- MILLER, ARTHUR
- MILLER, ARTHUR (1915–2005), U.S. playwright. In his work, Miller wrestled with the primal issues of modern society. Because he came of age in New York City during the Great Depression, he embraced the themes of personal integrity and social responsibility, themes writ large in his immediate surroundings and his own family. Relationships, typically between one and one's family and society, were at the heart of nearly all his work. Theater director Robert Whitehead has been quoted as saying Miller had a "rabbinical righteousness," that his plays "sought to be a light unto the world." For Miller, theater was not mere entertainment, but an opportunity for consciousness raising, to change or broaden the minds of the audience. Writing and producing plays was a politically engaging experience for him. However, while he acknowledged that a given work might reflect a creator's political and social ideology, he rejected the notion that a play could encapsulate one's entire philosophy. He felt that real life was far too complex to be fully explained in a work of art or in a political methodology. He repeatedly tried to illustrate this ultimately unknowable complexity in his work. Very often the motivations of his characters are vague and mysterious. He offered no succinct answers to the problems he presented; indeed he may have believed there were none. He acquired an international reputation after World War II, following the publication of two plays and of Focus (1945), a novel about antisemitism. In it, a pair of glasses allows a man to see better as it encourages others to see him differently. A meek gentile, who, as part of his job, identifies Jewish job applicants, is mistaken to be Jewish when he begins wearing a pair of glasses. He loses his job and can only find employment in the office of Jewish businessmen. He passively participates in the antisemitism in his initial job, in his neighborhood, where hatred of Jews reaches a virulent level, and at home. Ultimately he redeems himself by trying to stop vandals from destroying the store of a Jewish shopkeeper. The play All My Sons (1947) revealed his ability to portray characters involved in emotional conflicts. It is a realistic play, intended for the general public. The dialogue is of common speech. The plot involves an overwhelming crisis growing out of smaller crises. The play has symbolic overtones despite the realistic characters and plot, which combine to help Miller focus on his themes of mutual responsibility and survivor guilt. His reputation was really established with Death of a Salesman (1949), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play, later made into a motion picture, owed its success to the delineation of Willy Loman, the unsuccessful traveling salesman, and was regarded as an indictment of the false sense of values of American life. Miller has stated his initial idea for the play came from one notion: that the main character would kill himself. Loman's is a realistic portrayal of decline, of never quite giving up on the American dream, despite all evidence to the contrary. His sacrifice is a hopeless attempt to preserve some personal dignity and to help his family. The audience is never told if the insurance from his death properly provides for his family, but there are hints in the play that his death is in vain, that his plan does not work. Because of his drastic and self-destructive behavior for what may be an ideological misconception, Willy Loman is one of the great tragic characters of American drama. In 1951, engaged by the problem of freedom of speech, Miller wrote an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and in 1953, in his own play The Crucible, he turned to the Salem witch trials of 1692, and spoke for freedom of conscience during the period of Senator McCarthy's anti-communist campaign. Miller hoped the play "would be seen as an affirmation of the struggle for liberty, for keeping one's own conscience." John Proctor is a strong protagonist, flawed, but with no misplaced idealism. With Proctor at the center, Miller plays with the theme of retaining one's sense of morality in the face of public pressure. The witch-hunt mentality (reminiscent of the antisemitic hysteria in Focus) has both rational and irrational origins: some, like those causing the fuss, are conscious of the social and economic power it brings, while others are merely swept up in the supernatural paranoia. Miller adeptly portrays the act of ruination by accusation. When one character is accused of witchcraft, he has two choices: to confess and lose his land, or deny and lose his land. When he remains silent, even to his death, his land at least stays with his family. During the political climate of the McCarthy Red Scare, this proved to be a profoundly important lesson in social and individual responsibility. In an odd case of life imitating art, Miller played Proctor for real. Summoned before McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller was asked about Communist meetings he had attended. He did not refuse to answer, telling the committee everything they wanted to know about him, while denying he was a Communist. But he stopped short of implicating others. As Proctor refused to speak about people already known to his questioners, so did Miller. He was found guilty of contempt of court, but that charge was later reversed. This play was screened as the Witches of Salem (1957). A View from the Bridge (1955) again won a Pulitzer Prize. It showed Miller still striving for significant realistic drama and imaginative dramatic form. In the play he continued his practice of trying to mythologize the ordinary and everyday. Falling short of being entirely uplifting, the play has a positive message: that life goes on despite any tragedy. The film script The Misfits (1961), written after his marriage to the screen star Marilyn Monroe, and acted in by her and Clark Gable, was an unusually sensitive, though commercially unsuccessful, study of loneliness and divorce. Miller returned to the theater with an autobiographical drama, After the Fall (1964), based largely on his life with Marilyn Monroe, whom he had divorced in 1962, and relating his own conflicts in love and friendship to the state of the world. This expressionistic drama concerns the various crises of Quentin, one of which is his sense of guilt at not experiencing the Nazi death camps. His proximity to Holga, a woman who has escaped Auschwitz, exacerbates this feeling in him. He laments his inability to atone for what he feels are sins, because they are sins of omission, that is, he is guilty, not for things he has done, but for things he has not done. Incident at Vichy (1965) deals with the arrest of a number of Frenchmen, including some Jews, during the Nazi occupation. Each prisoner separates himself from the others while trying to understand why the Nazis want to destroy them. The gypsy, the Communist, the Catholic, and the Jew are unable to come together even as fellow prisoners, even in their hatred of the Nazis. There is no sense of union, that each is responsible for the others. One Nazi officer is shown having feelings of guilt, but he ultimately does nothing about it. Miller stresses that guilt is not enough, that action is necessary. To deny one's connection to humanity is to deny one's own humanity. The Price (1968), depicting a dramatic conflict between two brothers, had as a central character an old Jew who acted as a wise commentator. Miller stated his intention as a dramatist as being to "bring to the stage the thickness, awareness, and complexity of the novel." He endeavored to give postwar American drama depth of purpose and content, and a sense of tragic conflict in terms of contemporary American life. Widely regarded in the 1950s as America's leading dramatist, his reputation faded somewhat in the 1960s as realistic drama itself passed out of critical fashion. The 1980s, however, saw a return to appreciation of Miller's contribution to 20th-century theater. Other plays include The American Clock (1983), The Archbishop's Ceiling (1984), Danger: Memory (1986), Two-Way Mirror (1989), The Ride Down Mount Morgan (1991), The Last Yankee (1991), and Broken Glass (1994). For the collected edition of his plays published in 1958, he wrote a 50-page introduction, which clarified his purpose and explained his methods of work. Translated into many languages, the plays were internationally popular. Miller was elected president of the International PEN Club in 1965, in which position he strove vigorously to organize protests against literary censorship and repression all over the world. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Welland, Arthur Miller (1961); B. Nelson, Arthur Miller (1970); L. Moss, Arthur Miller (1967); S. Huftel, Arthur Miller, The Burning Glass (1965); R. Hogen, Arthur Miller (University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, no. 40, 1964); J. Gassner, Theater at the Crossroads (1960); Contemporary Authors, first rev. (1967), incl. bibl. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Gottfried, Arthur Miller: His Life and Work (2003); A. Miller, Timebends: A Life (1987); H. Bloom (ed. & intro.), Arthur Miller (2003); E. Brater (ed.), Arthur Miller's America: Theater & Culture in a Time of Change (2005); C.W.E. Bigsby, Arthur Miller: A Critical Study (2005); M. Berger, "Arthur Miller, Moral Voice of American Stage, Dies at 89," in: New York Times (Feb. 12, 2005), A1, A14. (Joseph Mersand and Jonathan Licht / Robert L. DelBane (2nd ed.)
Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.