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. He has also written other powerful, often mind-altering plays: The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, A Memory of Two Mondays, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, and The Price. And 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. Two years before, when All My Sons opened at the Coronet Theater, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote: “The theater has acquired a genuine new talent.” 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 has noted: “The success of a play, especially one’s first success, is somewhat like pushing against a door which is suddenly opened that was always securely shut until then. For myself, the experience was invigorating. It suddenly seemed that the audience was a mass of blood relations, and I sensed a warmth in the world that had not been there before. It made it possible to dream of daring more and risking more.” 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. That’s when 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 in 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 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.