Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

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."

Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller whileworking on Death of a Salesman (1949)
Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller while
working on Death of a Salesman (1949)

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.

Arthur Miller died on 10th February, 2005, aged 89, at his home in Roxbury, Litchfield County.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller describes being told by Elia Kazan about his intention to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

Listening to him I grew frightened. There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying: unless he came clean he could never hope, in the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America, and he would probably not be given a passport to work abroad either. If the theatre remained open to him, it was not his primary interest anymore; he wanted to deepen his film life, that was where his heart lay, and he had been told in so many words by his old boss and friend Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox, that the company would not employ him unless he satisfied the Committee.

I could only say that I thought this would pass and that it had to pass because it would devour the glue that kept the country together if left to its own unobstructed course. I said that it was not the Reds who were dispensing our fears now, but the other side, and it could not go indefinitely, it would someday wear down the national nerve. And then there might be regrets about this time. But I was growing cooler with the thought that as unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I attended meetings of the Communist Party writers years ago and had made a speech at one of them.

(2) Louis Untermeyer befriended Arthur Miller when he first arrived in New York. In his autobiography, Timebends - A Life (1987), Miller explained the impact that the blacklist had on Untermeyer.

The resurgent American right of the early fifties, the assault led by Senator McCarthy on the etiquette of liberal society, was among other things, a hunt for the alienated, and with remarkable speed conformity became the new style of the hour.

Louis Untermeyer, then in his sixties, was a poet and anthologist, a distinguished-looking old New York type with a large aristocratic nose and a passion for conversation, especially about writers and to become a poet. He married four times, had taught and written and published, and with the swift rise of television had become nationally known as one of the original regulars on What's My Line?, a popular early show in which he, along with columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, publisher Bennett Cerf, and Arlene Francis, would try to guess the occupation of a studio guest by asking the fewest possible questions in the brief time allowed. All this with wisecracking and banter, at which Louis was a lovable master, what with his instant recall of every joke and pun he had ever heard.

One day he arrived as usual at the television studio an hour before the program began and was told by the producer that he was no longer on the show. It appeared that as a result of having been listed in Life magazine as a sponsor of the Waldorf Conference (a meeting to discuss cultural and scientific links with the Soviet Union), an organized letter campaign protesting his appearance on What's My Line? had scared the advertisers into getting rid of him.

Louis went back to his apartment. Normally we ran into each other in the street once or twice a week or kept in touch every month or so, but I no longer saw him in the neighborhood or heard from him. Louis didn't leave his apartment for almost a year and a half. An overwhelming and paralyzing fear had risen him. More than a political fear, it was really that he had witnessed the tenuousness of human connection and it had left him in terror. He had always loved a lot and been loved, especially on the TV program where his quips were vastly appreciated, and suddenly, he had been thrown into the street, abolished.

(3) Arthur Miller, Timebends - A Life (1987)

Since he was not a man to idly chat, at least not with me, and since this was his second or third such call in the past few weeks, I began to suspect that something terrible had come to him and that it must be the Committee. I drove into a dun and rainy Connecticut morning in early April 1952 cursing the time. For I all but knew that my friend would tell me he had decided to cooperate with the Committee. Though he had passed through the Party for a brief period fifteen years before, as he had once mentioned to me, I knew that he had no particular political life anymore, at least not in the five years of our acquaintance. I found my anger rising, not against him, whom I loved like a brother, but against the Committee, which by now I regarded as a band of political operators with as much moral conviction as Tony Anastasia, and as a matter of fact, probably somewhat less.

The sun briefly appeared, and we left his house to walk in the woods under dripping branches, amid the odor of decay and regeneration that a long rain drives up from the earth in a cold country forest. He was trying, I thought, to appear relieved in his mind, to present the issue as settled, even happily so. The story, simple and by now routine, took but a moment to tell. He had been subpoenaed and had refused to cooperate but had changed his mind and returned to testify fully in executive session, confirming some dozen names of people he had known in his months in the Party so long ago. He felt better now, clearer about everything. Actually, he wanted my advice, almost as though he had not yet done what he had done. Confirmation was what he needed; after all, he had no sympathies with the Communists, so why should he appear to by withholding his testimony?

But as much as the issue itself mattered, it was our unreality that I could not grasp. I was never sure what I meant to him, but he had entered into my dreams like a brother, and there we had exchanged a smile of understanding that blocked others out. Listening to him now, I grew frightened. There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying: unless he came clean he could never hope, at the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America, and he would probably not be given a passport to work abroad either. If the theatre remained open to him, it was not his primary interest anymore; he wanted to deepen his film life, that was where his heart lay, and he had been told in so many words by his old boss and friend Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox, that the company would not employ him unless he satisfied the Committee. It would be easy, I thought as he spoke, for those with less talent to sneer at this, but I believed he was a genius of the theatre, where actors and scripts were concerned a seer who worked along an entirely different trajectory than other directors. To be barred from his metier, kicked into the street, would be for him like a nightmarish overturning of the earth itself. He had always said he came from survivors and that the job was to survive. He spoke as factually as he could, and it was a quiet calamity opening before me in the woods, because I felt my sympathy going toward him and at the same time I was afraid of him. Had I been of his generation, he would have had to sacrifice me as well. And finally that was all I could think of. I could not get past it.

That all relationships had become relationships of advantage or disadvantage. That this was what it all came to anyway and there was nothing new here. That one stayed as long as it was useful to stay, believed as long as it was not too inconvenient, and that we were fish in a tank cruising with upslanted gaze for the descending crumbs that kept us alive. I could only say that I thought this would pass and that it had to pass because it would devour the glue that kept the country together if left to its own unobstructed course. I said that it was not the Reds who were dispensing our fears now, but the other side, and it could not go on indefinitely, it would someday wear down the national nerve. And then there might be regrets about this time. But I was growing cooler with the thought that as unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I had attended meetings of Party writers years ago and had made a speech at one of them. I felt a silence rising around me, an impeding and invisible wash of dulled vibrations between us, like an endless moaning musical note through which we could not hear or speak anymore. It was sadness, purely mournful, deadening. And it had been done to us. It was not his duty to be stronger than he was, the government had no right to require anyone to be stronger than it had been given him to be, the government was not in that line of work in America. I was experiencing a bitterness with the country that I had never even imagined before, a hatred of its stupidity and its throwing away of its freedom. Who or what was now safer because this man in his human weakness had been forced to humiliate himself? What truth had been enhanced by all this anguish?

(4) Arthur Miller, Timebends - A Life (1987)

I could not help thinking of Lee Cobb, my first Willy Loman, as more a pathetic victim than a villain, a big blundering actor who simply wanted to act, had never put in for heroism, and was one of the best proofs I knew of the Committee's pointless brutality toward artists. Lee, as political as my foot, was simply one more dust speck swept up in the thirties idealization of the Soviets, which the Depression's disillusionment had brought on all over the West.

(5) Arthur Miller, Timebends - A Life (1987)

At first I rejected the idea of a play on the subject. My own rationality was too strong, I thought, to really allow me to capture this wildly irrational outbreak. A drama cannot merely describe an emotion, it has to become that emotion. 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. In other words, the same spiritual nugget lay folded within both procedures - an act of contrition done not in solemn privacy but out in the public air. The Salem prosecution was actually on more solid legal ground since the defendant, if guilty of familiarity with the Unclean One, had broken a law against the practice of witchcraft, a civil as well as a religious offense; whereas the offender against HUAC could not be accused of any such violation but only of a spiritual crime, subservience to a political enemy's desires and ideology. He was summoned before the Committee to be called a bad name, but one that could destroy his career.

In effect, it came down to a governmental decree of moral guilt that could easily be made to disappear by ritual speech: intoning names of fellow sinners and recanting former beliefs. This last was probably the saddest and truest part of the charade, for by the early 1950s there were few, and even fewer in the arts, who had not left behind their illusions about the Soviets.

It was this immaterial element, the surreal spiritual transaction, that now fascinated me, for the rituals of guilt and confession followed all the forms of a religious inquisition, except, of course, that the offended parties were not God and his ministers but a congressional committee. (Some of its individual members were indeed distinctly unspiritual, like J. Parnell Thomas, whose anti-Communist indignation was matched only by a larcenous cupidity for which he would soon do time in a federal prison, not far from the cell of Ring Lardner, Jr., who had been jailed for contempt of Congress-namely, for refusing to answer Thomas's questions.) We were moving into the realm of anthropology and dream, where political terms could not penetrate. Politics is too conscious a business to illuminate the dark cellar of the public mind, where secret fears, unspeakable and vile, rule over cobwebbed territories of betrayal and violent anger.

McCarthy's rise was only beginning, and no one guessed that it would grow beyond the power of the president himself, until the army, whose revered chiefs he tried to destroy, finally brought him down.

My decision to attempt a play on the Salem witchcraft trials was tentative, restrained by technical questions first of all, and then by a suspicion that I would not only be writing myself into the wilderness politically but personally as well. For even in the first weeks of thinking about the Salem story, the central image, the one that persistently recurred as an exuberant source of energy, was that of a guilt-ridden man, John Proctor, who, having slept with his teenage servant girl, watches with horror as she becomes the leader of the witch-hunting pack and points her accusing finger at the wife he has himself betrayed.