On the occasion of his hundredth birthday anniversary, on Saturday October 17 the Western world paid tribute to the greatest playwright to have lived this side of the Second World War: Arthur Miller. The author of Death of a Salesman and Pulitzer Prize winner took Broadway by storm in the years immediately following the war, presenting the American public with a crude but piercingly real portrayal of the society that had been begotten by the Great Depression and the ensuing New Deal. America’s “new man” faced new challenges, expectations, responsibilities but naturally also faced unfamiliar problems. No one before Miller (nor anyone since him, either) was able to expose the tragic conflict that governed the circumstances of the individual’s life in this new era more accurately and more nakedly.
Born in Harlem in 1915 to a family of Jewish Polish immigrants, Miller’s first-hand experience—albeit at a young age—of the 1929 Crash made his writing ferociously in tune with his times. After graduating from high school in 1932, he had to work and save for two years before he could enroll in the University of Michigan. Four years later, having majored in literature, he was back in New York, writing first for the Federal Theater Project (FTP), a New Deal initiative meant to promote the industry, and then for the radio, after the FTP was accused of harboring Communist links and terminated by Congress in 1939. He married Mary Slattery in 1940, was declared unfit for service due to a college injury to his knee, published a novel (Focus), and worked in a shipyard before finally making his debut in Broadway in 1944 with the little known The Man Who Had All the Luck. It was a colossal failure.
But Miller was ready and determined to channel his life experiences into a play that would capture the essence of post-war America. This is exactly what he did in All My Sons, the first of the four major works in quick succession that to this day constitute the cornerstone of his literary legacy. All My Sons tells the story of an army supply company which knowingly sends damaged engine gaskets to the front for purely profit-driven reasons. This results in the death of twenty-one pilots operating defective planes and ultimately lands one of the two company owners in jail. Miller’s moral coil revolves around the figure of Joe Keller, the second company owner who has escaped punishment at the expense of his partner. Keller’s unbounded ambition is complemented with his lack of fortitude and his inability to face up to his responsibility, hiding instead behind the pressure laid at his feet by the expectations of his family. But beyond Joe Keller’s immoral and irresponsible individualism, Miller addresses an issue in All My Sons that will inform the rest of his career and will resonate hugely in the audience of the time: he pulls the glittery veil from the American Dream and exposes its most obscure, deplorable, hateful side, depicting it as a force of oppression rather than an ideal, an unachievable fantasy that leads to corruption and profiteering rather than to honest hard work.
All My Sons was directed in Broadway by Elia Kazan through most of 1947 and less than a year later it made it to the big screen in an adaptation by Chester Erskine that starred a very young Burt Lancaster. In other words, Miller had hit the jackpot. And when they say that it never rains but it pours maybe what they really mean is that when you have a big hit, the next one will be bigger still. At least that’s what happened to Miller, whose Death of a Salesman premiered in Broadway in 1949, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as his second Tony Award (All My Sons merited him the prize in 1947) and ran for two consecutive years, again under the direction of Elia Kazan.
Death of a Salesman picks up the issue of the American Dream right where All My Sons left it off, with Miller even making it clear in his stage directions: “an air of dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.” The dream, of course, turns out to be a nightmare articulated by the unrealistic expectations of each of the members of the Loman family and the web of lies that is spun—almost unconsciously—just to keep the illusion intact. Miller’s most absorbing quality is his unrivaled ability to create conflicted yet likeable individuals and the ease with which he turns dialog after dialog into an engrossing exchange. In this respect, as the play progresses the weight of reality becomes too much to bear and the entire construct upon which the Loman family’s life has been built implodes.
Nevertheless, there is a wider ideological context to Death of a Salesman, which never goes as far as exonerating the Lomans but certainly does serve as an indictment to American society in particular and capitalism in general for turning away from the natural order of human ambition, an order in which palpable goods are acquired through the traditional set of values—honor, rectitude, faithfulness, hard work, resilience. Instead, the age of the Lomans is one in which trust and connections are the source of intangible riches, one in which debt and credit are your constant companions, an age in which “It’s not what you do but who you know and the smile on your face,” in short, an age—eerily similar to the late 1920s—in which everything around you can turn on its head from one moment to the next.
On the ideological front, Miller’s subsequent project is both telling and significant: in 1950 he embarked on the adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a play that as a social critique makes a similar point to All My Sons using the diametrically opposite argument. Here, Dr. Stockmann discovers that the natural baths that constitute the livelihood of his town are poisoned and need to be redesigned. This entails major works, expenses and sacrifice for years to come but given that the alternative is to poison all visitors Dr. Stockmann finds the moral decision quite easy to take. His fellow townspeople, however, are fiercely opposed and various groups try to silence, bribe and force him to act against his principles. The doctor, however, is steadfast in his resolve, to the point where he is willing to sacrifice his life and that of his family ahead of complying with the will of the people. Thus, while All My Sons and Death of a Salesman both end with a character committing suicide, the final scene of An Enemy of the People hints at the likelihood of the Stockmanns being lynched.
If Miller pays attention to the conflict between the interests of the individual against the edicts of society in his earlier plays, he turns his full focus to this tension in what is perhaps his most famous play: The Crucible. Set in Salem in 1692 and depicting the witch trials that took place in Massachusetts at the time, Miller used The Crucible as a none-too-subtle metaphor for the modern day witch-hunt that the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had embarked upon under the directions of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Elia Kazan, Miller’s old buddy and a onetime member of the Communist party, had been called to testify before the HUAC in 1952. Kazan chose to save his career by giving the HUAC what it wanted: a bunch of names. Miller was not included in the list, but he blamed his friend for giving in regardless. He was also inspired to write a work that has become emblematic, not least through film adaptations in 1957, starring Yves Montand, and in 1996, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.
Miller’s next major work, A View from the Bridge, would come in the form of a single-act verse play premiered in 1955 as part of a double bill with the largely forgotten A Memory of Two Mondays. Initially only moderately successful, Miller reworked A View from the Bridge into a full-fledged play to open in London two years later. Earlier in 2015 I watched a revival of it directed by rising star Ivo van Hove with Mark Strong in the role of the protagonist, Eddy. Minimalistic and deliberately tense, the West End production allowed Miller’s words to take center stage and engage the audience like it might have back in 1957. The result was raw, undiluted, consuming and uncompromising emotion, the sort of draining experience that leaves you wanting a double shot of whisky. And then to go back for more, because so much hope cannot be shattered completely, and so much tragedy cannot be borne by a single family, and so much injustice, even when explained, cannot be left alone. But that’s exactly what Miller does, he leaves it alone, for the viewer to take home, to process and to do something about it. Or not, whatever might be the case.
By the time the new version of A View from the Bridge was ready, the Miller had already divorced his first wife and married one of the biggest celebrities in show business: Marilyn Monroe. Ten years her senior, the mismatch was every bit as monumental as it would appear—and yet, somehow, they gave it a real go: she, on the one hand, would only be part of a single production a year, down from the two or three films she had been making in previous years; he would not write another play until after her death in 1962; she even joined him in 1956 when he was subpoenaed by the HUAC to question him about his pro-Communist past; he wrote the script of The Misfits, tailored specifically for her. Perhaps the only thing that might have brought them sufficiently close together, though, would have been a child—but two miscarriages frustrated that possibility.
Arthur Miller’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe could be seen as a watershed moment that spit his life in two: pre- and post-Marilyn. After her death Miller produced a clearly autobiographic and relatively incendiary play, After the Fall, which was notorious for all the wrong reasons. In his fifties, he suddenly became the respected icon of world theater—not quite the elder statesman but getting there—whose ability could not be challenged but whose grasp of the times had become less firm. Further efforts to bring his world to the theater included Incident at Vichy (1964), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972) and The American Clock (1980) but by now these were interesting as a way into his universe and not as a window to the reality outside. His memoir, Timebends (1987), was critically acclaimed and enormously popular, not just because of his detailed and affectionate account of his time with Marilyn.
His four seminal plays continued to be performed all around the world throughout his life, and in 2002, just three years before his death, the Spanish government awarded him the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias Prize, recognizing the indelible mark he’d left in world literature. The gesture felt like a final tribute to one soon to depart, akin to the MVP of a soccer match being taken off the field one minute before the end to enjoy the curtain call. And yet, Miller’s plays still pulsate with a combination of emotion and conflict, of ambition and fatality that continues to stir us beyond what we might think theater is capable. We should know better, though, because no matter how modern we think we are, we still cry with Oedipus, we still mourn Juliette, and we are still utterly and helplessly moved by the doomed creations of Arthur Miller, the master of emotion.
Published by the Weekender supplement of The Daily Herald on Saturday October 17 2014.