Arthur Miller

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Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller.jpg
The playwright, Arthur Miller
Born
October 17 1915
New York City, New York, USA
Died
February 10 2005
Roxbury, Connecticut, USA

Arthur Asher Miller (October 17, 1915 – February 10, 2005) was an American playwright, essayist, and author. He was a prominent figure in American literature and cinema for over 61 years, writing a wide variety of plays, including The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman, which are still widely studied and performed worldwide[1][2]. Miller was often in the public eye, most famously for refusing to give evidence before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and by virtue of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe from June 1956 through January 1961. At the time of his death on February 10, 2005, Miller—twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama—was considered one of the greatest American playwrights of all time.

His Death of a Salesman was one of, if not the, most important American plays of the period, and one of the best loved. It helped to define a distinctly modern form of tragedy. Ancient Greek tragedy was based on the "tragic flaw," a key weakness in an otherwise noble character. Miller's sense of tragedy was more pedestrian. Instead of a single flaw, his characters are undone by "a thousand little cuts." The play represents a critique of the materialism that lies at the heart of the American dream, as well as its main character's need to be liked. This need to be liked kept him from really seeing what needed to be changed.

Contents

Early life

Arthur Miller, the son of moderately affluent Jewish-American parents, Isdore and Augusta Miller,[3], was born in Harlem, New York City in 1915. His father owned a coat-manufacturing business, which failed in the Wall Street Crash of 1929[4], after which, his family moved to humbler quarters in Brooklyn[5].

Because of the effects of the Great Depression on his family, Miller had no money to attend a university in 1932 after he had graduated from high school.[5] After securing a place at the University of Michigan, Miller worked in a number of menial jobs to pay for his tuition.

At the University of Michigan, Miller first majored in journalism, where he became the reporter and night editor on the student paper, The Michigan Daily. It was during this time that he wrote his first work, No Villain.[6]. After winning the Avery Hopwood Award for No Villain, Miller switched his major to English, becoming particularly interested in ancient Greek drama and the dramas of Henrik Ibsen. Miller retained strong ties to his alma mater throughout the rest of his life, establishing the Arthur Miller Award in 1985 and Arthur Miller Award for Dramatic Writing in 1999, and lending his name to the Arthur Miller Theatre in 2000 [7]. In 1937, Miller wrote Honors at Dawn, which also received the Avery Hopwood Award.[6]

In 1938, Miller received his bachelor's degree in English. After graduation, he joined the Federal Theater Project, a New Deal agency established to provide jobs in the theater. He chose the theater project although he had an offer to work as a scriptwriter for 20th Century Fox[6]. However, Congress, worried about possible communist infiltration, closed the project[5]. Miller began working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while continuing to write radio plays, some of which were broadcast on CBS[5][6].

On August 5, 1940, he married his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, the Catholic daughter of an insurance salesman [8]. The couple had two children, Jane and Robert (a director, writer and producer whose body of work includes producer of the 1996 movie version of The Crucible. [9]).

Miller was exempted from military service during World War II because of a high-school football injury to his left kneecap [5].

Early Career

In 1944 Miller wrote The Man Who Had All the Luck, which was produced in New York, and won the Theater Guild's National Award.[10] Despite this however, the play closed after only six performances[6]. The next few years were quite difficult for Miller: He published his first novel, Focus, to little acclaim, and adapted George Abbott's and John C. Holm's Three Men on a Horse for the radio[6].

However, in 1947, Miller's All My Sons was produced at the Coronet Theater. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, with whom Miller would have a continuing professional and personal relationship, and ran for three hundred and twenty-eight performances[8]. All My Sons won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award [11] and two Tony Awards[12] in 1947, despite receiving criticism for being unpatriotic[4].

It was in 1948 when Miller built a small studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, a place that was to be his long time home, where he would write Death of a Salesman[6], the work for which he is best known.[13][5]

Death of a Salesman premiered on February 10, 1949, at the Morocco Theater, New York City, directed by Kazan, and staring Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman. The play was a huge critical success, winning a Tony Award for best play[14] , a New York Drama Critics' Award [11], and a Pulitzer Prize[15][16], and ran for seven hundred and forty-two performances.[5]

In 1952, Elia Kazan appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and, under fear of being blacklisted from Hollywood, named eight people from the Group Theater, who, in the 1930s, along with himself, had been members of the American Communist Party. [17]

After speaking with Kazan about his testimony[18] Miller traveled to Salem, Massachusetts to research the witch trials of 1692[8]. The Crucible, a parable play in which Miller likened the situation with the House Un-American Activities Committee to the witchhunt in Salem [19], opened at the Beck Theater on Broadway on January 22, 1953. Though widely considered unsuccessful at the time of its initial release, today The Crucible is one of Miller's most frequently-produced works. Miller and Kazan had been close friends throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, but after Kazan's testimony to HUAC, the pair's friendship ended, and they did not speak to each other for the next ten years[17]. It was not long, however, before HUAC took an interest in Miller, denying him a passport to attend the Belgium opening of The Crucible in 1954.[6]

In 1955 a one-act version of Miller's verse drama, A View from the Bridge, opened on Broadway in a joint bill with one of Miller's lesser-known plays, A Memory of Two Mondays. The following year, Miller returned to A View from the Bridge, revising it into a two-act version, which Peter Brook produced in London.[6]

1956-1964

In June of 1956, Miller divorced Mary Slattery, his wife of sixteen years, and, later that month, June 29th, he married Marilyn Monroe [8]. Miller and Monroe had first met one another in 1951, when they had brief affair. They had remained in contact thereafter.[5].

Taking advantage of the publicity of Miller and Monroe's marriage, HUAC subpoenaed Miller to appear before the committee shortly before the marriage. Before appearing, Miller asked the committee to not ask him to name names, to which the chairman agreed. [20] When Miller attended the hearing, to which Monroe accompanied him, risking her own career [8], he gave the committee a detailed account of his political activities. Despite what the chairman had told Miller, the committee asked him to reveal to them names of friends and colleagues who had partaken in similar activities [20]. Miller refused to comply with the request, saying, "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him."[20]

Because of his refusal, in May of 1957 a judge found Miller guilty of contempt of Congress. Miller was fined $500, sentenced to thirty days in prison, blacklisted, and his US passport was revoked [3]. However, in 1958, his conviction was overturned by the court of appeals, ruling that Miller was misled by the chairman of HUAC. [3]

After his conviction was overturned, Miller began work on The Misfits, a film which would co-star his wife and Clark Gable. Miller said that the filming of The Misfits was one of the lowest points in his life [8], and shortly before the film's premier in 1961, the pair divorced [6]. Miller's marriage to Monroe lasted longer than either of her two previous marriages: four years and seven months. By contrast, her marriage to Joe DiMaggio lasted only nine months.

A year later, Monroe died of an apparent drug overdose, and Miller married his third, and final wife, the photographer Inge Morath. Late in 1962, Miller and Morath's first child, Daniel was born, followed by their second, Rebecca in 1963.

Later Career

It was in 1964 that Miller's next play, released seven years after his last, was produced. Titled After the Fall, the play was a deeply personal view of Miller's own experiences during his marriage to Monroe, which reunited Miller with his former friend Kazan, with whom he collaborated on the script, and on the direction of the play. After the Fall opened on January 23, 1964 at the Anta Theatre in Washington Square Park amid a flurry of publicity and outrage at putting a Monroe character, called Maggie, on stage [8]. Also in the same year, Miller produced Incident at Vichy.

In 1965, Miller was elected International PEN's president, the organization’s first American president, a position which he held for four years.[21]. Miller is often credited as the one who changed PEN from a literary group, to what he called, "the conscience of the world writing community." [5].

In the late 60s Miller dedicated a lot of his time to campaigning against the Vietnam War, leading an American group of writers to Paris in 1968, with a proposal to stop the war. His dislike of the Vietnam War never appeared in Miller's work. His only full length play of the period was the family comedy, The Price, produced in 1968 [8], which was Miller's most successful play since Death of a Salesman.[22]

After retiring as President of PEN in 1969, Miller's works were banned in the Soviet Union after he campaigned for the freedom of dissident writers.

Throughout the 1970s, Miller spent a lot of his time experimenting with the theater, producing one act plays such as Fame and The Reason Why, and traveling with his wife, producing In The Country and Chinese Encounters with her.

In 1983, Miller traveled to the People's Republic of China to produce and direct Death of a Salesman at the People's Art Theatre, in Beijing. The play was a success in China [22] and, in 1984, Salesman in Beijing, a book about Miller's experience in Beijing, was published. In late 1987, Miller's memoirs, Timebends: A Life was published. While it was generally accepted before Timebends was published that Miller would not talk about Monroe in interviews, Miller's autobiography discusses her at length.[8]

During the early 1990s, Miller produced three new plays; The Ride Down Mount Morgan in 1991, The Last Yankee in 1992, and Broken Glass in 1994.

In 1997, a film of The Crucible, staring Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder opened. Miller had spent much of 1996 working on the screenplay for the film [6].

Death of a Salesman was revived on Broadway in 1999 to celebrate it's 50th anniversary. The play, once again, was a large critical success, winning a Tony Award for best revival of a play [23].

On May 1, 2002, Miller was awarded Spain's Principe de Asturias Prize for Literature as "the undisputed master of modern drama." Previous winners include Doris Lessing, Günter Grass, and Carlos Fuentes. Later that year, Miller's wife of forty years, Ingeborg Morath, died. The following year Miller won the Jerusalem Prize.

Miller's final play, a drama with humor entitled Finishing the Picture opened at the Goodman Theatre (Chicago) in the fall of 2004.

Arthur Miller died of congestive heart failure on the evening of February 10, 2005. Coincidentally, Miller passed away on the 56th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman. Miller was surrounded by family when he died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, four months after the death of his older brother, Kermit Miller.

Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman is considered a classic of American theater. Viewed by many as a caustic attack on the American Dream of achieving wealth and success without regard for principle, Death of a Salesman made both Arthur Miller and the character Willy Loman household names. Some of the other titles Miller considered for the play were The Inside of His Head and A Period of Grace. It was greeted with enthusiastic reviews, received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949, the 1949 Tony Award for Best Play, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Death of a Salesman was the first play to win these three major awards. Produced on six of seven continents, the searing drama helped to confirm Miller as an internationally-known playwright.

Plot synopsis

The play centers on Willy Loman, an aging salesman who is beginning to lose his grip on reality. Willy places great emphasis on his supposed native charm and ability to make friends; stating that once he was known throughout New England, driving long hours but making unparalleled sales, his sons Biff and Happy were the pride and joy of the neighborhood, and his wife Linda went smiling throughout the day. Unfortunately, time has passed, and now his life seems to be slipping out of control.

Willy has worked hard his entire life and ought to be retiring by now, living a life of luxury and closing deals with contractors on the phone—especially since increasing episodes of depersonalization and flashback are impairing his ability to drive. Instead, all of Willy's aspirations seem to have failed: he is fired from his job—which barely paid enough anyway—by a man young enough to be his son and who, in fact, Willy claims to have named. Willy is now forced to rely on loans from his only real friend (and the word is used loosely at that), Charley, to make ends meet. None of Willy's old friends or previous customers remember him. Biff, his 34-year-old son, has been unable to 'find himself' as a result of his inability to settle down (caused by Willy drumming into him the need to 'make it big within two weeks'), and Happy, the younger son, lies shamelessly to make it look like he is a perfect Loman scion. In contrast, Charley (who, Willy tells his boys conspiratorially, is not well-liked), is now a successful businessman, and his son, Bernard, a former bespectacled bookworm, is now a brilliant lawyer. The audience is told how Willy had at least one affair while out on business trips: one in particular was discovered by Biff, which broke his faith in his father. Finally, Willy is haunted by memories of his now-dead older brother, Ben, who at an early age left for Africa; "And when [he] walked out, [he] was rich!" Ben has constantly overshadowed Willy, and he was in many ways the man that Willy wanted to be. Ben's approach is heralded by idyllic music, showing Willy's idolization of him, and in flashbacks the audience sees Willy asking for Ben's advice on parenting.

The play's structure resembles a stream of consciousness account. Willy drifts between his living room, downstage, to the apron and flashbacks of an romanticized past, as well as to fantasized conversations with Ben. The use of these different "states" allows Miller to contrast Willy's dreams and the reality of his life in extraordinary detail, and also allows him to contrast the characters themselves, showing them in both sympathetic and villainous light, gradually unfolding the story, and refusing to allow the audience a permanent judgment about anyone. When the audience is in the present the characters abide by the rules of the set, entering only through the stage door to the left, however when they visit Willy's "past" these rules are removed, with characters openly moving through walls. Whereas the term "flashback," as a form of cinematography for these scenes, is often heard, Miller himself rather speaks of "mobile concurrences." In fact, flashbacks would show an objective image of the past. Miller's mobile concurrences, however, rather show highly subjective memories. Furthermore, Willy destroys the boundaries between past and present, and the two start to exist in parallel.

The depths of the problem are gradually revealed. Willy's emphasis on being well-liked stems from a belief that it will bring him to perfect success—not a harmful dream in itself, except that he clings to this idea as if it is a life-preserver, refusing to give it up. His boys are not only well-liked but quite handsome, and as far as Willy is concerned, that's all anyone needs. He pitches this idea to his sons so effectively that they believe opportunity will fall into their laps. (In this way, Biff and Happy can be considered forerunners to the culture of entitlement.) Of course, real life is not so generous, and neither are able to hold much in the way of respectable employment. Willy witnesses his own and his sons' failures and clings ever more tightly to his master plan, now placing his hopes vicariously on them: he will not succeed, but they might. His tragic flaw is in failing to question whether the dream is valid. Happy never does either; he has embraced his father's attitude, and at the end of the first act, he convinces Biff to seek financial backing in a get-rich-quick scheme. But when Biff tries to do so, he realizes his father's mistakes, and finally decides not to let Willy get away with it. They attack each other at the play's climax: Biff confronting Willy's neurosis head-on, while Willy accuses Biff of throwing his life away simply to hurt Willy's feelings. Despite a raggedly emotional battle of words, neither is able to make much headway, but before Biff gives up, he breaks down in tears: "Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" Willy is touched that Biff still cares for him after all.

As the rest of the family retires, Ben reappears over Willy's shoulder. Willy proclaims that in taking his own life, the attendance at his funeral would make a show to his doubting son of how popular he was in life, and that, if handled to look accidental, the payout from his life insurance policy will allow Biff to start his own business. This final action can be viewed as his attempt to leave a tangible legacy for his family. Willy acknowledges that, "Nothing grows here anymore" and his vain attempts to plant seeds during the darkness express his desperate nature to leave something behind. The neighborhood is drawn out of bed by the roar and smash of Willy's car, despite Ben's warnings that the insurance policy won't be honored in the event of suicide. Thus Willy's grand gesture—and indeed his earlier assertion that one is often "worth more dead than alive"—leaves his family (and especially his wife, Linda) in an even worse position than before.

Requiem

The Requiem of the play takes place at Willy's funeral, which is attended by Charley, Bernard, Linda, Biff, and Happy. Charley makes a very moving speech as Biff accuses Willy of not knowing what he really wanted in life. Happy insists, "Willy Loman did not die in vain," and says that he will "fight" for Willy's, and his own, corrupted version of the American Dream. At the graveyard, Biff says, "He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong." Happy tries to defend Willy, as he cannot understand Biff's point of view.

Themes and points of interest

  1. One central point of the play is the idea of "greatness." Willy longs to achieve great things as a salesman and to be remembered after his death, and he tries to instill this hope in both of his sons. All three fail, while Ben, Charley, and Bernard succeed. Willy is unable to see through his own delusions of the American Dream, which he perceives as the ability to become "great" by obtaining enormous material wealth without any apparent effort, to wander into the jungle and emerge a few years later unspeakably rich.
  2. The differing interpretations of the American Dream are another major theme throughout the play. Biff and Willy both have very different ideas about what it is—Biff dreams purely of the free and open (shown through his desire to be "out there […] working with our hands"), while Willy is trapped in distortion of the American Dream promoted by a capitalist, materialistic modern society. Happy carries on Willy's ideas through the play and by the Requiem decides to carry on Willy's dreams and desires.
  3. The premium placed on superficial qualities is another common theme throughout the play. The physical good looks of Biff, the importance of being liked and even the attendance of a large number of individuals at one's own funeral are traits that drive Willy to his demise.
  4. Self-deception and illusion are important in this play. Many of the characters live in a fantasy world. Willy lives in the past to escape the financial troubles of reality. He also has a false image of success as something requiring only easy wealth and popularity. Linda tries to convince herself that her husband is mentally healthy. Happy wants to remain in the dream world set up by Willy while Biff ultimately wants to break free from this mirage and come to terms with Willy's problems and those of the family: Willy's affair, his failing career, and the family's dire financial situation.
  5. Willy does not come to a full self-realization, or anagnorisis, and thus in this aspect does not meet the definition of the tragic hero. He is also, as his surname subtly suggests, not of the noble stature traditionally prerequisite of tragic heroes. Thus this play is not a pure tragedy in the classical sense. Influenced by the tradition of the anti-hero, Death of a Salesman could be described as a modern tragedy, because he lacks the nobility and magnanimity expected of the traditionally perceived tragic hero. Miller conveys his sense of tragedy and his ideas on the protagonists of classical tragedies in his essay, Tragedy and The Common Man.


References

Arthur Miller by Leonard Moss. (Boston: Twayne Publishers), 1980.

  1. Death of a Salesman at Odyssey. Odyssey Theater Ensemble. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  2. Death of a Salesman studied at Emanuel. Emanuel School. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Arthur Miller Files. University of Michigan. Retrieved October 1, 2006.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Obituary: Arthur Miller. BBC. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 The Times Arthur Miller Obituary, (London: The Times, 2005).
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 A Brief Chronology of Arthur Miller's Life and Works. The Arthur Miller Society. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  7. Arthur Miller and University of Michigan. University of Michigan. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 Michael Ratcliffe, Arthur Miller Obituary, (London: The Observer, 2005).
  9. Robert A. Miller's IMDB profile. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  10. Royal National Theatre: Platform Papers, 7. Arthur Milller (Battley Brothers Printers, 1995).
  11. 11.0 11.1 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. infoplease.com. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  12. Tony Awards 1947. tonyawards.com. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  13. Arthur Miller dies. CNN. Retrieved September 25, 2006.
  14. tonyawards.com. Tony Awards 1949. Retrieved September 25, 2006.
  15. Pulitzer.org. Pulitzer Prize. Retrieved September 25, 2006.
  16. infoplease.com. Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Retrieved September 25, 2006.
  17. 17.0 17.1 American Masters: Elia Kazan. PBS. Retrieved September 25, 2006.
  18. Exert from Timebends. Spatacus Schoolnet. Retrieved September 25, 2006.
  19. Are you now, or were you ever?. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved September 25, 2006.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 BBC On This Day. BBC.co.uk. Retrieved October 14, 2006.
  21. Miller, Arthur, "A Visit With Castro", The Nation, 2003-12-24. Retrieved 2006-08-01.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Arthur Miller Files 60s70s80s. University of Michigan. Retrieved October 14, 2006.
  23. Tony Awards 1999. tonyawards.com. Retrieved October 28, 2006.

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