Arthur Miller Biography
Arthur Miller was born in Harlem on October 17, 1915, the son of Polish immigrants, Isidore and Augusta Miller. Miller’s father had established a successful clothing store upon coming to America, so the family enjoyed wealth; however, this prosperity ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Financial hardship compelled the Miller family to move to Brooklyn in 1929.
Miller graduated from high school in New York in 1933. He applied to Cornell University and the University of Michigan, but both schools refused him admission. Miller worked a variety of odd jobs — including hosting a radio program — before the University of Michigan accepted him. At school, he studied journalism, became the night editor of the Michigan Daily, and began experimenting with theater.
In addition to hosting a radio program, Miller held a variety of jobs during his early career. After he left the University of Michigan, Miller wrote plays for the Federal Theatre in 1939. The Federal Theatre provided work for unemployed writers, actors, directors, and designers. Congress closed the Federal Theatre late in 1939.
Miller died on February 10, 2005, of heart failure. He was 89 years old.
The best plays by Arthur Miller
As Hamlet is to Shakespeare, so is Salesman to Miller. It’s the play that people associate foremost with him, due to its deep impact on postwar American theater and flat-out perfection in terms of construction and climax. Traveling salesman Willie Loman consoles himself and his sons Biff and Happy with lies about the American Dream, even as it becomes, for him, a waking nightmare. Expressionist in its dramaturgical design and finely psychological in its depiction of father-son conflict, Salesman is about capitalism, masculinity and the rotten foundations of modern society. It’s the blueprint for American stage tragedy.
Miller’s diligently researched study of the 1692 Salem witch trials was understood as a covert critique of rampant McCarthyism and anti-Communist paranoia. Luckily, McCarthyism died and a masterpiece lives on. Farmer John Proctor, a one-time adulterer, finds his real sin grossly contrasted with the hysterical fantasies of witch-accusing children and a totalitarian court. Society tears itself apart in the attempt to balance power and freedom. The Crucible is a rigorous, emotionally wrenching political parable, and as such, speaks to any age.
Imagine a play opening on Broadway a few years after we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, about a government contractor and father were held accountable for negligence that led to the deaths of soldiers—including one of his sons? Hard to imagine? Well, Miller did it in 1947. His hard-hitting Ibsenite drama still stands as a gauntlet thrown down to today’s playwrights who wish to stay relevant and provocative.
Miller always drew inspiration from ancient tragedy, and this story of an Italian-American longshoreman fatally obsessed with his young niece is as Greek as he got. He uses the Brooklyn lawyer Alfieri as a one-man chorus, and the action has the swift and terrifying inexorability of an Oedipus or Antigone. Along the way, Miller explores the strict social codes of his working-class milieu, immigration and sexual confusion. Ivo van Hove’s 2015 revival on Broadway distilled this fierce drama to its brutal essence.
The moral questions that arose after World War II—why didn’t more Europeans resist the Nazis?—are dramatized in Miller’s one-act study of a group of detainees in occupied France suspected of being Jewish. One by one the men, culled from all levels of society, go into an office to be physically examined and questioned. The harrowing drama shows how total strangers, each with his own history, are dehumanized and demoralized by racist ideology. Only empathy can save humanity.
6. The Price (1968)
Like many of Miller’s works, The Price is a family drama, the prism through which he examines society. A middle-aged policeman enters a cluttered attic to sort through his dead father’s possessions. An aged antiques dealer arrives, and later the cop’s estranged brother, a wealthy surgeon. What follows is an inventorying and appraisal not so much of objects as people. If Miller’s political agenda was less on display than his skills as a dramatist, the piece still digs at larger social relations.
7. The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991)
What did Miller have to say about the go-go Reagan ’80s? It’s right here in this surprisingly comical tale of Lyman Felt, an insurance agent and bigamist who keeps a wife and family in New York and another upstate in Elmira. After he survives a near-fatal car accident, both wives visit the hospitalized Lyman, and his tidy double life implodes. Despite being bedbound, Lyman (played by Patrick Stewart in Ride‘s 1998 U.S. debut) is up and about commenting on the action. The plot might sound like that of a French farce, but it continued Miller’s exploration of personal and public morality, especially in Reagan’s America.
8. After the Fall (1964)
It’s no secret that this nonlinear psychodrama was the playwright’s way of making peace with his short, tempestuous marriage to Marilyn Monroe. She’s called Maggie in the play, and portrayed as an irresistible but damaged woman. Miller’s avatar, Quentin, searches his soul trying to decide whether to remarry (a different woman). While the play struck some as self-indulgent and self-serving, it offers another finely etched portrait of Miller’s favorite character type, the tormented great man.
9. The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)
Arthur Miller. Biblical comedy. Experiencing cognitive dissonance yet? Yes, in the early ’70s, the elder statesman of social drama veered into Scripture-riffing allegory—ground already tilled by Milton, Blake and Shaw. This seriocomic retelling of the first four books of Genesis deals with one of the humankind’s greatest moral conundrums: original sin. It’s an odd but unique blend of anachronistic jokes, college-dorm philosophizing and family tragedy.
10. The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944)
At the tender age of 29, Miller has his Broadway debut—and biggest flop—with this curious fable about an Ohio car mechanic whose uncanny good fortune leads to crippling guilt. Is the main character an allegorical stand-in for false optimism in America? Since it closed after four performances, let’s count ourselves lucky Miller didn’t give up playwriting there and then. (The Roundabout revived Man for a limited engagement in 2002.) Failure or not, the play has Miller’s DNA: The promise and heartbreaking reality of success in America, the tortured relations between fathers and sons and the moral need for personal responsiblity.
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