Arthur Miller: All about the twentieth-century American playwright
One of the world’s critically-acclaimed playwrights, Arthur Miller has penned stage plays and books around the myths surrounding the American Dream, commenting on power conflicts and social responsibility throughout the middle of the twentieth century. Winning a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his work, we take a look at the renowned dramatist Arthur Miller and what’s behind his success.
A guide to Arthur Miller
Where did Arthur Miller grow up?
Born into a Polish-Jewish family in Harlem in 1915, Arthur Miller always struggled to fit in. Leaving Harlem for Brooklyn, the family later suffered in the Great Depression, having to rebuild their life in the midst of forming their own American Dream.
A different individual from those around him, Arthur Miller was always interested in families and ethnicities. In 1934, he channelled this interest into a journalism degree from the University of Michigan but still struggled to find his niche as a playwright.
When did his work make it to Broadway?
After many rejections from directors and producers, Arthur Miller finally got a play on Broadway, but he didn’t achieve instant fame. His first play The Man Who Had All the Luck may have only ran for four performances, but this break on Broadway further inspired him.
His second play All My Sons went on to hail the playwright as a leading contemporary cultural figure. The examination into life after post World War Two won a Drama Critics’ Circle Award, with his later work Death of a Salesman winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1949.
With Arthur Miller’s success came contestation from officials. In 1956 and 1957, Arthur Miller was called to speak to HUAC to testify about his refusal to identify writers believed to hold Communist sympathies, stating that he would bring trouble to another person, saying the following:
“I am trying to delve to the bottom of this and come up with a positive answer, but I have had to go to hell to Broadway premiere of meet the devil. You can’t know what the worst is until you have seen the worst, and it is not for me to make easy answers and come forth before the American people and tell them everything is all right when I look in their eyes and I see them troubled.”
In the midst of this Red Scare, Miller’s work continued to play on Broadway, with audiences commenting on the similarities between real life and dramatised events. Throughout his life and beyond, Miller’s work would continue to influence communities around the world, bringing real-life situations to the stage.
What plays did Arthur Miller write?
Authoring 37 stage plays over his career, some of Arthur Miller’s texts have gone on to become culturally significant texts of the twentieth century. We’ve put together a list of some of his most famous works.
All My Sons (1947): First performed on Broadway in 1947, All My Sons is set in post World War Two, as the Keller family come to terms with their eldest son being lost in battle. Truths come to the foreground in this dramatic play that looks at the hard reality of the American Dream.
Death of a Salesman (1949): One of Arthur Miller’s championed pieces of writing, the story tells of Willy Loman, a hard-working businessman whose dream of becoming wealthy fade away with old age. When his past comes back to haunt him, the hard worker faces his reality in this hard-hitting drama.
The Crucible (1953): Inspired by the Salem witch trials, The Crucible tells the story of John Proctor as he tries to save himself in a community rife with witch hysteria. The betrayal in a community ramps up throughout the play ending in the courtroom, where the witch statuses are decided once and for all.
A View From the Bridge (1955): The American Dream is the central theme in this 1955 play, where you have to earn your freedom. Set in an Italian-American neighbourhood, Eddie Carbone is reunited with his Italian cousins in New York, but when one of his relatives falls in love with an American woman, the family reach their breaking point.
Incident at Vichy (1964): Set in a police station in the French state in 1942, Incident at Vichy questions the purpose of interrogating men during the war. Eight men are left in the dark for why they are called into questioning. With some going free and others are never seen again, it’s up to those who remain in the police station to work out what has happened.
The American Clock (1980): Arthur Miller dramatised the Wall Street crash in The American Clock. In a capitalist world, the Baum family come into misfortune, losing a great deal in the banking crisis. Even in the Great Depression, the family remain confident their country will come into good fortune once more and they will regain their wealth.
What characters did Arthur Miller create?
With award-winning books, it is no surprise that central characters from his plays have grown to become some of the most renowned roles in theatre.
Willy Loman: A traditional businessman, Willy Loman is a strong advocate of the American Dream. He believes that hard work will get you far and you will be rewarded if you strive for success. Taking pride in himself, he is a patriot for himself, his family and his country, speaking up for what he believes in.
John Proctor: Self-assured in the witch trials, John Proctor is the confident protagonist in The Crucible as he seeks to defend himself in a hysterical Salem. While he may come across as a blunt character, this is because he is not guided by his emotions and will fight for himself in order to survive.
Elizabeth Proctor: Wife of John Proctor, Elizabeth is convicted of being a witch during the frantic Salem Witch Trials at the end of the 17th century. We never seem to find out too much about her, but this is where the alluring mystery around her lies. Set up to be a witch through a dark voodoo charm, Elizabeth Proctor has to remain strong in order to convince everyone that she is innocent.
Joe Keller: An American citizen who built himself up to where he is, the All My Sons patriarch is the typical “average Joe”. Rising from nothing, Joe Keller struggles to express his true feelings when faced with tragedy, however he is a hardworking man who has earned his position in society.
What was his relationship to Marilyn Monroe?
In 1956, Arthur Miller wed Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe saying “Marilyn will only make one film in every 18 months or so, which will take her about eight weeks and the other 18 months she will be my wife. That’s a full-time job”. Standing by his side at his political hearings, the power couple remained married for five years, before divorcing in 1961.
The rocky relationship affected Miller badly, however he channelled his anger into later Arthur Miller plays including After the Fall, a dramatic explanation of Marilyn’s betrayal.
What’s Arthur Miller’s legacy?
As his works are a social commentary, the playwright was able to connect drama and reality into plays that captured human stories. His plays have now become American classics and are regularly revived in the West End and on Broadway, with his stories attracting audiences from around the world. His texts changed the theatre, with interesting plays that question relationships in society.
In a conversation with Mel Gussow, Miller and Gussow shared the following remarks:
Mel Gussow: Do you ever think about what your legacy would be?
Arthur Miller: (Quickly) Some good parts for actors.
Where can I see an Arthur Miller play in London?
Death of a Salesman will return to London in 2019. The show will star Sharon D Clarke and Wendell Pierce and will be directed by Marianne Elliot. The show will be performed at the Young Vic from 1st May to 13th July.
Sharon D. Clarke and Wendell Pierce reprise their performances in Death of a Salesman, transferring from the Young Vic. Seen through the eyes of an African-American family, learn what happens to Willy Loman when his concept of the American Dream is broken into shatters. Death of a Salesman will play from 24th October to 5th January 2020.
If you’d like to read about other championed playwrights, you can read about Tennessee Williams here.