Arthur Miller: Biography and Major Plays

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  • 0:06 Arthur Miller
  • 0:46 Early Years
  • 2:46 Critical Success
  • 3:46 Political Activism
  • 5:54 Life and Legacy
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lindsey Madison-Dunn

Lindsey has taught a variety of English courses in both secondary and post-secondary classrooms, and has a master's degree in Rhetoric.

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.

Arthur Miller

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.

Early Years

Miller gained recognition for his writing and activism
Arthur Miller

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.

Critical Success

The Crucible centered on the Salem witch trials of the 1600s
Salem Witch Trials

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.

Political Activism

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
Marilyn Monroe

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