A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller in his ninetieth year died just before the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the historical figure he most identified with, according to a Vanity Fair questionnaire.  Often described as “the greatest living American playwright,” the tall, bony writer who dissected the American Dream in “Death of a Salesman” and challenged the repressive McCarthy hearings in “The Crucible” saw his works staged, studied, and applauded the world over.  But when “The Crucible” opened on Broadway, it was dismissed by New York’s two major critics, Walter Kerr in the Tribune calling it “a mechanical parable” and Brooks Atkinson of  The Times complaining that, in comparison to “Death of a Salesman”, “the literary style is cruder.”  I interviewed Mr. Miller shortly thereafter for Theatre Arts Magazine, to give him an opportunity to reply in the introduction to the full text of the play, including the opening scene (omitted on Broadway)  and a new scene between Proctor and Abigail.

The plays of Arthur Miller, so often considered a mirror of American life, touch and move audiences throughout the world.   Born in Manhattan, residing in a small town in Connecticut, Miller writes of familial love and its conflicts in terms that stir the minds and emotions of audiences not only in English-speaking nations, but also in Brazil and Russia, Iceland and China.  When he directed “Death of a Salesman” in Beijing, and explained to the Chinese actor of Biff the son’s feelings of guilt and unrequited love for his father, the actor replied that he understood, because “it is very Chinese.”  Now, at the playwright’s death, the Goodman Theater (Chicago) production of “Death of a Salesman,” will open soon in London’s West End, as will his last play, “Finishing the Picture,” also staged at Goodman but unproduced in New York, where another late work, “Resurrection Blues,” has yet to appear.

A flood of eulogies, when his death was announced, testified to his generosity, his kindness, his humor, his patience with actors if not with critics, and above all, to his humanity.  He believed that an ordinary man like Willy Loman was as fit a subject for tragedy as were crowned heads.  In Miller’s opinion, the true tragic figure is dedicated to his course, a commitment of “intensity, the human passion to surpass his given bounds, the fanatic insistence upon his self-conceived role.”  Characterized by his social conscience, Miller extends the family circle “into society,” where the play “broaches…questions of social status, social honor and recognition.”   Willy, he notes, “has broken the law which says that a failure in society and in business has no right to live….to fail is no longer to belong to society.” 

I experienced his thoughtfulness at first hand when my book Understanding Arthur Miller was in page proof, and the movie of “The Crucible” was announced.  Hurriedly writing to him, asking if I might see his screenplay in time to report on the motion picture in my book, I received it by return mail.  I recognized his handwriting on the envelope and realized that he had made his way in the Connecticut snow to the post office to send it priority so that I would receive it in time.  Actors not only respected but loved him, for he would take time and show patience with them when a production was under way.  His Theater Essays are required reading, as are his introductions to the plays in their individual volumes.  In addition to nineteen full-length and four one-act plays, he has written a novel, Focus, two volumes of short stories (Ugly Girl, A Life and I Don’t Like You Any More) screenplays of “Playing for Time” and “The Crucible,” and Situation Normal, “ reportage” of his interviews with soldiers during World War II.

David Mamet, one of the many playwrights whose works were influenced by Arthur Miller, in The New York Times sums up on the occasion of his death, Miller’s importance and his credo that the common man can be a hero of tragedy: “Death of a Salesman is the great American Domestic Tragedy.  And The Crucible is the American Political Tragedy ….The plays are tragedies as each…step brings the protagonists closer to their inevitable doom.  We pity them as they are powerless to escape their fate.  We feel fear because we recognize, in them, our own dilemmas….We are freed, at the end of these two dramas, not because the playwright has arrived at a solution, but because he has reconciled us to the notion that there is no solution—that it is the human lot to try and fail, and that no one is immune from self-deception.”

Life and Works

Born in New York City on October 17, 1915, Arthur Miller spent his childhood in luxury until the Great Depression sent his clothing manufacturer father spiraling into ruin.  The family moved to a small house in Brooklyn, rather like the locale of “Death of a Salesman,” and for two years teen-ager Miller worked in an auto parts warehouse to earn his first year’s tuition of $500 at the University of Michigan.  He writes of that experience in “A Memory of Two Mondays.”  “All my work is autobiographical,” says Miller.

Students, he recounts in his autobiography Timebends, could live very well during the Depression. Lee in “The American Clock,” which takes place during the Depression, reports that in college “you could live like a king and never see cash” if you had “two pairs of socks and a shirt, plus a good shirt and a mackinaw.” So no one wished to graduate, especially into a world “where you knew no one wanted you.”  Miller’s decision to enter a playwriting contest at the university was motivated more by the $200 prize than by an ambition to become a dramatist, but when he won, he enrolled in Professor Kenneth T. Rowe’s playwriting class.  His play, revised as “They Too Arise,” also won a Theatre Guild contest. 

Graduating in 1938, Miller joined the WPA Federal Theater Project in New York, and wrote for radio. When an old football injury made him ineligible for World War II military service, he became a workman building warships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  In 1943, he was asked to write a screenplay based on the reports Ernie Pyle was sending back from the front lines.  He interviewed a number of servicemen for his script, which was rewritten by the Studio to conform to a familiar wartime formula.  When the film was completed for release as “The Story of G.I. Joe,” Miller withdrew his name from the credits.  His  interviews with servicemen were published as reportage in 1944.  “I tried to see a higher purpose operating among these men….Though unable to define it in words, they shared a conviction that somehow decency was at stake in this grandest slaughter in history,” he says in Timebends.  These same sentiments are voiced by the idealistic son Chris, recalling his war experience in “All My Sons.”

“All My Sons” was an immediate hit in 1947, welcome encouragement for Miller, whose first Broadway play had closed in 1944 after running only four days.  Joe Keller, a hearty, outspoken manufacturer of airplane parts during the war, is exonerated when a shipment of faulty cylinder heads results in the deaths of twenty-one pilots, but his partner, who was overseer when Joe took ill that day, went to jail.  Miller says in his Theater Essays that the play addresses the question of relatedness, “of a moral world’s being such because men cannot walk away from certain of their deeds.”  In the taut Royal National production by Howard Davies, this is a gripping work, rising to its climactic showdown between father and son and a conclusion that is as stirring as it is inevitable. 

Opening in 1949, “Death of a Salesman” celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with productions world-wide and was voted the number one play of the century in the Royal National Theatre poll.   The parent-child conflict in this work is presented in such universal yet human terms that first-nighters buttonholed Miller at intermission to ask how he knew the story of their father, or brother, or uncle.  The story of the last twenty-four hours in the life of salesman Willy Loman weaves past and present together, so that events take place concurrently “at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present,” says Miller.  This “tragedy of the common man” has been applauded in places as far away as Beijing, where Miller explained the role of son Biff to the Chinese actor playing him: “Biff knows very well what he wants, but Willy and his idea of success disapprove of what he wants, and this is the basic reason you [Biff] have returned here—to somehow resolve this conflict with your father, to get his blessing, to be able to cast off his heavy hand and free yourself.” (Miller, “Salesman” in Beijing, p.71).

 “The Crucible”(1953) is probably Miller’s most frequently performed play.  Set in Salem during its 17th century witch hunt, the play was motivated by “what was in the air” in the fifties – the hearings of the House un-American Activities Committee to search out Communists whom the committee claimed were endangering the nation.  For maximum publicity, the committee focused on Hollywood, calling before them actors, directors, and writers to confess and recant their former sympathies towards Communism and/or Russia, a U.S. ally in World War II but an enemy in the Cold War that followed.

Reading about the witch trials, Miller says in Timebends, he was struck by the analogy to the committee hearings: “The main point…precisely as in seventeenth-century Salem, was that the accused make public confession, damn his confederates as well as his Devil master….not in solemn privacy but out in the public air….intoning names of fellow sinners and recanting former beliefs.”  Researching the actual records in Salem, Miller found evidence for his story of farmer John Proctor, whose wife Elizabeth is denounced as a witch by their former teen-aged servant girl Abigail, with whom John formerly had sexual relations.  Abigail is determined to have John for herself if Elizabeth can be accused of witchcraft and hanged. . The play and the recent film mount to a climax as the screaming group of young women, led by Abigail, denounce Elizabeth and other respected members of the community as witches.  John is accused as well, when he tries to defend Elizabeth and discredit Abigail by admitting to their former relationship.  In the climactic scene just before his hanging, he must decide whether to save his life by falsely admitting allegiance to the Devil, or to go to the gallows so that his name remains untainted as an inheritance for his children.

 “A View from the Bridge” and “The Price” are other popular choices for revival.  “Bridge” was recently an opera composed by William Bolcom and performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and by the Lyric Opera in Chicago.  “Bridge” lends itself well to opera, because it is a tragedy that is larger than life. Miller attempts to emulate Greek tragedy in depicting the inevitability of disaster for  Sicilian longshoreman Eddie Carbone.  Harboring incestuous sexual passion for the niece to whom he has been a father, Eddie makes a fatal decision: he betrays the social code by which he lives and for which he dies in an attempt to regain his good “name.”   In the recent production in England, the role of the young illegal immigrant Rodolfo, whose love for Eddie’s niece Catherine precipitates the longshoreman’s revenge, was played by Joseph Fiennes, who shortly thereafter appeared as William Shakespeare in the film “Shakespeare in Love.”

”The Price,” as is true of so many of Miller’s plays, is family-based, striking an immediate chord in members of the audience as it asks universal questions about moral responsibility between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother. In its most recent revival at London’s Apollo Theatre, Larry Lamb is impressive as the stalwart Manhattan policeman Victor, whom we meet first in the furniture-crowded attic room where his Depression-defeated father sought refuge. Victor had to sacrifice his education in science to support his father, while brother Walter left home to become a successful surgeon. Although the brothers are estranged, Walter has been asked to attend the sale of the furniture to a dealer.

Enter, brilliantly portrayed by Warren Mitchell, lively Jewish furniture dealer Solomon, 89 years old, having survived three depressions, four wives, numerous occupations, including that of an acrobat, and the death by suicide of a loved daughter. Octogenarian Solomon still has plenty of bounce; only time, he regrets, is slowing him down, as he attempts to rise from a chair or subsides at a crucial point in discussing payment. His unique vocabulary combines humor and wisdom, as he delivers twisted aphorisms, unasked-for advice, and wry comments that apply to the furniture as well as to the world at large. Looking at pieces too large for new apartments, he declares, “I’m trying to give you a modern viewpoint. Because the price of used furniture is nothing but a viewpoint.” The brothers, each still resentful of the other, have never changed, never acquired “a modern viewpoint.”

Victor’s viewpoint is that of the past, represented by the outdated furniture – he still bears a grudge against his rich and famous brother who deserted their father. Walter (Des McAleer) arrives, defends his past actions, and our sympathies shift from Victor to him, as we learn that their father never revealed his hidden cash to the sacrificing Victor: “We invent ourselves, Vic, to wipe out what we know.” Walter destroys his brother’s illusion that love characterized their family: it wasn’t love they aimed for, but success. Walter too has paid a price for his choice -- divorce, wayward sons, a breakdown. He seeks reconciliation with Victor, whom he suspects enjoyed the righteous role of victim, of not having to face challenges that might mean failure, as their father had failed. .

Esther, Victor’s wife, loves him despite the price they paid for his choice – sharing his modest salary with the father, living in furnished rooms, scrimping and saving. She sums up their married life in four words: “We lived like mice.” Sian Thomas creates a wife at breaking point, frustrated at Victor’s indecision, and grasping at the promise of a comfortable life in Walter’s offer of a position for Victor. Wary Victor believes the offer is motivated by guilt. After Walter walks out in anger, it is Esther who has the last words. In some of Miller’s best quiet poetry, she recalls the lost hopes of the past, regretting that even now Victor is unable to take just a small step toward reconciliation with his once-loved brother.

 In 1956 Miller and Marilyn Monroe were married, after his divorce from his first wife, college sweetheart Mary Slattery, with whom he had two children.  Emotionally fragile, Monroe evidently viewed the tall, rangy playwright as a pillar of strength.  He writes of her with compassion in his autobiography, describing the marriage as “the best of times, the worst of times.”  During their marriage Miller produced no plays, but spent three years writing a movie for her, “The Misfits,” based on his short story.  By the time the film was released in 1961, they had been divorced. The following year Miller married Inge Morath, a professional photographer with whom he has collaborated on three books.  Their daughter, Rebecca, is an actress, married to Daniel Day-Lewis, whom she met on the set of the film “The Crucible,” in which he played Proctor.

 After Miller’s absence from Broadway for nine years, “After the Fall” opened in 1964.  Obviously autobiographical, it is non-realistic.  Moving back and forth in time, it centers upon lawyer Quentin as he attempts to explain himself to a psychiatrist, who remains unseen.  At one point in his history, which involves troubled relationships with family and friends, and his guilt over the Holocaust, he marries a popular sex symbol, a singer named Maggie but obviously based on Marilyn Monroe.  As critics denounced the play as “an act of exhibitionism” and refused to recognize its many merits, Miller defended himself: “a playwright doesn’t put himself on the stage, he only dramatizes certain forces within himself.”  Philosophically, Quentin explores and attempts to resolve the existence of evil and the denial of individual responsibility, a theme of the earlier plays as well.  The form of the play, says Miller,  “was that of a confession, since the main character’s quest for a connection to his own life was the issue, his conquest of denial the path into himself.”  It is a moving and poetic work that deserves a revival.

 In the eighties Miller wrote an number of short, experimental plays, including “I Can’t Remember Anything” and “Elegy for a Lady,” two two-character one-acts which have been effectively paired in production.  In the nineties, three outstanding Miller plays appeared: “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” “The Last Yankee,” and “Broken Glass.”  The last-named title refers to Kristallnacht in Germany, the night of broken glass in 1938, when the Nazis in Berlin smashed the windows of Jewish shops and synagogues.  The play treats the dramatic tensions of a family half the world away – in Brooklyn – where  Jewish wife Sylvia is strangely affected by the event in Germany, leading to discoveries about herself and her husband.

 “The Last Yankee” was a hit both in New York and London, treating two married couples and their present relationships and past lives.  Like the heroine of “Broken Glass,” Karen achieves liberation when she is able to recognize and free herself from the restraints of her marriage. In “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” which completed a successful run on Broadway in the 1999-2000 season, Patrick Stewart brought his considerable talent and impressive understanding to the anti-heroic central character. A bigamist with a wife and family in Manhattan and another in upstate New York, Lyman Felt, in both farcical and serious situations, displays ingenuity in his attempts to extricate and justify himself.  It is to Mr. Stewart’s credit that Lyman was much more sympathetic on the stage than in the printed text.

 “Mr. Peters’ Connections” is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an aging American.   As Miller says in his Preface, “Mr. Peters is in that suspended state of consciousness which can come upon a man taking a nap, when the mind, still close to consciousness and self-awareness, is freed to roam from real memories to conjectures, from trivialities to tragic insights, from terror of death to glorying in one’s being alive.”

Revived by the Roundabout Theatre in New York in their 2004-2005 season, “After the Fall” starred Peter Krause as Quentin in his quest for self-knowledge and Carla Guigino as Maggie, the glamorous sex-idol singer who resembles Marilyn Monroe.    Miller’s last two plays to be produced – although not in New York – are “Finishing the Picture,” produced in 2004 by Chicago’s Goodman Theater, and “Resurrection Blues,” offered by regional theaters.  The former reflects the conflicts that arose with the filming of the movie “The Misfits,” for which an original screenplay was written by Miller for his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe.  Set in Hollywood, the woes that befall the filming include the capricious behavior of its star and the machinations of a controlling couple from New York, based on Lee Strasberg, at whose Actors Studio Ms. Monroe studied, and Strasberg’s wife Paula, a dominant influence on the troubled star, played by Linda Lavin.  “Resurrection Blues” is a satire that takes reality shows to their utmost limits when it is decided to present live on television the execution of a Christ-like figure.  When he died, Mr. Miller was working both on a play and a short story.  One of his later short stories, “Bare Manuscript,” was printed in the August 2, 2003 Guardian.  (www.guardian.co.uk. )

Quotations are from my book, Understanding Arthur Miller (University of South Carolina Press, 1996). To order from the University of South Carolina Press, phone toll free 800 768 2500 or fax toll free: 800-868-0740.