With The Death of a Salesman during the winter of 1949 on Broadway, Arthur Miller began to live as a playwright who has since been called one of this century’s three great American dramatists by the people of America. The dramatist was born in Manhattan in October 17, 1915, to Isadore and Agusta Miller, a conventional, well to do Jewish couple. Young Arthur Miller was an intense athlete and a weak scholar. Throughout his youth he was molded into one of the most creative playwrights America has ever seen, without these priceless childhood experiences there would have never have been the basis and foundation for his great works.
During his bright career as playwright he demonstrated extreme talent on two of his greatest pieces The Crucible and the Death of a Salesman. He has also written other powerful, often mind-altering plays: A View from the Bridge, A Memory of Two Mondays, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, and The Price. Who could forget the film The Misfits and the dramatic special Playing for Time.
Death of a Salesman was not Arthur Miller’s first success on Broadway. His first plays were Honors at Dawn (1936) and No Villain (1937) which won the University of Michigan Hopwood Awards. His Death of a Salesman won the Pulitzer prize in 1949, which was another proof of his excellent talent.
Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953 during the McCarthy period when Americans were accusing each other of Pro-Communist beliefs. Many of Miller’s friends were being attacked as Communists and in 1956, Miller himself was brought before the House of Un-American Activities Committee where he was found guilty of beliefs in Communism. The verdict was reversed in 1957 in an appeals court.
The Crucible is set against the backdrop of the mad witch-hunts of the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. It is about a town, after accusations from a few girls, which begins a mad hunt for witches that did not exist. Many townspeople were hanged on charges of witchcraft. Miller brings out the absurdity of the incident with the theme of truth and righteousness. Two years before, when All My Sons opened at the Coronet Theater, people were starting to notice that they were in the mist of one of the greatest playwrights in history. The play also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Donaldson Award (voted upon by Billboard subscribers). Since the debut of All My Sons he noted that he felt as though there was a opening for him to write and be appreciated. That door had always been securely been shut in the past. With the flow of the audience there seemed to be warmth that allowed him to dream and be willing to take that risk in his writing that made him become so famous. He did, however, push the limits when he released his controversial piece Death of a Salesman. And, he gained even more acclaim. Soon he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. He was quickly catapulted into the realm of the great, living, American playwrights; and once was compared to Ibsen and the Greek tragedians.
After his graduation from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, young Miller worked as a stock clerk in an automobile parts warehouse for two and a half years until he had enough money to pay for his first year at the University of Michigan. He finished college with the financial aid of the National Youth Administration supplemented by his salary as night editor on the Michigan Daily newspaper. Before his graduation with a BA degree in 1938, he had written a number of plays, winning a $500 Avery Hopwood Award in 1936 and a $1,200 Theater Guild National Award in 1938 for an effort entitled The Grass Still Grows.
Then, having returned to New York in 1938, he joined the Federal Theater Project. But, before his first play had been produced, the Project ended. Dismayed and setback, he went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Here he wrote radio scripts that were later heard in the Columbia Workshop and on the Calvacade of America. He also wrote two books during this period: Situation Normal (1944) and Focus, two novels about anti-Semitism (1945). He had not, however, given up playwriting. In November of 1944, his play, The Man Who Had All the Luck opened on Broadway. Unfortunately it became much less of a success than he had hoped. Its unfavorable reception disheartened Miller, and he decided he would write one more play. If that were not successful, he would give up.
In 1947 he wrote All My Sons, his first real success, which established him as a significant American playwright. Soon after he wrote The Crucible in 1953, which became a Broadway hit, and won a Tony Award. This thrilling retelling of the witch trials and hangings in Salem, Massachusetts (1962) riveted audiences. But it reflected a more ready issue, the “McCarthy era” of his time. The autobiographical tone of After the Fall in 1964 also evoked controversy as well as praise. And it was through knowledge of the Brooklyn waterfront that he was able to form his characters in A View from the Bridge in 1955. More of his native city came through later when he wrote The Price, about a New York policeman (1968). Miller’s later works include The Creation of the Word and Other Business (1972) and The American Clock (1980).
In 1980 Miller won four Emmy Awards following the television debut of Playing for Time, the true-life dramatic special about the experiences of an all-woman orchestra in a Nazi concentration camp. The show itself received the Emmy for an Outstanding Drama Special and Miller received one for Outstanding Writing. Vanessa Redgrave won as Outstanding Actress, and Jane Alexander, as Outstanding Supporting Actress.
In addition to his novels, Miller has written two books of reportage: In Russia and Chinese Encounters, both were accompanied by photographs by his wife Inge Morath, a professional photographer. His book Salesman in Beijing is based on his experience in China where he directed Death of a Salesman. Then, in 1987, Miller published his autobiography Timebends: A Life, in which he recalls his childhood in Brooklyn, the political turmoil of the 1950s, and the later half of the century. Miller continues to write, winning the 1995 Oliver for his most recent play Broken Glass .
In his youth he was really quite unorganized and concentrated more on sports than on academics, he spent his boyhood playing football and baseball, skating, swimming, dating, failing algebra three times, reading adventure stories, and “just plain fooling around.” It wasn’t until he was above the age of seventeen that he read Tom Swift, and Rover Boys, and started to dabble into the books of Dickens…. He passed through the public school system unscathed. His family remembered him as a child handy with tools, he even built their back porch and planted roses in the back yard. In brief Arthur Miller was a very physical child. Some people say that some of the basis for his wonderful plays would never have been there if it weren’t for his extremely active childhood. With all of his great experiences and special childhood with two caring parents this set the tone for his writings and then prepared him to stand up in times of tyranny and speak the truth. He used his talent to fight back against what was wrong in his society.
His writing was unique in that it appealed to the reader not always from a action or romance level sometimes the reader was simply captivated through the realms of simple logic. This is shown in the way that he paralleled his work of The Crucible and what was going on in their society. This in itself can be one of the most captivating aspects of a play. With the twists and turns in the plot, the whole scheme can be turned back and then revealed in a totally different manner in the final act. He knew what crowd he was appealing to and the approached the writing in the way that it could best be appreciated. That is why Arthur Miller is considered one of the greatest play rights in American history.
Arthur Miller always addressed his drama to a whole people asking a basic question and demanding an answer. From the beginning though he presented his question as a subtle message that was awaiting an answer. His first thirty plays were more for entertainment written for strictly college, radio, and amateur performance, almost a dozen of his full-length plays were never produced. In a sense Miller’s characters represent his history as well his convictions. In his plays he tries to draw his characters from real past happenings, In exception to Focus all of his plays in some manner allude to and actual person or place.
Arthur Miller felt that the reader should never know too much about the author. It seemed to create a feeling of knowing something you shouldn’t and began to poison the reader’s mind. In a way Miller’s feelings are quite on target. Though because of Miller’s many references to personal experiences in some of his plays it is important to know some objective facts of his life. Sometimes the themes are mottled, they can turn from a positive effect as in The Crucible were truth and righteousness win out over tyranny in the town and of the time. Though sometimes his plays did have the effect of leaving you helpless, like Death of a Salesman, this play seemed to leave the reader in a down on a negative note feeling quite insignificant. With the power to not only inform the reader and carry out a plot but to be able to control the reader’s feelings, is a gift. A gift that he truly beheld in his life time.
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