Arthur Miller: a name synonymous with the term ‘Great American Theatre’.
Arthur Miller wrote some of the most famous plays in history. Not only did they have tremendous emotional depth, but they were about important political topics of the day. His plays did what art is supposed to do – make you re-examine your life and morals, and sometimes stir the pot just a little (or more than a little). He was incredibly prolific and had an unrivaled skill with words.
Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915 in Harlem, New York to Polish-Jewish parents. He grew up in affluence and privilege until the Wall Street crash of 1929. His father lost his business and the family subsequently lost just about everything they had – an event that would later inform several of his plays. He had to work menial jobs, such as delivering bread, in order to help his family financially, and later to put himself through college.
While at the University of Michigan, he wrote for the school newspaper. This is where he wrote his first play, No Villain, based on his father’s plight during the Great Depression. Despite the fact that he wrote this play in just six days, it won him the Avery Hopwood Award. Suddenly envisioning a career for himself as a playwright, he switched his major to English. He joined a playwriting seminar taught by the eminent Professor Kenneth Rowe, who became an extremely influential friend for Arthur Miller throughout his life.
After graduating, he won the Avery Hopwood Award once again for his newest play Honors at Dawn. He was soon offered a job with a high salary at 20th Century Fox, but turned it down to join the Federal Theatre Project, a program designed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of the New Deal. After the Federal Theatre Project was shut down due to false communism accusations, he began working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while still writing plays on the side. Some of his radio plays were broadcast by CBS.
“I reflect what my heart tells me from the society around me. We are living in a time when there is great uncertainty in this country… I am trying to delve to the bottom of this and come up with a positive answer, but I have had to go to hell to Broadway premiere of meet the devil. You can’t know what the worst is until you have seen the worst, and it is not for me to make easy answers and come forth before the American people and tell them everything is all right when I look in their eyes and I see them troubled.”
-Arthur Miller appealing to the House Un-American Activities
First Marriage and First Production
Arthur Miller married a woman named Mary Grace Slattery in 1940. They had two children together. Shortly after, he wrote the play The Man Who Had All the Luck about an automobile mechanic who is pursued by miraculous good fortune. This was his first play to be produced and won the Theatre Guild’s National Award. Despite the initial accolades, it received dreadful reviews and closed after four performances.
The Start of Success
In 1947, his soon-to-be classic play All My Sons was produced on Broadway, directed by Elia Kazan. It ran for 328 performances and won two Tony Awards and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, securing him recognition and respect. After his success, he had the means to build himself a studio in Roxbury, Connecticut. There, he wrote his most famous and influential play, Death of a Salesman. He wrote the first act in one day and completed the entire play in six weeks. It was his second play to pay homage to his father’s losses due to the Depression. It premiered in 1948 and ran for 742 performances, winning the Tony for Best Play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and another New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, making history as the first play to win all three of those awards.
1951 marked a critical year for Arthur Miller, as this was when he met Marilyn Monroe. The two ended up having an affair. Although the affair was brief, they remained in contact.
Miller and Elia Kazan had forged a close friendship after All My Sons. However, the McCarthy-era witch hunt was upon them and Kazan testified for the House Un-American Activities (HUAC), giving them the names of eight people he accused of being part of the communist party. This not only quickly dissolved his friendship with Miller, but also stained his reputation for the rest of his career. In combination with McCarthyism, this became an inspiration for Miller to write his next play The Crucible, which premiered in 1953.
McCarthyism and Witches
The Crucible was an allegorical interpretation of the mass hysteria and fear of political prosecution caused by the McCarthy trials, correlated to the Salem witch trials. It had mixed reviews at the time, but still won the Tony for Best Play and has become known as one of his best. In fact, it is his most commonly produced play and has even been adapted into an opera.
However, this play struck a nerve with many because of the fear of communism and trouble quickly followed. In 1954, he was denied a passport when he wanted to go see a production of this play in London, being suspected of communist activity. He wouldn’t write another play for almost an entire decade.
Two years later, in 1956, he left his wife for Marilyn Monroe. Monroe had always longed for a real family and a quiet life, and he wanted a wife who would be affectionate. They were able to fill these voids for each other. She even converted to Judaism for him, saying that she really related to the Jews because people were “always out to get them, no matter what they do”, and that’s how she felt about her life in the spotlight. Shortly after she converted, Egypt banned her movies.
Further Trouble with the Government
In 1956, Miller applied for a routine passport renewal and they once again denied him. The HUAC took advantage of the situation and subpoenaed him to appear before the committee. There, he requested that he not be asked to give the names of people he knew or thought to be communist supporters, to which the chairman agreed. However, the committee welshed on their agreement and demanded that Miller give names. He refused, and the court found him guilty of contempt, subjecting him to a fine, a prison sentence, a ban from applying for a U.S. passport, and he was blacklisted. Two years later, in 1958, his sentence was overturned on the basis of the fact that Miller had been misled by the chairman of HUAC. However, this experience haunted him for the rest of his life.
A Tragic End to His Second Marriage
Arthur Miller wrote the movie The Misfits in 1960 for Marilyn Monroe, directed by John Huston. However, their idyllic marriage had turned into a troubled one, mostly due to Monroe’s drug addictions. He was doing what he could to get her to break her habit, but she wouldn’t listen to him. He described it as one of the lowest parts of his life. They divorced in 1961 after five years of marriage, shortly before The Misfits premiered. A year and a half later, Monroe died of a drug overdose.
A Third Wife
In 1962, Miller married his third wife, an Austrian-born photographer named Inge Morath. They met during production of The Misfits, during which she worked as the photographer documenting production. They collaborated on several photography projects. Their first child, Rebecca Miller, was born in 1962, shortly after their marriage.
Back to the Stage
His first play in a decade, After the Fall, was produced in 1964. Although he refused to confirm it to his dying day, it is obviously a deeply personal telling of his quick and turbulent marriage to Marilyn Monroe. It was his first collaboration with Elia Kazan in ten years, who helped him write and direct it. It opened to mixed reviews, but remains one of his most famous plays.
In 1966, his son Daniel was born. Daniel had Down syndrome and Miller had him institutionalized from the time he was an infant through all of his school years, against his wife’s wishes. He never visited Daniel, although Inge and Rebecca did.
Around this time, Arthur Miller started becoming more politically active. He was the first American to be elected president of PEN International, an association of writers with the goal to promote freedom of expression, and backed Eugene McCarthy at the Democratic National Convention. He campaigned for dissident writers’ rights, writers who opposed Soviet ideology. This, of course, got his writing banned in the Soviet Union.
He spent most of the seventies writing experimental theatre and traveling with his wife. He directed a Chinese production of Death of a Salesman, which had a wonderful reception. Around the same time, a TV movie of the same play was produced, starring Dustin Hoffman. He published an autobiography in 1987, in which he spoke about his relationship with Marilyn Monroe in great detail. After the book was published, he refused to speak about her in interviews.
He wrote a few more plays in the ‘90s, and the movie version of The Crucible was made, for which he wrote the screenplay, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, and Winona Ryder. This is where his daughter Rebecca met Daniel Day-Lewis, who she ended up marrying. Day-Lewis visited Miller’s son Daniel often and convinced Miller to finally visit his son.
Back to Broadway
The Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman was produced to commemorate its 40th anniversary, earning him another Tony for Best Revival. He was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the PEN/Laura Pels Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist, and was elected by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Jefferson Lecture.
The End of His Life
In 2002, his wife Inge passed away. Two years later, he announced that he was in love with, living with, and engaged to minimalist painter Agnes Barley. She was 34 at the time, 55 years his junior. However, before they could get married, Miller fell ill and died at the age of 89 of a heart attack and bladder cancer in his Connecticut home. His death was on February 10, 2005, the 56th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman.
Other Interesting Facts
- Miller was a carpenter; in fact, he built the guest house at his Roxbury home with his own two hands.
- He wrote his first play, No Villain, in only six days.
- Mary Grace Slattery, his first wife, paid for their first date.
- Miller was exempt from military service during World War II because of a severe knee injury he suffered playing high school football.
- When Miller met Marilyn Monroe on the set of As Young as You Feel, she was crying because she had just found out that her agent had died. He said to her, “You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met.” She responded saying “You’re the only one who ever said that to me.”
- The first time Miller took Marilyn Monroe to meet his parents, she was so nervous that she turned the faucets on when she went to use the bathroom so as to not be heard. When Miller asked his mother what she thought of Monroe the next day, she replied “A wonderful girl. But she pisses like a horse!”
- After Miller was found guilty of contempt, the HUAC offered to drop the charges if Monroe would do a photo shoot in which she shook an HUAC official’s hand, but she refused.
- It’s ironic that After the Fall brought Miller and Kazan’s friendship back together, considering that Kazan also had been in a relationship with Marilyn Monroe.
- Miller wrote a screenplay called The Hook in 1947, based on a true story about Pete Panto, a longshoreman who confronted the mafia. Miller and Elia Kazan pitched it to Harry Cohn who, in turn, tried to turn it into an anti-communist propoganda film. Because of this, Miller pulled out, taking his screenplay with him, and received a telegram from Cohn saying, “THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT.”
- After the premier of Death of a Salesman was met with some criticism, he wrote an essay entitled “Tragedy and the Common Man”, where he argues that common people should be the focus on the subject of tragedy instead of “kings and queens”. It has become a highly celebrated essay.
- After Miller’s death, the Arthur Miller Foundation was created to honor Miller’s legacy and support New York City public education by better integrating arts programs into schools.
- Miller donated over 200 boxes of his old manuscripts to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
- According to Christopher Bigsby’s biography of Miller, Miller, “bitterly attack[ed] the injustices of American racism long before it was taken up by the civil rights movement.”
- No Villain (1936)
- They Too Arise, a rewrite of No Villain (1937)
- Honors at Dawn, a play based on They Too Arise (1938)
- The Grass Still Grows, another play based on They Too Arise (1938)
- The Great Disobedience (1938)
- Listen My Children (1939, with Norman Rosten)
- The Golden Years (1940)
- The Man Who Had All the Luck (1940)
- The Half-Bridge (1943)
- All My Sons (1947)
- Death of a Salesman (1949)
- An Enemy of the People, an updated version of Ibsen’s play of the same name (1950)
- The Crucible (1953)
- A View from the Bridge (1955)
- A Memory of Two Mondays (1955)
- After the Fall (1964)
- Incident at Vichy (1964)
- The Price (1968)
- The Reason Why (1970)
- Fame (one-act, 1970)
- The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)
- Up from Paradise, musical based on The Creation of the World and Other Business (1974)
- The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977)
- The American Clock (1980)
- Playing for Time, a television play (1980)
- Elegy for a Lady, part one of Two Way Mirror (1982)
- Some Kind of Love Story, part two of Two Way Mirror (1982)
- I Think About You a Great Deal (1986)
- Playing for Time, stage version (1985)
- I Can’t Remember Anything, part of Danger: Memory! (1987)
- Clara, other part of Danger: Memory! (1987)
- The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991)
- The Last Yankee (1993)
- Broken Glass (1994)
- Mr. Peters’ Connections (1998)
- Resurrection Blues (2002)
- Finishing the Picture (2004)
Arthur Miller Quotes
“Everything we are is at every moment alive in us.”
“Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.”
“And yet one can’t forever stand on the shore; at some point, even if filled with indecision, skepticism,” reservation and doubt, you either jump in or concede that life is forever elsewhere.
“A character is defined by the kinds of challenges he cannot walk away from. And by those he has walked away from that cause him remorse.”
“I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. I have no tongue for it.”
“If you believe that life is worth living then your belief will create the fact.”
“I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self.”
“The task of the real intellectual consists of analyzing illusions in order to discover their causes.”
“I believe in work. If somebody doesn’t create something, however small it may be, he gets sick. “
“There are certain men in the world who rather see everybody hung before they’ll take blame.”
“Until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.”
“Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way.”
“The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”
“You can quicker get back a million dollars that was stolen than a word that you gave away.”
“The job is to ask questions — it always was — and to ask them as inexorably as I can. And to face the absence of precise answers with a certain humility.”
“Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it and there’s nobody to live in it.”
“The political landscape changes, the issues change, but the people are still there. People don’t really change that much.”
“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am an actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.