Who Was Arthur Miller?
Playwright Arthur Miller attended the University of Michigan before moving back East to write dramas for the stage. He earned widespread praise for Death of a Salesman, which opened on Broadway in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize along with multiple Tonys. He received more acclaim for his award-winning follow-up, The Crucible, which reflected his unwavering refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller's public life was painted in part by his rocky marriage to Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. The playwright died in 2005 at the age of 89, leaving a body of work that continues to be re-staged internationally and adapted for the screen.
Early Life and Education
Miller was born in Harlem, New York, on October 17, 1915, to an immigrant family of Polish and Jewish descent. His father, Isidore, owned a successful coat manufacturing business, and his mother, Augusta, to whom he was closer, was an educator and an avid reader of novels.
The affluent Miller family lost almost everything in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and had to move from Manhattan to Flatbush, Brooklyn. After graduating high school, Miller worked a few odd jobs to save enough money to attend the University of Michigan. While in college, he wrote for the student paper and completed his first play, No Villain, for which he won the school's Avery Hopwood Award. He also took courses with playwright and professor Kenneth Rowe. Inspired by Rowe's approach, Miller moved back East to begin his career as a playwright.
Early Career & 'Death of a Salesman'
Miller's career got off to a rocky start. His 1944 Broadway debut, The Man Who Had All the Luck, garnered a fate that was the antithesis of its title, closing after just four performances with a stack of woeful reviews. Focus, Miller's novel about anti-Semitism, was published a year later. His next play, All My Sons, was a hit in 1947, running for almost a full year on Broadway and earning Miller his first Tony Award for Best Author.
Working in a small studio that he built in Roxbury, Connecticut, Miller wrote the first act of Death of a Salesman in less than a day. The play, directed by Elia Kazan, opened on February 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre, and was adored by nearly everyone, becoming an iconic stage work.
The drama follows the travails of Willy Loman, an aging Brooklyn salesman whose career is in decline and who finds the values that he so doggedly pursued have become his undoing. New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson described Willy Loman in his 1949 review of the play: "In his early sixties he knows his business as well as he ever did. But the unsubstantial things have become decisive; the spring has gone from his step, the smile from his face and the heartiness from his personality. He is through. The phantom of his life has caught up with him. As literally as Mr. Miller can say it, dust returns to dust. Suddenly there is nothing."
Salesman won Miller the highest accolades in the theater world: the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Tony for Best Play. (The work, in fact, swept all of the six Tony categories in which it was nominated, including for Best Direction and Best Author.)
Marriage to Marilyn Monroe
In 1956, Miller divorced his first wife, Mary Slattery, his former college sweetheart with whom he had two children, Jane Ellen and Robert. Less than a month later, Miller married actress and Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, whom he'd first met in 1951 at a Hollywood party. At the time, Monroe was dating Kazan, who had directed Miller's All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. When Kazan asked Miller to keep Monroe company while he dated another actress, Miller and Monroe struck up a friendship that turned into a romance. Author Norman Mailer called their marriage the union of "the Great American Brain" and "the Great American Body."
Miller and Monroe's high-profile marriage placed the playwright in the Hollywood spotlight. At the time of their marriage, he told the press that Monroe would curtail her movie career for the "full-time job" of being his wife.
'The Crucible' & McCarthyism
Later in 1956, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) refused to renew Miller's passport, and called him to appear before the committee. His 1953 play, the Tony Award-winning The Crucible, a dramatization of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and an allegory about McCarthyism, was believed to be one of the reasons why Miller came under the committee's scrutiny. Miller refused to comply with the committee's demands to "out" people who had been active in certain political activities and was thus cited in contempt of Congress.
In 1957, Brooks Atkinson wrote about Miller’s stand against HUAC: "He refused to be an informer. He refused to turn his private conscience over to administration by the state. He has accordingly been found in contempt of Congress. That is the measure of the man who has written these high-minded plays."
The contempt ruling was overturned two years later.
Divorce and Marilyn's Death
Miller and Monroe were married for five years, during which time the tragic sex symbol struggled with personal troubles and drug addiction. Miller barely wrote during their marriage, except for penning the screenplay of The Misfits as a gift for Monroe. The 1961 film, directed by John Huston, starred Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Around the same time as The Misfits release, Monroe and Miller divorced.
Monroe died the following year, and Miller's controversial 1964 drama After the Fall was believed to have been partially inspired by their relationship. Miller was criticized for capitalizing on his marriage to Monroe so soon after her death, although the playwright denied this. Miller responded to his critics by saying: ''The play is a work of fiction. No one is reported in this play. The characters are created as they are in any other play in order to develop a coherent theme, which in this case concerns the nature of human insight, of self-destructiveness and violence toward others.''
In 1962, Miller married Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath. The couple had two children, Rebecca and Daniel. Miller insisted that their son, Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome, be excluded from the family's personal life. The infant was institutionalized, and Morath reportedly tried to bring him home as a toddler but to no avail.
Years later, actor Daniel Day-Lewis who married Miller's daughter Rebecca, visited his wife's brother frequently. Day-Lewis eventually persuaded Miller to make further contact with his adult son, who had been able to establish a happy life with outside support. Daniel's existence was unknown to most of the public until after Miller's death.
Miller's other plays include A View From the Bridge (1955), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), The American Clock (1980) and Broken Glass (1994).
In his later career, Miller continued to explore societal and personal issues that probed the American psyche, though critical and commercial responses to the work didn't garner the acclaim of his earlier productions.
He also wrote the 1980 TV movie Playing for Time and an adaptation for the theater. The project was based on the autobiography of Fania Fénelon, who was a member of an all-women's orchestra that was imprisoned at the Auschwitz death camps during the Holocaust. The film courted controversy from Jewish organizations and Fénelon herself for its casting of Vanessa Redgrave, who had criticized Zionism and supported Palestinian organizations.
In addition to his plays, Miller collaborated with Morath on books including In the Country (1977) and 'Salesman' in Beijing (1984). In 1987, Miller published his autobiography Timebends: A Life. In his autobiography, he wrote that when he was young he “imagined that with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do.”
Miller's plays have become American classics that continue to speak to new generations of audiences. Death of a Salesman has had numerous screen adaptations, including a 1985 TV version that starred Dustin Hoffman, who also starred in the previous year's Broadway revival. In 1996, a film adaptation of The Crucible hit theaters, starring Winona Ryder, Joan Allen and Day-Lewis. Miller penned the screenplay, which earned him the sole Academy Award nomination of his career.
Death of a Playwright
In 2002, Miller's third wife, Morath, died. He soon was engaged to 34-year-old minimalist painter Agnes Barley but fell into ill health before they could walk down the aisle. On February 10, 2005, the 56th anniversary of Death of a Salesman's Broadway debut, Miller died of heart failure at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, surrounded by Barley, family and friends. He was 89 years old.
In March 2018, HBO aired the documentary Arthur Miller: Writer. Directed and narrated by his daughter Rebecca, the piece chronicled the life of the great American playwright, from the creation of his iconic plays, to his marriage to Monroe to his relationships with family members.
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