances.

House Un-American Activities Committee 

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

In 1967 Miller became President of P.E.N., an international literacy organization that campaigned for the rights of suppressed writers. He published a collection of short stories entitled I Don't Need You Any More the same year. Returning to the Morosco Theatre, the site of his greatest triumph, The Price was Miller's last unqualified hit in America, running for 429 performances between February 7, 1968 and February 15, 1969. Though Miller won a 1968 Tony Award for Best Play, the bulk of his success as an original playwright was over. A 1971 TV production of The Price was nominated for six Emmy awards, including Outstanding Single Program-Drama or Comedy, and won three, including Best Actor for George C. Scott, who would later win a 1976 Tony playing Willy Loman in a 1975 Broadway revival.

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.
In 1980, Miller courted controversy by backing the casting of anti-Zionist Vanessa Redgrave as a concentration-camp Jewess in his teleplay Playing for Time (1980) (TV), an adaptation of the memoir The Musicians of Auschwitz. Another politically active Jew in show business, soon-to-be-president of the Screen Actors Guild Edward Asner, recommended that other Jews shun Miller. Commercial Broadway producers didn't need Asner's advice to shun Miller, however. Ironically for America's greatest living playwright, his original work was popular in Britain, whose intellectual and theatrical communities treated him as a major figure in world literature. The universality of his work was highlighted with his own successful staging of Death of a Salesman in Beijing in 1983.

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.
In addition to George C. Scott and Lee J. Cobb (who received an Emmy nomination for the 1966 teleplay; Miller himself received a Special Citation from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for that production), Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy have garnered kudos for playing Willie Loman. The 1984 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman won a Tony for best Reproduction and helped revive Miller's domestic reputation, while Volker Schlöndorff's 1985 TV film of Death of a Salesman, based on the 1984 revival, won 10 Emmy nominations, including one for Miller as executive producer of the Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special. Dustin Hoffman won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for playing Willy Loman. The hit 1999 revival won four Tonys, including Brian Dennehy for Best Actor, while running for 274 performances at the Eugene O''Neill Theatre.

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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