When Arthur Miller heard that audiences were weeping night after night during the hugely successful Broadway run of Death of a Salesman in 1949, he was displeased. The play was not supposed to be mere “emotional entertainment,” as Martin Gottfried explains in his new literary biography, Arthur Miller: His Life and Work.1 It was intended, by the playwright’s lights, “to make people think.” Unfortunately, after a couple of Broadway successes in the postwar years, Miller’s increasingly determined efforts “to make people think” would contribute, over the course of the next half-century, to a decline not only in his popularity but in his critical reputation as well.
Today, with Miller himself in his late eighties, a reassessment would seem to be afoot. A number of his plays, including several more obscure ones, have reappeared on stage in recent years or been adapted for the screen. Gottfried’s book is itself a plea for supposedly long-overdue recognition, and has moved some reviewers to praise its subject in the most extravagant terms. Could it be, as his admiring biographer insists, that Arthur Miller is indeed “America’s greatest living playwright”?
Miller was born in 1915 to well-to-do Jewish immigrant parents on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The Depression struck the family hard, however, and the garment business of Arthur’s father, Isadore, began to decline. The Millers soon relocated to a small house on a dead-end street in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, where their once-prosperous life became a struggle just to get by.
In the face of these hardships, Arthur’s older brother, Kermit, quit his studies at New York University and went to work, first with Isadore in the family business and later as a salesman in a friend’s carpet company. Arthur’s response was quite different. Siding with his mother, who blamed her hapless husband for the family’s reduced circumstances, Miller decided early on to escape from what he saw as a bottomless well of despair and failure. Though short of money and not much of a student, he managed to enroll at the University of Michigan.
There, under the tutelage of George Pierce Baker, who had also taught Eugene O’Neill, Miller turned to drama as a way to capture the reality, as he viewed it, of those hardscrabble years. A “brooding young man burning with all the injustices of the world” (as one contemporary remembers him), he drew inspiration from left-wing artistic movements like the Group Theater and the Federal Theater, and took part in the 1940’s in writers’ meetings sponsored by the Communist party. He aspired to create plays that would raise awareness, change consciousness, reform society.
After several early failures, Miller finally hit it big on Broadway with All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), both of them about men whose values have been badly disordered by a materialistic society and its false notions of success. From his experience as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the early 1950’s—unlike his friend, the director Elia Kazan, he would refuse to “name names,” thus emerging as a minor hero of the Left—Miller fashioned The Crucible (1953), using the Salem witchcraft trials as a metaphor for the anti-Communist fervor of the postwar period. A View from the Bridge (1955)—another tale about “informing,” this one set among Italian immigrants in Brooklyn—soon followed, but it enjoyed little of the success of its predecessors.
Indeed, by the 1960’s, Miller’s star had begun to fade. After the Fall (1964) was savaged by the critics (though it enjoyed some Broadway buzz because of its thinly veiled treatment of the playwright’s failed second marriage, to Marilyn Monroe), and Incident at Vichy (1964) fared no better. Only The Price (1968) was fairly well received.
The story was much the same throughout the 1970’s and well beyond. Play after play by Miller met with withering critical contempt and closed after a brief engagement, sometimes even before making it to New York. Most of these works—The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977), The American Clock (1980), The Last Yankee (1991), Broken Glass (1994)—are unfamiliar to American theater-goers. Critics tended to find them preachy and pretentious, filled with heavy-handed social criticism or the playwright’s self-involved psychologizing—or both. As Kenneth Tynan wrote witheringly of After the Fall: “You get the feeling that if only Mr. Miller’s hero could expiate his multiple guilts, the future of Western civilization would be assured.”
Miller’s reputation was kept afloat, however, by his early plays. Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, especially, achieved a kind of classic status, winning frequent performances in regional theaters in the U.S. and in major houses all over the world. They also became staples of the classroom, joined on the library shelf by an armload of companion literature and study aids.
The opening salvo in Miller’s full reemergence was Dustin Hoffman’s unexpectedly acclaimed Broadway production of Death of a Salesman in 1984. The 1990’s saw successful New York revivals of All My Sons, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, and, in a Tony Award-winning production starring Brian Dennehy, Death of Salesman, not to mention a movie remake of The Crucible,2 a version of Broken Glass for British and American television, and an operatic adaptation of A View from the Bridge, with its excitable Italian characters.3 Even a number of the later plays were given new productions and accorded more respectful attention. At the height of this run, the PEN American Center honored Miller for lifetime achievement in a gala tribute at Town Hall in New York City.
Martin Gottfried’s biography is exhaustive as far as it goes (it skimps somewhat, if understandably, on the last few decades of Miller’s career). As one might expect from a New York drama critic of some 40 years, Gottfried places special emphasis on the plays themselves. This makes the book a plodding read at times—we learn how each play was conceived, written, produced, performed, received, evaluated—but also an invaluable reference (the index is excellent). Gottfried is especially good at rendering the feel of the internal world of the theater, evoking the moment of transition, for example, when a certain kind of sentimental drama was no longer viable, or describing the behind-the-scenes struggle among directors, producers, and writers that can lead to a play’s success or failure. In the background of his discussion of Miller we also catch informative glimpses of the theatrical world of the past century, its trends, milestones, and varied personalities.
No less illuminating are the biographical details that Gottfried stresses, especially Miller’s tense relationship with his older brother, Kermit. Talented and ambitious in his own right, Kermit emerges in Gottfried’s telling as the self-sacrificing, dutiful son, the one who remained at his father’s side at a time of need while Arthur, the prodigal, left to make his way in the world. During World War II, Kermit enlisted in the army (despite being married and probably exempt) and served heroically, fighting on Omaha Beach and in the Battle of the Bulge; Arthur did not serve (it is unclear precisely why) but instead worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as he continued his writing.
Once we know of this family background, indeed, it is hard not to see it operating in Miller’s work. The opposition of two characters, one yielding to the claims of family and community, the other breaking into greater self-awareness, is a theme that runs like a bright red thread through his plays. It is the dynamic at the center of his first hit, All My Sons, in which two brothers cope very differently with the sins of a father who saves the family business during World War II by selling defective parts to the army, thereby causing terrible casualties among the young pilots. Similarly, in Death of a Salesman, one son, Happy, is brutally coarsened by his complicity with the values of his father, Willy Loman; Biff, the sensitive son, eventually sees through them.
Though versions of this dichotomy can be found in Miller’s lesser works as well, like After the Fall and Broken Glass, it reaches its apotheosis in The Price, the most clearly autobiographical of his plays. The plot concerns (yet again) two brothers: Victor, who stayed with their father during the Depression and became a humble policeman, and Walter, who escaped to become a hugely successful celebrity physician. Meeting years after their father’s death, they heatedly trade accusations and justifications about the lives they have chosen.
With its subtle give and take between the two brothers, The Price can legitimately be regarded as Miller’s most mature play. Still, by the end, the seeming nobility of self-abnegation has—once again—been unmistakably diminished. Victor may be the sort of person “the world depends on,” as Miller himself has written, but Walter, his hard-charging brother, represents the “cruel and destructive” type without whom society would stand still—the prototype of the artist who “takes risks lesser men wouldn’t dare take.”
As a theme for drama, this tension can be productive. Miller’s most successful plays project a certain emotive power, even occasional poetic intensity in the characters’ alternately dazed and explosive efforts at self-understanding and mutual comprehension. When, for example, the younger brother in All My Sons finally denounces his corrupt father and strikes him, it is an electric moment, a memorable display of Oedipal defiance. But Miller’s plays, as Gottfried and the playwright himself emphasize, are not mere explorations of family and personal dynamics; they are meant to be works of social criticism. In this connection, and for reasons as much political as biographical, the limits of Miller’s work could not be plainer.
Gottfried inadvertently sheds light on this question when he discusses Miller’s enduring popularity in Great Britain. It turns out that with every play that flopped here, Miller’s eminence seemed to rise there, among the public and critics alike. For Gottfried, this suggests that the English simply are more engaged by talky “idea” plays, and Miller himself agrees. “British theater has long since openly acknowledged that social criticism is entertainment,” he wrote recently in the New York Times. Perhaps more important, he continued, England “sees itself as basically a failed culture,” as opposed to America’s sense of itself as a success. “Failures tend to examine their suppositions about life,” while “the successful are more likely to celebrate themselves as good examples.”
Actually, it might be more precise to say that English audiences appreciated Miller’s examination not of their suppositions but of ours. For the complacency of the bourgeois American family—the sort of family he understands himself to have fled, and which his plays so consistently excoriate—has long served Miller as a stand-in for the oppressive complacency of America itself. In his plays, one is never left in doubt that personal tragedy is social tragedy. When Biff, in one of the many histrionic moments in Death of a Salesman, declares, “I’m a dime a dozen, Pop, and so are you,” his target is much larger than the wretched Willy Loman.
Though Gottfried acknowledges that most of Miller’s later plays are filled with characters spouting wildly unrealistic, politically inflected dialogue, he fails to see the single animus that has long driven Miller’s work—the willed resentment toward American society, the overwrought, obdurate sense of condemnation and outrage. In Miller’s hands, tragedy consists not in the individual’s encounter with solemn powers greater than himself. Rather, tragedy is the failure to stand against patent corruption and foolishness, in the form of such life-crushing American villains as demanding fathers, witless salesmen, and witch-hunting anti-Communists. The idea that society might represent something more than betrayal and wasted sacrifice, that authority properly wielded might be admirable, that the dutiful son and quiet hero might deserve even more honor than the creative types who challenge every stricture—all this seems beyond the imaginative capability of our “greatest living playwright.”
Gottfried calls Miller a “typical liberal.” It would be fairer to say that he is a strange artifact of an American Left whose formulaic slogans were once a fixture on the cultural scene but whose fortunes in recent decades seemed to have waned somewhat (at least at home). The comeback of Arthur Miller suggests that, like the hackneyed dramas embodying them, these slogans have neither died nor fallen away, but only lain dormant.
1 Da Capo Press, 484 pp., $30.00.
2 See Midge Decter, “The Witches of Arthur Miller,” in COMMENTARY, March 1997.
3 Reviewed by Terry Teachout in COMMENTARY, March 2000.