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Death of a Playwright: Arthur Miller remembered

Arthur Miller, the writer who delved into the beautiful and ineffably sad recesses of post-1929 Depression America like no other, followed Willy Loman into the dark ten years ago this month. 2015 also marks the centenary of his birth. If you’re reading this article, then it’s likely that you were touched by something in his work – and, given Miller’s success as winner of the Pulitzer Prize, seven Tony Awards, two Drama Critics Circle Awards, an Obie, an Olivier, and the John F Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award, you would be one of an extensive number of admirers. Despite so many accolades, Miller had his critics, and entertained a lively relationship with the press for much of his life. Two months after his death, the actor Peter O’Toole called him a “bore”, and critic Roger Kimball was particularly derisive of his artistic achievements. As a conservative figure in the world of Twentieth Century literature – his style and form were hardly ever radical – his work was often faced with accusations of tameness, and it is true that Miller was one of those playwrights whose reputation was founded on only a handful of his many plays. The ironically titled The Man Who Had All The Luck is one particularly memorable example of the atrocious reviews many of his plays received.

It is, however, worth noting that if the critics were derisive, Miller was equally so. “Critics and commentators, like most of us, are lazy people,” and “I have often rescued a sense of reality by recalling Chekhov’s remark, ‘If I had listened to the critics, I’d have died drunk in the gutter’,” are two characteristically pertinacious remarks which indicate the writer’s disdain for those who presumed to judge him.

Yet, it isn’t just through his comments that one gets the feeling that Miller was uncompromising. In a 1966 Paris Review interview, the author famously stated, “The director of a play is nailed to words.” And what words. Death of a Salesman and The Crucible are remarkable for their unflinching style and strong vernaculars, which rise and fall with rugged poignancy. They feel cogent, charged, masculine, and John Procter-like in their sparse, unyielding diction. Miller once stated that carpentry was his oldest hobby, and it’s hard to imagine that this ‘scholar-farmer’ characteristic didn’t influence Miller’s work. Something polished came from a natural, robust core.


Miller himself was explicit about the relationship that his work had with his life, saying, “The plays are my autobiography. I can’t write plays that don’t sum up where I am. I’m in all of them. I don’t know how else to go about writing.” Married four times, his life was so dramatic, it often seemed to overshadow his work: he was first married to Mary Slattery; then to Marilyn Monroe for five years; then to the photographer Inge Morath, with another two children, and lastly to a 34 year old minimalist painter Agnes Barley (by which time Miller was 89). Particularly with Monroe, the bombshell-geek union was irresistible for a salivating press. Some critics even dubbed a series of plays ‘The Marilyn works’. Still, the relationship between his private life and his work wasn’t always damaging. For anyone who has ever spent an evening absorbed in Death of a Salesman, it would be hard not to draw comparisons with the playwright’s personal life.

Miller was born into a very wealthy Jewish family in Harlem, which was an elegant and mixed neighborhood of New York, partly German, partly Italian, Jewish and black in social make-up. Everything changed for the Millers after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, with the family plunged suddenly into the depths of poverty alongside many other American citizens. They moved to Brooklyn, to a smaller house in a more underprivileged area. At 13, Miller wanted to be a soldier. At 16, he wanted “anything that was going”. The effect on him was sweeping, undoubtedly leading to a critical opinion of corporate life and the subsequent accusations of Communist sympathies during the period of McCarthyism, out of which arose the modern classic The Crucible

The first time I came across that particular play, I was an impressionable 14 year old in an all-girls school filled with girls who could rival Regina George for bitchiness. A particularly brave young teacher decided it might be an interesting thing for us to study. I distinctly remember my 14 year old self noting the eerie echoes of girls going too far, caught up in the hysteria of group identity and retribution in my own environment. The themes of his play were palpable even ostensibly unrecognisable setting.

And that’s just it with Arthur Miller. Although very much rooted in a particular period and culture, whether an allegory for McCarthyism, a portrayal of the Great Depression, or an acute examination of corporate mendacity, each of his plays is infused with the time from which it arose. His work is imbued with something vitally human, a kind of transcendent examination of sex, betrayal, fundamentalism, and despair. We are Salem, just as Salem was McCarthy’s America. And it is for that reason that he should be – and will be – remembered. 

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