In this lesson, we will talk about the life of one of America's greatest playwrights, Arthur Miller. We will take a close look at his role in the American political scene of the 1950s and give insight into some of his most influential works.
Known for his political activism and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller was a powerful force in both American history and literature. His work dominated the theater scene in the 1950s and '60s, and continues to influence American culture today. He was highly perceptive of the human condition, and he had amazing talent when it comes to writing. His work is known for portraying complex characters who cope with real-life situations and confront guilt and remorse from their past actions. This lesson will explore the life and work of one of America's greatest playwrights, Arthur Miller.
Miller gained recognition for his writing and activism
Arthur Asher Miller was born in New York City in 1915, and spent his childhood playing football with his older brother and the neighborhood kids, and going to Hebrew school. Arthur was fourteen when the stock market crashed, and moved with his family to Brooklyn - the setting for his most famous play, Death of a Salesman. He worked to save money for college at an automobile parts warehouse where he was isolated as their only Jewish worker.
At the time, the University of Michigan was ideal because it didn't have quotas against Jewish students, and it was one of the few that supported creative writing as an academic field. Due to his poor academic record, he had trouble getting accepted into the writing program; he had to apply three times before finally getting in on a probationary status. Miller loved the University of Michigan for all of the diversity, and he got to know people from all walks of life there.
Across the country at this time, everyone was struggling to make ends meet, and most people were being laid off and going bankrupt; needless to say, there was a growing interest in politics and economics. Miller often wrote political commentary for the Michigan Daily, but his passion for politics translated best in his writing for the stage - he would later say, 'theater can change the world.'
His first success as a playwright came in 1936, with No Villain, a play about a workers' strike and the conflicting reactions within a family. No Villain won the Minor Award for Drama, and spurred his confidence to keep writing. When he graduated from college, he married a fellow activist named Mary Slattery and moved to New York. They struggled financially, and he found work at a box factory and wrote a series of radio plays. In 1943, he helped write the screenplay for The Story of G.I. Joe and finally earned a living wage for his writing. Miller had two children at this time, Jane and Robert.
The Crucible centered on the Salem witch trials of the 1600s
In 1948, he produced his first real success, All My Sons, a story based on a real-life incident where defective plane engines were knowingly sold anyway to the U.S. military. The title All My Sons refers to all of the doomed pilots who were flying with defective planes just so one guy could make a profit. The incident came out during the aftermath of WWII, when America only wanted to think about the war's good side and to ignore some of the darker elements, like war profiteering. All My Sons won Miller the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
In 1948, Miller followed All My Sons with the Pulitzer Prize-winner Death of a Salesman, a play about the haunted thoughts of an aging salesman who struggles to deal with his past and make a successful living. Like All My Sons, Death of a Salesman exposed the imperfections going on in America, bringing attention to the hardships of trying to meet social expectations, and how not everyone can live the American dream.
Miller's tendency to portray stories that criticized mainstream America would get Miller in trouble in the coming years. During the 1950s, there was a growing mass fear of communism that would lead to Senate hearings called the McCarthy hearings. During this time, the government passed The Emergency Detention Act, which allowed them to put anyone they found to be subversive in jail or even in an internment camp. The McCarthy hearings lead to the convictions of anyone associated with 'un-American activities,' and many gave in to the threat of jail time or of being blacklisted from work by confessing that they had communist sympathies and giving the names of other sympathizers.
Miller responded to this political hysteria by offering a criticism of the McCarthy hearings in his adaptation of a play by Ibsen, An Enemy of the People. The play shows how the greedy will of the majority can crush any dissenting voice that tries to do the right thing (in this case, trying to make people stop profiting off of toxic water).
Miller wrote The Misfits for wife Marilyn Monroe
Then, as if his disdain for the growing absolute patriotism and fear-based hysteria epitomized by the McCarthy hearings wasn't completely clear, he wrote The Crucible, a play about the interrogations and forced confessions of witchcraft that happened in Salem in the 1600s. The Crucible has clear parallels to the McCarthy hearings, which demanded the accused confess their association with communism and name the names of others guilty of this crime.
As you can imagine, The Crucible put Miller on the list of suspects in the eyes of the Un-American Activities Committee, and as if to pay homage to The Crucible, he was summoned to testify and asked to provide the names of anyone known to have communist sympathies. Just as the main character in The Crucible, John Proctor, remained silent in the face of his own death, Arthur Miller also remained silent at his hearing. However, he was not sentenced to death as he might have been in the 1600s, but he was cited for contempt, which he later fought to have overturned in the Supreme Court.
Life and Legacy
It was also just after the stage production of The Crucible that Miller ended his first marriage and became engaged to Marilyn Monroe, placing him even more in the spotlight. Miller and Monroe had a supportive relationship while it lasted. Monroe was known for portraying sexual and comedic roles, but Miller wanted to show the kind of depth that she really had, so he wrote The Misfits as a valentine for her and cast her as the leading role.
The Misfits didn't end well, however, and by the time production of the film began, their marriage was falling apart. The couple's divorce came right before the release of The Misfits film in 1961. A year later, Miller married his partner of forty years, a photographer named Inge Morath, and had two children, Rebecca and Daniel.
In the years that followed, Miller's work was banned by the government of the Soviet Union after he campaigned for the freedom of controversial writers. He wrote numerous plays in the following years, including In the Country and Chinese Encounters, as well as a musical called Up from Paradise. He also wrote his autobiographical work, Timebends. In 1996, his son Robert produced a film version of The Crucible starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Miller wrote the screenplay for the film, and it was in the production of this film that his daughter Rebecca met Daniel Day-Lewis, and the couple married later that year.
Toward the end of his life, Miller won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts and Master American Dramatist. Death of a Salesman was reproduced numerous times, including 1984 starring Dustin Hoffman as Willie Loman, and another one in 1999 that won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Miller's talent arose from his work as a journalist, and continued as he worked to expose the weaknesses that arise when humans are confronted with tough choices and moral dilemmas. His plays continue to be produced and celebrated for their portrayals of real-life people dealing with choices of right and wrong.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe Arthur Miller's personal life, including college and his three marriages
- Identify some of Miller's most famous plays as well as the common themes among them
- Discuss how Miller criticized the McCarthy hearings