Few 20th-century playwrights capture the American spirit like Arthur Miller. Creator of several theatrical masterpieces, such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Miller lived a life most can only dream of experiencing. Achievement, critical acclaim, high scrutiny before Congress, and the smoldering love of a Hollywood movie actress – Marilyn Monroe – each colored Miller’s writing legacy.
Over seven decades, Miller penned dozens of theatrical plays, radio plays, and screenplays. He also earned an Academy Award nomination in 1997 for an adaption of his work The Crucible, featuring Wynonna Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis in starring roles. But it was Death of a Salesman, Miller’s preeminent masterpiece first performed in 1949, that won him the vaunted Pulitzer Prize, propelling him into something of a celebrity of his time. Miller’s marriage to Monroe was an indirect result of his acclaim as they met at a Hollywood party. Recalling to a friend, Monroe once said of meeting Miller, “it was like running into a tree. You know, like a cool drink when you’ve had a fever.” After making substantial contributions to American literature’s canon, Miller passed away at 89-years old, seeing his works performed on stage and on the big screen time and again.
From Boom to Bust – Early Life And Childhood
He was born on October 17, 1915, in Harlem; Miller’s early life and childhood centered around the modern-day Boroughs of New York City. Miller’s father was a Polish-Jew immigrant who, according to accounts from Miller’s memoir Time Bends: A Life published in 1987, couldn’t read, but that didn’t stop the elder Miller from amassing a sizable nest egg in the women’s clothing manufacturing business.
Unfortunately, the Miller family went broke during the stock market crash in 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression era. The family had no choice but to pull up roots and leave Manhattan for a more modest life in Brooklyn, where Miller finished his high school education and saved money to attend The University of Michigan. Critics point to this period of Miller’s early life and childhood as a possible source for the inspiration which birthed Death of a Salesman.
As a child, Arthur Miller witnessed the boom-to-bust cycle of the American dream firsthand in his father’s eyes. Coincidentally, the same theme of a lifetime wasted chasing a dead-end dream pervades works like Death of a Salesman and After The Fall.
Curtains up – The beginning of a Broadway writing career
At the University of Michigan, Miller studied under famed playwright Kenneth Rowe, who greatly influenced Miller’s desire to return to New York City and pursue a career making Broadway plays. Miller wrote his first full play while attending college and also writing for the school newspaper. No Villain earned the young Miller the Avery Hopwood Award, which likely cemented Miller’s identity as a writer worthy of high regard. Unfortunately, the first Broadway play Arthur Miller wrote flopped upon debut in 1944. The Man Who Had All The Luck only ran four performances before shuttering. Theater critics abhorred the work as inconsequential.
Interestingly, Miller’s next work was a novel named Focus, which he published in 1945 before trying his hand at Broadway theater once again.
All My Sons, Miller’s play that debuted in 1947, made up for The Man Who Had All The Luck mediocrity. The play earned Miller a Tony Award for the first time and had a year-long run, impressive for a new play.
Miller’s next work – his masterpiece Death of a Salesman – solidified his place in history.The play won Miller the Pulitzer Prize in addition to a slew of Tony Awards and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. No other playwright of Miller’s era would earn such honors except for perhaps Tennessee Williams, a master storyteller in his own right.
Death of a Salesman – A brief synopsis
The plot to Death of a Salesman is equally as poignant today as in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. Set in New York, the play protagonist is Willy Loman, an aging, mentally worn-down salesman. Loman has problems recalling past events so much that he also has issues recognizing the present. The play introduces Loman’s sons Biff and Happy, who have conflicts of the self, too. Miller’s play, transitioning from memory to memory, does a fantastic job showing the audience Loman’s tale, not merely telling it.
The play takes a dramatic turn when Loman asks his boss for a new job position and gets fired instead, which tumbles Loman further down a sad path of familial disgrace. Estranged from his sons and caught red-handed having an affair, Loman’s shame, as expertly suggested by Miller, ends in suicide. Such an emotionally powerful, poignant, and honest portrayal of a failing American family has yet to be surpassed in the annals of theater.
A Hollywood romance – Marriage to the infamous Marilyn Monroe
Like many writers of the time, Arthur Miller’s personal life became known as his professional life, his marriage to Marilyn Monroe being the prime example. The tale of their romance echoes throughout history as it began under unusual circumstances. Interestingly, the meeting of Miller and Monroe in 1951 resulted from the director of Death of a Salesman, Elia Kazan, asking Miller to accompany Monroe to a party. Miller’s idea was to “run interference,” to use a modern colloquialism, while Kazan romped about Hollywood with another actress.
According to accounts of their relationship, what started as a respectful friendship blossomed into a passionate love affair over a few years. Eventually, Miller chose to divorce his wife Mary Slattery, to marry Monroe barely a month after. Miller was reluctant to leave his wife, but he was very much in love with Monroe; in one letter, he told her, “I believe that I should really die if I ever lost you.” Their marriage, like the portrayal of the loss of the American dream in Death of a Salesman, fell into disrepair, and they were divorced five years later in 1961.
As a gift to his celebrity wife, Arthur Miller penned The Misfits, which became a film starring Monroe – the last she would complete before passing away from an accidental overdose of barbiturates.
Many still believe to this day that After The Fall, Miller’s next play is a thinly veiled portrayal of Miller’s rocky, tragic marriage and subsequent divorce to the ill-fated Hollywood actress.
Contempt of Congress – Scrutiny of the arts in the name of national security
Once After The Fall had its day, Arthur Miller wrote a new play with heavy allegorical undertones fused with the Salem Witch Trials account. The Crucible, debuting in 1953, earned Miller yet another Tony Award. Part social commentary, part tragic romance, The Crucible, remains controversial and evocative even in modern times. The play had such an impact that Representative McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee summoned Miller to reveal political undesirables’ names. In the name of national security, a sitting U.S. Representative grilled a playwright about his beliefs, whereabouts, and conversations with alleged communist sympathizers.
Miller received a charge for contempt of Congress as the result of his lack of cooperation and candor. Committee chairman McCarthy’s political demonizing showed its true colors.If a writer, a famed playwright, and ex-husband to Marilyn Monroe, could come under government scrutiny over a work of fiction, what would stop McCarthy from forming an American inquisition? To this day, historians and political scientists continue to debate the effects and follies of McCarthyism.
What is clear is Miller’s role in pushing back against intrusions on civil liberty in the name of stamping out an ideology. The House of Representatives rescinded Miller’s contempt of Congress charge two years later.
Sunset years – Respect, admiration, and family secrets
Arthur Miller would marry a third time to Inge Morath. The Austrian-born photographer had two children with Miller named Daniel and Rebecca. While many consider Miller a man of high class and character, Morath’s marriage gave evidence to the contrary. Their only son, Daniel, born with Down Syndrome, became a source of shame for Miller, who had the child institutionalized as soon as possible. Interestingly, Rebecca Miller would go on to marry actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Anecdotes report that Day-Lewis was instrumental in reuniting the elder Miller with his mentally challenged son.
In 2018, Rebecca released Arthur Miller: Writer, a documentary of the Miller family with a particular focus on her relationship with her late father. After Morath’s passing in 2002, Miller planned a fourth marriage to Agnes Barley – only 34-years old at the time of their engagement. But tragically, Miller passed away a few years later in 2005 on the 56th anniversary of Death of a Salesman’s initial run. Even today, the life and works of Arthur Miller have a special place in the canon of American literature.