The Man Behind “Death of a Salesman”, Arthur Miller

American Playwright Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller, The Playwright

Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City, to his  Jewish parents, Isidore and Augusta Miller. Arthur lived a comfortable middle class life until age fourteen when the Great Depression struck and his family’s business failed. In high school,Arthur was more actively involved in football and other sports than in his studies. After several rejected applications, Miller was finally admitted to the University of Michigan in 1934, where he studied journalism, economics and history.  It was also in college that Miller discovered his love for play writing and in his junior year, he won $250 in a college play writing contest. Miller graduated from college in 1938 with a   degree in English. In 1940 Miller married his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery.

 During World War II, Miller worked on ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and wrote plays for the Columbia Broadcasting System. In 1944, he received his first theatrical break when his play The Man Who Had All the Luck was staged on Broadway. Unfortunately it was not well received. At age 30, Miller  decided to give play writing one last try and diligently spent the next two years writing the play All My Sons, that was co-produced by stage and film director Elia Kazan, who helped him focus and polish the work. All My Sons enjoyed a profitable run of 328 performances and won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and inspired Miller to carry on with his play writing. But it was with Death of a Salesman that Miller’s reputation as an outstanding play wright was solidified. With Death of a Salesman, Miller became famous. However despite his remarkable success, he  continued to focus his writing on the struggles of the common person—social, economic, political, and personal. In the 1940s and 1950s, the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States created a mood of fear and suspicion. In particular, political, social, and business leaders were increasingly concerned that  communism threatened the American “way of life.” 

Herbert Block, who signed his work “Herblock”, coined the term “McCarthyism” in this cartoon in The Washington Post

In 1950 Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), whose mission it was to uncover forces that would subvert this American way of life, started focusing on the intellectual and artisticcommunity in order to find potential communist influences. HUAC targeted both Miller and director Kazan. Citing artistic freedom as his rationale, he refused to cooperate with HUAC that he believed was censoring the critical voice of the American people. Miller was found guilty of contempt of Congress but this was later repealed on account that he had not been informed adequately of the risks involved in incurring contempt. Miller’s  response to the anti-Communist fear and hysteria was The Crucible, where he merged the terror tactics of McCarthyism with the Salem witch hunts of the 17th century.  The Crucible which premiered on Broadway in 1953, became Miller’s most frequently produced play, staged every week somewhere in the world for the past 40 years. It was dramatized on television and in 1996, he adapted the script to a screenplay and the movie was released with his son-in-law, academy award winning  actor, Daniel Day Lewis starring as John Proctor.

“I wished to create a form which, in itself as a form, would literally be the process of Willy Loman’s way of mind. I wished to speak of the salesman most precisely as I felt about him, to give no part of that feeling away for the sake of any effect or any dramatic necessity.”

~Arthur Miller

 In 1956, Miller divorced his first wife Mary, and soon after married actress Marilyn Monroe. However this marriage was short-lived and Miller and Monroe divorced in 1961, a year before Monroe’s death due to drug overdose. Soon after his divorce, Miller met Inge Morath, a  Vienna-born photographer and they were married in February 1962. Miller and Morath spent 40 years together till her death in 2002. In the mid-60s, Miller focused on political activism, becoming the President of PEN, an international writer’s organizing of poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists. In 1968 he resumed play writing with The Price, a work about the two brothers who cannot overcome their anger with each other. The play enjoyed moderate success. In the 1970s, Miller wrote three plays: The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), TheAmerican Clock (1976), and The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977).

The productions of all three works were harshly criticized. During the 1980s,  Arthur Miller’s works experienced a worldwide revival. In 1983, Miller and his wife traveled to Beijing, China to see a production of Death of a Salesman.  Miller never quite enjoyed the success he had in the 40s and the 50s and his last few plays had very short runs on the stage. In his eighties, Miller kept writing social dramas, still driven by the desire to represent the wants, struggles, and frustration of common people. The characters in his plays act out human concerns that are universal. Miller called on his characters to take responsibility for their actions and act on the world that they live in; he rejected self-pity in his characters, no matter how dire their circumstance.

Arthur Miller passed away at the age of 89 on February 10, 2005, surrounded by his family. When he was  dying, he asked to be driven back from New York to New England, where he had written most of his plays. To mourn his death, lights were dimmed on Broadway. Source for this article: www.oldglobe.org

Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Death of a Salesman will run April 26-May 12, 2013. To purchase tickets call (501) 378-0405 or visit www.therep.org

Article written by Werner Trieschmann

One thought on “The Man Behind “Death of a Salesman”, Arthur Miller

  1. hi….thanks so much for info about arthur miller….i did not know he’s danieldaylewis’s dad! thanks for writing such great bio….am hoping to see the play…is there a matinee performance after may 8? am in new zealand currently and won’t be back til 5/8….big thanks…LOVE the REP!!! peg

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