Arthur Miller: Birth of a Social Dramatist Essay
Arthur Miller: Birth of a Social Dramatist
At a young age, Arthur Miller did not show any sign of a writing talent. As a child, he was into sports. He only discovered his calling after high school. Despite this, he became one of America’s greatest playwrights. He had changed the American literary landscape through his plays, such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Miller is significant in American literature, but why is he so important in American theater? Arthur Miller is extremely important to American theater because he provided the theater with plays that showcase the moral sentiments and struggles of American society, plays that are indebted to his own life experiences for inspiration. That is why before Miller’s contribution to American theater can be considered, it is crucial that one should look into his life, and discover the experiences he derived from it that were embedded in his plays.
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Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915 in Manhattan, New York. His parents were Isidore and Augusta Barnett Miller, both of whom are Jewish immigrants (Reuben ;Public Broadcasting Service [PBS]). Isidore used to run a manufacturing business for ladies wear, but the Depression quickly affected it (“Arthur Miller”). Due to the bleak financial state of the Depression, the business soon declined. This forced the family to move from an “elegant apartment” in Manhattan to a small house in Brooklyn (Walsh; “Arthur Miller”). In Brooklyn, Miller spent his childhood engaged in sports, such as football and baseball (“Arthur Miller”). He attended James Madison and Abraham Lincoln high schools, where he was neither a reader nor an excellent student. It was in 1932 when he graduated from high school. He wanted to attend college in the University of Michigan, but his application was declined due to his average grades (Reuben). He then spent his days working several jobs, including one at an automobile warehouse which enabled him to save for his college education (“Arthur Miller”; PBS). Miller’s future as a writer did not seem apparent until he read Fyodor Dostoevsky. This was when he discovered his love of writing. This encouraged him to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1934 (“Arthur Miller”).
It was in college where Miller began his development as a writer. He worked for the newspaper Michigan Daily as a night editor. It was also in the university where he got his start at playwriting, as he wrote Honors at Dawn and No Villain in college. It was from these two plays that he received Hopwood Playwriting awards, both of which are worth five hundred dollars. In 1938, No Villain received the Theater Guild Award (Reuben).
After college, Miller went back to New York in 1936 and became a freelance writer (PBS). He became a part of the Federal Theater Project; he also wrote radio program scripts for CBS’ Columbia Workshop and NBC’s Cavalcade of America. At this point, Miller’s career was on track, and so was his personal life. In 1940, he married his college girlfriend Mary Slattery (“Arthur Miller”). Four years after, Miller visited army camps to research for the movie The Story of GI Joe. All the material he had gathered was eventually later published as Situation Normal in 1945 (Reuben).
The Man Who Had All the Luck was the first play Miller wrote that debuted on Broadway (PBS). Unfortunately, it was badly received and had to close after four performances. In 1945, he left playwriting for a while to write his very first novel, which was entitled Focus. Two years after, Miller resumed his playwriting and created All My Sons, which became his first well-received and critically acclaimed play in Broadway (Reuben).
All My Sons may have been successful, but it was the play Death of a Salesman that made Miller a significant figure in American literature and theater. In fact, it is his most popular work to date (PBS).
In the 1950s, Miller made an adaptation of An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. In 1953, he wrote The Crucible, which was another success (Reuben). Miller’s writing career may have been a continuous progress, but marriage certainly was not. In 1955, his marriage to Slattery ended in divorce (Reuben). Despite the personal setback, Miller had two other plays on Broadway that year: A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge (Reuben).
A View from the Bridge is a one-act play that “questions the reasonableness of U.S. immigration laws,” and later won Miller another Drama Critics Circle Award (Goldstein ; Reuben). This was his last play before entering nine-year playwriting hiatus (Reuben).
While Miller’s playwriting career took a backseat, his personal life had undertaken new developments. He married actress Marilyn Monroe in 1956 (PBS). This marriage proved to be more beneficial for Monroe as he contributed to her career through his writing efforts, such as creating the screenplay for her film The Misfits. It was also he who convinced Monroe to appear in the movie Some Like It Hot, the movie that made her a star. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived, as Monroe and Miller divorced in 1961. He, on the other hand, quickly moved on and married his third wife, Ingeborg Morath (Reuben). Soon Miller started to write again in 1964 and created the play After the Fall. According to Goldstein, After the Fall was a “disguised portrayal of Miller’s unhappy marriage to film actress Marilyn Monroe” (427).
Miller had two other plays that followed After the Fall. Incident at Vichy and The Price, were two of his plays that were shown on Broadway in 1964 and 1968 respectively (Reuben). Both these plays delved into the topic of human responsibility and baggage that come with success (Goldstein 427). Other plays of Miller include The Creation of the World and Other Business, and The Archbishop’s Calling (Reuben).
The 1980s marked a new chapter in Miller’s career, as he wrote for television and again for the movies. He made the screenplay of Playing for Time. Miller also wrote another book, this time it was his autobiography. It was entitled Timebends: A Life, and was published in1987. In 1995, The Crucible was adapted for the big screen, and it starred Winona Ryder and Daniel Day Lewis (Reuben).
Miller’s talent was soon recognized in other parts of the world. In 2002, he was awarded the Principe de Asturias Prize for Literature, one of Spain’s highest honors. In fact, he was the first ever American to receive this honor. Three years later, Miller passed away due to heart failure on February 11th, in his Connecticut home (Reuben; “Arthur Miller”).
The Public Broadcasting Service states that “in the period immediately following the end of World War II, American theater was transformed by the work of playwright Arthur Miller.” How did Miller transform American theater? He simply did not look far for inspiration. Miller’s plays revolved around American society, and the social and moral struggles that come with it. “Miller was a moralist,” and it is this sense of morality that changed the landscape of American theater forever. This apparent display of morality was said to have been acquired from Ibsen, one of Miller’s influences. Miller’s plays also had another characteristic that helped transform American theater: sense of responsibility (Kuchwara). Most of Miller’s characters have a strong sense of responsibility and morality, most of which have taken their lives because of these. In the words of the Public Broadcasting Service:
Arthur Miller dedicated himself to the investigation of the moral plight of the white American working class. With a sense of realism and a strong ear for the American vernacular, Miller has created characters whose voices are an important part of the American landscape.
Most of Miller’s plays are familial dramas which deal with political and moral issues (Goldstein 427). Themes found within his plays include “friendship, love, duty and honor” (Kuchwara). All these elements are part of the moral landscape Miller describes, which also highlight his emphasis for social responsibility. At present, American theater is full of “empty experimentalism and narcissistic playing at theatrical form,” all of which have become mere tactics to draw tourists (Walsh). This leaves no room for the “methodical, well-crafted” plays of Miller (Walsh). Nonetheless, regardless of its present state, American theater will always be indebted to Miller who has provided dramas that mirror the plight of American society. His plays are proof of this, an example of which is All My Sons.
All My Sons was Miller’s first successful play in Broadway. It tells the story of two families, the Kellers and the Deevers, and was said to have been derived from his mother-in-law’s anecdote (Walsh). Joe Keller is the lead character; he is involved in a business which deals with the manufacture of aircraft parts. As the play progresses, the audience will discover that Larry Keller, a pilot and Joe’s eldest son, “has been missing in action for three years.” Because of Larry’s long absence, his fiancée Ann Deever decides to marry his brother Chris instead. Ann’s father used to be Joe’s business partner, and he gets incarcerated because 21 military pilots lost their lives due to the deficient parts their company provided. George, Ann’s brother, then confronts Joe about the matter. It turns out that Joe did approve the delivery of such inferior merchandise. It is soon discovered that Larry knew about his father’s fault, and that he crashed his plane on purpose. In the end, Joe kills himself (Walsh).
First of all, All My Sons offers a social commentary. Miller was exposed to the war, so it was only natural that he was aware of the issues that surrounded it. The play served as an expression of Miller’s disapproval for “war profiteering” (Walsh). Also, it highlights the fact that everyone has a responsibility to society. Joe’s character was preoccupied with the financial rewards of his business that he disregarded the quality of his products. In the beginning, he was not aware of the consequences; it was not until his son’s death and his partner’s incarceration that he understood the magnitude of his fault. Upon his realization, he ended his life. Thus, Miller shows that people should be mindful of their actions because each and every one of them affects the society. Everyone is responsible for the social outcome of all actions.
Death of a Salesman was Miller’s most successful play, and also exhibits morality and responsibility. Willy Loman is the protagonist, and the play revolves around his life and failures. Willy was disenchanted by the concept of the American Dream. For Willy, being “well-liked” was the most important thing in the world. He believes that this likeability, and not hard work, was the secret in achieving the American Dream (Ward and Greaves). Willy boasts his success to his family and friends, but in reality he is a failure. He spends most of his life as a traveling salesman, only to be fired by his employer. Willy continually argues with his son Biff because he is frustrated with his son’s idle state. Throughout the play, Willy becomes caught up in happier memories and hallucinates about his dead brother (Walsh). Deluded by his beliefs, he realizes later in his life that he had not achieved anything. In the end, Willy realizes that “he was worth more dead than alive,” so he kills himself. Michael Kuchwara states that Willy’s name “has become synonymous with everything that went wrong in the American dream.” He adds that “Willy was a beaten-down true believer who [became a] victim [of] his own beliefs.”
According to Goldstein, it is through Death of a Salesman where “Miller condemned the American ideal of prosperity on the grounds that few can pursue it without making dangerous moral compromises (427). Willy was after the American Dream, but his pursuit eventually led to his demise. He equated success with likeability but, in the end, he was neither liked nor successful. He failed to provide a good future for his family, and he saw his death as an opportunity to save them. He killed himself as his last effort to provide for them through the insurance policy. Again, Miller deals with morality and responsibility through this family drama. Miller believes in the moral pitfalls one will face upon the pursuance of the American dream. He also asserts that one must not undermine morality to achieve a certain goal. In addition, he again emphasized the importance of responsibility. Willy, as the head of the family, was tasked to provide for his family. He honored this responsibility with unlikely means—death. His death assured that his family was provided for through the insurance policy.
Death of a Salesman is inspired by Miller’s family experience during the Depression. It was said that the Loman house was modeled after their Brooklyn residence (“Arthur Miller”). Moreover, it is believed that the demise of the family business inspired the play. His businessman father suffered major losses due to the financial decline of the depression, and this affected Miller very much (PBS). His father may have been the model for Willy Loman, as both were businessmen who struggled with failures.
Another monumental play by Miller is The Crucible. This marked a change in Miller’s writing as he suddenly shifted to a more historical context. The Crucible was about the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts (“Arthur Miller”). Reverend Parris is the minister of Salem and he has a daughter named Betty. She suddenly gets sick, and the townsfolk begin to speculate about witchcraft. Abigail Williams is with Betty the day she got sick, and Parris asks Abigail about what happened (Douthat and Ward). As the play progresses, more and more people accuse each other of witchcraft. The Proctors get accused of being involved with witchcraft too. John Proctor is a farmer who had an affair with Abigail. Elizabeth, John’s wife, is accused by Abigail of witchcraft. Because of this alleged involvement in witchcraft, the townfolk condemns him to death (“Arthur Miller”).
The Crucible is a play with a political reference. It directly hints at McCarthyism, in which Miller became involved. The 1950s were marked by communist threats, which prompted Senator Joseph McCarthy to hunt for alleged communist supporters in the United States. McCarthyism led to baseless accusations which affected many writers and entertainers, including Miller himself (“McCarthyism”). He failed to attend the opening of The Crucible in Belgium in 1954 because his request for a passport was refused. Two years later, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) summoned him as he previously attended communist gatherings. When the committee asked Miller to drop the names of the people who attended the gatherings, he simply refused. This forced the Congress to convict him of contempt. Fortunately, the conviction was repealed by the Supreme Court (Walsh. Unlike Miller who refused to give names, director Elia Kazan revealed eight “former reds” who were also in the Communist Party (“Arthur Miller”). The government hailed Kazan’s cooperation, but the Left hailed Miller as a hero (“Arthur Miller”).
Miller used the Salem witch trials to mirror the McCarthy era communist hunt in The Crucible (Walsh). According to Goldstein, the play “implied a parallel with the congressional investigations in which [he] had been personally involved” (427). Just like Salem trials, McCarthyism was groundless. It merely relied on hearsay or unjustified suspicion. Just as Abigail and the rest of the Salem townsfolk pointed the finger to anyone they considered a witch, the HUAC pointed the finger to anyone as well. The Crucible has more of a socio-political stance, even though it still shows how morality becomes questionable because of the accusations.
Arthur Miller is significant in American theater because he had single-handedly transformed it through his plays, which has sense of morality and responsibility as its most notable features. American theater will always be indebted to Miller and his monumental contributions.
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Douthat, Ross and Selena Ward. SparkNote on The Crucible. 14 Feb. 2008 ;http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/crucible/summary.html;.
Goldstein, Malcolm. “Miller, Arthur.” Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia. 21 vols. New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc., 1992.
Kuchwara, Michael. “Miller changed landscape of American theater.” Msnbc.com. 11 Feb. 2005. 14 Feb. 2008 ;http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6953393/;.
Public Broadcasting Service. “Arthur Miller.” 14 Feb. 2008 ;http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/miller_a.html;.
Public Broadcasting Service. “McCarthyism.” 14 Feb. 2008 ;http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/mccarthyism.html;.
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Walsh, David. “Arthur Miller, an American playwright.” World Socialist Web Site. 21 Feb. 2005. 14 Feb. 2008 ;http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/feb2005/mill-f21.shtml;.
Ward, Selena and Brendan Greaves. SparkNote on Death of a Salesman. 14 Feb. 2008 ;http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/salesman/themes.html;.