Arthur Miller (1915–2005) is one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. He penned some of America’s most memorable plays in a career that lasted seven decades. His Death Of A Salesman won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize.
He was born in Harlem and his father’s company was successful until the Great Depression, which took away nearly all business opportunities and shaped Miller’s beliefs, including the insecurity of modern life.
In 1944, his first Broadway play The Man Who Had All the Luck closed after only four performances and a pile of bad reviews.
His next play was produced on Broadway in 1947. All My Sons is a powerful drama that earned critical and popular praise and Miller’s first Tony Award.
Miller had small studio that he had built in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he wrote Act I of Death Of Salesman in less than a day. The play, directed by Elia Kazan in 1949, to great acclaim and became an iconic American play. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, the play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and swept all six of the Tony categories in which it was nominated. The original production ran for 742 performances, and it has been revived on Broadway four times, winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival.
Miller was a prime target for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), led by the creepy Republican Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was an era of anti-communism fervor, and Miller’s liberal politics seemed threatening to several American politicians, which is unusual in retrospect, considering that the USSR banned his plays.
Miller was summoned before the HUAC and was expected to release names of any associates he knew to be communists. Unlike Kazan and other artists, Miller refused to name names. Miller:
”I don’ t believe a man has to become an informer in order to practice his profession freely in the United States.”
He was charged with contempt of Congress, a conviction that was later overturned.
In response to the hysteria of the era, Miller wrote one of his best plays, The Crucible (1953). It is set during another time of social and political paranoia, the Salem Witch Trials.
By the 1950s, Miller was the most recognized playwright in the world, and not just because of his theatrical genius. In 1956, Miller divorced his wife and less than a month later he married Marilyn Monroe, who he’d met in 1951 at a Hollywood party.
Photographers hounded the famous couple and the tabloids were cruel, asking why the world’s sexiest woman would marry such an unsexy guy. Writer Norman Mailer said their marriage represented the union of “the Great American Brain” and “the Great American Body.”
They were married for five years. Miller wrote little during that time, except for the screenplay titled The Misfits (1961), a gift for Monroe. The film, directed by John Huston, stars Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift. By the time the film was released, Monroe and Miller divorced.
Miller continued to write into his 80s. His later plays didn’t attract the same attention or acclaim as his earlier work, though film and television adaptations of The Crucible and Death Of A Salesman were great successes.
Miller died of heart failure at his home in Roxbury at 89 years old.
Many of his plays deal with the way capitalism affects the lives of everyday Americans. He thought theatre was a way to speak for those Americans:
“The mission of the theater, after all, is to change, to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities.”
He established the Arthur Miller Foundation to help young artists. After his death, his daughter Rebecca Miller focused on his mandate for expanding Arts education in New York City public schools.
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Miller won two Emmy Awards, three Tony Awards, plus a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.