Born in New York on 17 October 1915 to an Austrian-Jewish family, Miller’s childhood experiences of the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s provided major themes in his life’s work. He started his career with the Federal Theatre Project. When it closed down in 1939, he found work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and wrote for radio.
Though Miller’s first play, 1944’s The Man Who Had All the Luck, was a flop, he found success later that decade with All My Sons in 1947 (revived to critical acclaim at the National in 2000 and again in 2001) and, most significantly, with 1949’s Death of a Salesman, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Considered a masterpiece of American as well as international theatre, Death of a Salesman tells the story of Willy Loman, a small-time travelling salesman who harbours a blind belief in the American Dream and tries to graft his failed ambitions and values onto his unwilling sons. The premiere, directed by Elia Kazan, starred Lee J Cobb. George C Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy played Loman in subsequent Broadway revivals. The last brings his acclaimed 1999 New York production to the West End’s Lyric Theatre this May (See News, 26 Jan 2005).
Four years after Death of a Salesman premiered and a year after his renowned translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Miller wrote The Crucible (1953). Set in 1692 in Massachusetts, the play centred on the reign of terror unleashed during the Salem witchcraft trials, but was in fact a thinly veiled response from Miller to 1950s’ "un-American" communist witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his committee, to which Miller himself was called to give evidence.
Miller followed these two epics with many other, albeit less commercially successful, plays including: A View from the Bridge (revived at the West End’s Strand Theatre in 1994), After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, The Price (his 1968 four-hander which was recently revived at London’s Tricycle Theatre and transferred to the West End with Warren Mitchell and Larry Lamb in 2003), The Creation of the World and Other Business, The American Clock, The Archbishop’s Ceiling, The Ride Down Mount Morgan, The Last Yankee, Broken Glass (seen at the National in 1994 and transferred to the West End) and Mr Peters’ Connections (which received its UK premiere at the Almeida in 2000).
Outside of the theatre world, Miller achieved another level of celebrity when he married actress Marilyn Monroe. In 1962, a year after their five-year marriage ended in divorce, Monroe committed suicide. Monroe continued to influence Miller’s writing more than forty years later. Just this past October in Chicago (See The Goss, 21 Sep 2004), he premiered his final play, fittingly titled Finishing the Picture. It was based on the breakdown of the couple’s marriage while on the set of John Huston’s film The Misfits, for which Miller wrote the screenplay.
During the early part of his career, Miller was frequently compared with his American contemporary, Tennessee Williams, the author of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, who died in 1983. In his book, Changing Stages, British director Richard Eyre called the two writers the “Romulus and Remus of post-war American drama” (See “Greatest Living Playwright: Arthur Miller”, Features, 8 Sep 2003). The key distinction, according to Eyre, is that “Arthur Miller asks the question: ‘How are we to live our lives?’ and Tennessee Williams asks: ‘How do we get through the night?’"
- by Terri Paddock
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