Legendary Playwright Arthur Miller Dies
Arthur Miller, 89, the playwright whose authorship of such theatre classics as Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge, made him a giant of the 20th century American stage, died yesterday of heart failure in Roxbury, Conn., his assistant Julia Bolus said.
Mr. Miller's writing career spanned almost 50 years, beginning in the period immediately following World War II, and it also included motion picture scripts and television drama. Among these were The Misfits, a 1961 movie written expressly for actress Marilyn Monroe, who was then Mr. Miller's wife, and Playing for Time, the true story of an inmates' orchestra at the World War II Auschwitz concentration camp, which was broadcast on CBS television in 1980.
As a postwar playwright, Mr. Miller was a literary reflection of an era of metamorphosis and redefinition in America, following a great victory in the war. He wrote about the torments and tragedies of ordinary men and women struggling for dignity, respect and a sense of community in an increasingly dehumanized and impersonal world that they often did not understand.
His plays were both psychological and social. They explored the likes of misplaced and misunderstood values, out-of-control materialism, dysfunctional families and conflicts between fathers and sons. Their characters were good people who frequently acted badly under pressure. They were insightful, but they had blind spots. They avoided reality and denied the truth when it was painful. They were assertive, yet indecisive; aggressive, but also timid.
It was during the decade immediately after the war that Mr. Miller wrote the best of his plays. The most critically acclaimed was the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman, the tragic story of the emotional collapse of Willy Loman, an aging salesman, husband and father who has sold his soul for a set of hollow values. It has since been translated into 29 languages and is required reading in most college American literature courses. It was made into a movie starring Lee J. Cobb in 1951, and it has been reproduced hundreds of times all over the world. Critics have said it is likely to become one of only a few 20th century American plays to survive the 20th century.
The Crucible, Mr. Miller's timeless drama about the witchcraft trials in Salem, Mass., during the 1600s, was an immediate hit when it opened in New York in 1953. Audiences saw parallels between the witchcraft hysteria of 17th century Salem and the anticommunist hysteria of the McCarthy era during the 1950s. Thirty years later The Crucible, played to packed houses in Beijing, where Chinese audiences found similar parallels with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge, were Mr. Miller's other major works of the postwar decade. The former was his first theatrical success, running for 300 performances on Broadway, beginning in January of 1947. In 1948 it was made into a movie, and it was produced as a television special by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1987. It was a story about a respected manufacturer of aircraft parts who knowingly sells defective merchandise to the Army during the war and then lies about it to protect his business. This causes the death of one of his sons in a plane crash while serving in the Army, and it earns him contempt of his other son, who discovers his father's duplicity and blames him for his brother's death.
A View from the Bridge, was initially produced as a one-act play in 1955, and it received a poor reception from critics. Mr. Miller later expanded it into two acts. The longer version enjoyed a successful run in London and has since been revived several times in New York. In 1962 it was made into a movie. It was a story about a longshoreman named Eddie Carbone who permits two illegal aliens to live with his family, which includes his wife and an orphaned niece. When one of the aliens falls in love with the niece, Eddie becomes irrationally jealous and turns him in to the immigration authorities, breaking the primary unwritten law of his ethnic community. He pays for his transgression with his life. Ostracized by his family and friends, he is killed in a fight that he picks deliberately, knowing that he cannot win.
Mr. Miller's playwriting career went into an eclipse in 1956, following his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The marriage was troubled and tempestuous, and the couple was hounded relentlessly by the media. Monroe's dependence on barbiturates and her profound emotional problems compounded their difficulties.
Nevertheless, Mr. Miller did find much in his wife that was admirable, and in 1961 he wrote the movie script for The Misfits, as a last ditch effort to save the marriage -- and Monroe's life. It was an exploration of the dying myth of the Wild West Cowboy through the experiences of three down-at-the-heels drifters and a tormented divorcee. John Huston directed the film, which co-starred Clark Gable, and both Mr. Miller's script and Huston's direction won critical praise. But the picture was not a box office success. Shortly after completion of its filming, Monroe filed for divorce. In 1962 she committed suicide.
In 1964, Mr. Miller took up playwriting again with After the Fall, a drama about a lawyer struggling to resolve past crises in his life, including the suicide of his wife and his confrontation with the communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite Mr. Miller's denials, the play was widely viewed as autobiographical, and Mr. Miller was criticized for having taken advantage of his life with Monroe and his relationship with colleagues who had turned informer during the McCarthy era.
Like many other artists of his generation, Mr. Miller had attended meetings of communist writers groups as a young man, and in 1956 he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about these meetings during an investigation into passport abuses. He answered all questions put to him by the committee except two, refusing to name persons he might have met at the meetings.
"I will protect my sense of myself. I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him," Mr. Miller told the committee. This brought Mr. Miller a conviction for contempt of Congress from a judge who found his motives "commendable," but nevertheless illegal, and a sentence of three months probation plus a $500 fine. Two years later Mr. Miller's counsel, Washington lawyer Joseph L. Rauh Jr., won a reversal of the conviction by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Arthur Miller was born Oct. 17, 1915, in New York. He attended high school in Brooklyn where his performances on the athletic fields were more impressive than in the classroom. Not until he had graduated did he acquire any literary ambitions, and this came only after he had read The Brothers Karamazov, which had a profound effect on him.
He held a variety of clerical and warehouse jobs, then in 1934 entered the University of Michigan where he studied playwriting, supporting himself by washing dishes and working as night editor of the student newspaper. He also won several playwriting prizes, but none of his college plays was produced.
It was at Michigan that Mr. Miller met his first wife, the former Mary Slattery. They were married in 1940 and divorced in 1956. The marriage produced two children, Jane Ellen and Robert.
Exempt from the draft because of a football injury, Mr. Miller spent the World War II-years writing radio dramas, while working part time as a truck driver and a steamfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He wrote his only novel, Focus, about an obsequious personnel director, in 1945, but the book went largely unnoticed. His first Broadway effort, The Man Who Had All the Luck, about a Midwest auto mechanic, met a similar fate, closing after four performances. The playwright then spent two years writing All My Sons, which established him as a figure in the literary community and enabled him to buy a 350-acre farm in Roxbury, Conn., where he built a studio and wrote the rest of his plays.
It was there that Mr. Miller resumed his playwriting career following his divorce from Monroe and his marriage in 1962 to Inge Morath, an Austrian born photographer. They had one daughter, Rebecca.
His literary production over the next quarter century was steady, and his work played both in the United States and England to a variety of reviews. But he never achieved the literary heights of the first decade after the war.
Among his better-known plays of the latter period in his career were Incident at Vichy, (1964) which addressed one man's sacrifice in saving the live of a Jewish doctor in Nazi-occupied France; The Price, (1969) a family drama about two brothers meeting to dispose of their dead parents furniture; The Creation of the World and Other Business, (1972) a retelling of the story of Genesis in which issues of responsibility and guilt are addressed; and The American Clock, (1980) a portrait of the Great Depression that was better received in London than in the United States.
Playing for Time, the 1980 television drama about the inmates' orchestra at Auschwitz, starring Vanessa Redgrave, drew enthusiastic reviews and has been rebroadcast several times.