Arthur Miller, the son of Isidore Miller and Augusta Barnett Miller, was born in New York City on 17th October, 1915. His father was involved in the Manhattan rag trade. The family moved from Harlem to Brooklyn when Arthur was a child.
Isidore Miller's business was destroyed as a result of the Wall Street Crash. The theatre critic, Michael Ratcliffe: "This first great discord of the American century informs all his work. Like Dickens and Ibsen, he drew from his father's financial disaster the lifelong convictions that catastrophe could strike without warning and that the crust of civilised order was perilously thin."
Miller worked in a warehouse after graduating from high school. When he saved enough money he attended the University of Michigan, where he began writing plays. One of these won a $1,250 prize from the Bureau of New Plays run by the New York producers, the Theater Guild. After graduating in 1938 he joined the Federal Theater Project (FTP). As he explained in his biography, Timebends - A Life (1987): "To join the WPA Theatre Project it was necessary to get on the welfare rolls first, in effect to be homeless and all but penniless... and conniving to get myself a twenty-three-dollar-a-week job."
The project was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal attempt to combat the Depression. The FTP was an attempt to offer work to theatrical professionals. Harry Hopkins, hoped it would also provide "free, adult, uncensored theatre". Elmer Rice was placed in charge of the FTP in New York City. In 1936 alone, the FTP employed 5,385 people in the city. Over a three year period over 12 million people attended performances in the city.
In 1939 Miller was offered a contract with Twentieth Century Fox: "My purity was still breathtakingly unmarred through the thirties, so much so that... with the Federal Theatre Project, which was already coming to its end, I had no qualms about turning down a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar-a-week offer by a Colonel Joy, representing Twentieth Century Fox, to come to work for them."
Miller held left-wing opinions and was horrified by the views expressed by Charles E. Coughlin on the radio. "Father Charles E. Coughlin, who by 1940 was confiding to his ten million Depression-battered listeners that the president was a liar controlled by both the Jewish bankers and, astonishingly enough, the Jewish Communists, the same tribe that twenty years earlier had engineered the Russian Revolution... He was arguing... that Hitlerism was the German nation's innocently defensive response to the threat of Communism, that Hitler was only against 'bad Jews', especially those born outside Germany."
A college football injury kept him from active service in the Second World War. In 1941 he began work on his play, The Man Who Had All the Luck. It became his first professionally produced play when it arrived on Broadway in November 1944. Miller claimed that "it managed to baffle all but two of the critics (New York had seven daily newspapers then, each with its theatre reviewer)." Directed by Joseph Fields, it opened at the Forrest Theatre, where it ran for only 4 performances.
Miller's next play was All My Sons. Opening at the Coronet Theatre on 29th January, 1947, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Ed Begley, Karl Malden and Arthur Kennedy. As Michael Ratcliffe pointed out: "A family tale of corrupt profiteering at home that led to the death of US pilots abroad, it exploded in the pause between victory and the attempted press-ganging of show business for Washington's cold war. From this point on, Miller's best scenes display a mastery of conversation, a gift for sketching vivid characters on the margins of a play, and a narrative talent for seizing the spectator's attention from the start." The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and ran for 328 performances.
His next play, Death Of A Salesman, was sent to Elia Kazan. He thought it was "a great play" and that the character of Willy Loman reminded him of his father. Miller later recalled that Kazan was the "first of a great many men - and women - who would tell me that Willy was their father." The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on 10th February, 1949. It was directed by Kazan and featured Lee J. Cobb (Willy Loman), Mildred Dunnock (Linda), Arthur Kennedy (Biff) and Cameron Mitchell (Happy).
Death Of A Salesman played for 742 performances and won the Tony Award for best play, supporting actor, author, producer and director. It also won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Miller was himself highly critical of the play: "I knew nothing of Brecht then or of any other theory of theatrical distancing: I simply felt that there was too much identification with Willy, too much weeping, and that the play's ironies were being dimmed out by all this empathy."
Miller broke with Elia Kazan over his decision to give names of former members of the American Communist Party to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Miller was himself blacklisted by Hollywood when he refused to testify in front of the HUAC. However, this did not stop his plays being performed on stage as Broadway refused to impose a blacklist.
Miller was distressed by the sight of former friends giving evidence against other former friends as a result of McCarthyism. He decided to write a play about this situation: "What I sought was a metaphor, an image that would spring out of the heart, all-inclusive, full of light, a sonorous instrument whose reverberations would penetrate to the centre of this miasma."
During this period Miller read The Devil in Massachusetts (1949), a book about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials by Marion Lena Starkey. The book included the previously unpublished verbatim transcriptions of documents and papers on witchcraft in Salem. Miller later recalled: "At first I rejected the idea of a play on the subject.... But gradually, over weeks, a living connection between myself and Salem, and between Salem and Washington, was made in my mind - for whatever else they might be, I saw that the hearings in Washington were profoundly and even avowedly ritualistic. After all, in almost every case the Committee knew in advance what they wanted the witness to give them: the names of his comrades in the Party. The FBI had long since infiltrated the Party, and informers had long ago identified the participants in various meetings. The main point of the hearings, precisely as in seventeenth-century Salem, was that the accused make public confession, damn his confederates as well as his Devil master, and guarantee his sterling new allegiance by breaking disgusting old vows - whereupon he was let loose to rejoin the society of extremely decent people."
The Crucible was first performed at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway on 22nd January, 1953. The cast included Arthur Kennedy (John Proctor), Walter Hampden (Deputy-Governor Danforth), Beatrice Straight (Elizabeth Proctor), E. G. Marshall (Reverend Hale), Jean Adair (Rebecca Nurse), Joseph Sweeney (Giles Corey) and Madeleine Sherwood (Abigail Williams).
The play was not well received by the critics. As he pointed out in his autobiography, Timebends - A Life (1987): "I have never been surprised by the New York reception of a play... What I had not quite bargained for, however, was the hostility in the New York audience as the theme of the play was revealed; an invisible sheet of ice formed over their heads, thick enough to skate on. In the lobby at the end, people with whom I had some fairly close professional acquaintanceships passed me by as though I were invisible." Even so, the production won the Tony Award for best play of 1953.
Miller's next two plays, A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays, were badly received. It is believed that this reaction was mainly due to political reasons. During this period Miller left his first wife Mary Slattery and on 25th June, 1956 married the actress Marilyn Monroe.
In 1956 Miller was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Miller refused to testy, saying "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him." In May 1957 he was found guilty of contempt of Congress, sentenced to a $500 fine or thirty days in prison, blacklisted, and had his passport withdrawn.
After the Hollywood Blacklist was lifted in 1960, Miller wrote the screenplay for the movie, The Misfits (1961). The film starred his wife but later that year they were divorced. 19 months later, Marilyn Monroe died of an apparent drug overdose. After her death Miller married Inge Morath.
Miller's next play was After the Fall. Starring Barbara Loden, Jason Robards Jr. and Faye Dunaway it opened on 23rd January, 1964 at the Anta Theatre on Washington Square. It appeared to be based on his relationship with Monroe. He later admitted that everything he had written was based on somebody he had seen or known. However, the critics thought it was wrong of him to write about his marriage to a woman who had committed suicide. His next two plays, Incident at Vichy (1964) and The Price (1968), saw a return to form.
Other plays by Miller included: The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), The Archbishop's Ceiling (1977) and The American Clock (1980). Miller also wrote an impressive autobiography, Timebends - A Life (1987). Miller continued to write plays and the best of these include The Last Yankee (1991), The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), Broken Glass (1994), Mr Peter’s Connections (1998), Resurrection Blues (2002) and Finishing the Picture (2004), a return to the subject of Marilyn Monroe.