Death of a Moralist (Arthur Miller)

Although Arthur Miller was only 33 when “Death of a Salesman” premiered on Broadway, it was a transformative moment in American drama, and Miller’s impact on successive generations of writers continues to this day. In “Death of a Salesman,” Miller was able to find poetry in the personal that transcended the mundane — while creating drama that mattered.

Rod Serling, then in his 20s, attended the original production and saw the kind of moral drama about average people that he hoped to write for television, that would seep into “Patterns” and “The Twilight Zone.” Years later, David Mamet, who would bring to the stage the salesmen of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” would be quoted as saying of seeing “Death of a Salesman”: “It was our story that we did not know until we heard it.”

Aaron Sorkin, who in “A Few Good Men” and on “The West Wing” challenged audiences to ask “what is the greater good?” when contacted for this article, said: “Mike Tyson on his best day can not send a punch to the chest the way an Arthur Miller play does.”

What is so powerful about Miller’s work is that although he is often characterized as a moralist, his characters are not ideological straw men — they are deeply flawed, conflicted characters who find themselves blindsided by life.

Miller was the author of 17 plays, including “The Crucible,” “A View From the Bridge,” “After the Fall,” “The Price,” “The Ride Down to Mount Morgan” and, most recently, “Finishing the Picture,” which premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2004; several screenplays, including “The Misfits,” “Everybody Wins” and an adaptation of Fanja Fenelon’s “Playing for Time,” as well as short stories (the most recent of which appears in the current Atlantic), several books with his wife, Inge Morath, where he supplied the text to accompany her photos and an autobiography, “Timebends: A Life” (Grove, 1989).

The most recent revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Brian Dennehy is scheduled to open in London on May 16. Miller was working closely on the production until a few weeks before his death.

Miller was the American playwright of the 20th century and, in some ways, one could argue that the 20th century was a series of terrible events that no one believed could happen. For Miller, this occurred not just on a historical level but on a personal one as well.

Arthur Miller was born in New York City on Oct. 17, 1915. His father, Isidore, had come to New York as a 7-year-old from Austro-Hungarian Poland and rose from the sweatshop to a successful coat manufacturer whose family lived overlooking Central Park and had a car and driver.

Then the Depression hit, and the Millers moved in with relatives in Brooklyn. Miller could not afford to go to college, but determined to do so, he found work in an automobile parts warehouse, as a lab assistant feeding mice for medical experiments and in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Miller attended the University of Michigan, where he won several playwriting contests, but upon returning to New York, he wrote five unproduced plays in a row; the sixth, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” closed after four performances. By now married, with two children, he decided to try one more time before leaving the theater. “All My Sons,” about a war swindle involving substandard parts that causes the death of 21 Army pilots, received rave reviews, two Tony Awards and launched Miller’s career.

In 1949, Lee J. Cobb took to the stage in “Death of a Salesman.” By the performance’s end the play was acclaimed as an American masterpiece, eventually winning, for the first time, all three top drama prizes — the Pulitzer, the Tony and the Drama Critic’s Circle Award — and adding phrases like, “You can’t eat the orange and throw away the peel” and Willy’s wife’s plea that “attention must be paid” to the American lexicon.

However, in many ways, the great dramas of Miller’s life were yet to occur. In 1951 at a Hollywood party, director Elia Kazan asked Miller to entertain his girlfriend, Marilyn Monroe. As Kazan watched them dance, he recalled in his autobiography, he saw the future: “How happy she looked in his arms!”

Kazan was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He chose to name names, which angered Miller.

Kazan took “The Crucible” as a personal attack, and Miller chose another director for the play. It received mixed reviews, and Miller restaged it himself six months later.

At the same time, Miller himself was called before the HUAC. Miller would refuse to name names and be cited for contempt of Congress, a charge that the Supreme Court would dismiss in 1958. At the same time, Miller decided to leave his wife and marry Monroe, who herself had divorced American sports hero Joe DiMaggio.

There’s an old joke in Hollywood, meant to reveal the low status of writers in Hollywood, about the actress so dumb that she married the writer on her movie. Arthur Miller tried on several occasions to write about the writer so dumb he married the actress. We only have Miller’s intimations in his plays “After the Fall” and “Finishing the Picture,” his autobiography and those few interviews where he discussed Marilyn, of how blindsided he was by marrying her.

It was a revelation that would appear over and over again in Miller’s work. As the actor Stephen Lang put it: “You think you can control life, and you can’t.”

Five years later, Monroe and Miller would divorce. During that time, Miller wrote not a single play. And although after his divorce from Monroe he married photographer Morath, and he resumed writing plays and continued to do so until his death, Miller never again received quite the acclaim that he did for “Death of a Salesman.”

Throughout the 1960s, Miller spoke out against the Vietnam War and for imprisoned writers as president of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers. Increasingly, however, his plays were not reviewed favorably. Although Miller occasionally groused that in the eyes of critics, early successes only bred later failure, and he resented that his work seemed better appreciated outside the United States than at home, Miller was fortunate to live long enough to have his work re-appraised and his importance as a writer acknowledged by new audiences.

In recent years there have been revivals of “All My Sons”; a film version of Miller’s early novel about anti-Semitism, “Focus”; a planned film production of “The Ride Down to Mount Morgan”; as well as the ongoing revival of “Death of Salesman.”

“The Crucible,” which was made into a 1996 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis (who married Miller’s daughter, Rebecca), remains one of the most produced plays in America. There is hardly a high school student in America during the last 50 years who has not seen, read or been in a production of “The Crucible.”

Lang, who appeared in the 1984 revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Dustin Hoffman and in the Goodman theater production of “Finishing the Picture,” explained the ongoing appeal of Miller’s works: “Miller is a grownup playwright writing parts for grownup actors.”

As a young man, Miller believed that playwriting “was the most important thing a human being could do.” Miller’s work is often viewed as a product of the Great Depression. But he did not see himself that way.

Others have characterized the moral nature of his work as an outgrowth of the Group Theater in the 1930s and their quasi-Marxist ideals. But in a new introduction to his autobiography, Miller rejected this. Instead, and I believe Miller was somewhat blindsided by this himself, he brought up his Jewishness.

Miller, as he himself admits, is not someone who has spent much time thinking about God or believing that God thinks about him, nor was Miller someone who had much connection with Judaism as practiced in synagogues of any denomination.

Here’s how Miller put it: “… My resistance to despair seems to have something Jewish about it; some vagrant cell floating through my blood seems to demand that however remote and unlikely ever to be found, a ray of light has to remain after darkness has closed in, a glow of redemption must appear up there at the rim of the pit or the tale is something less than true.” And let’s not forget that Monroe converted to Judaism to marry him (although his prior and subsequent wives did not).

Miller’s plays remain vital and important, because the underlying current in his work demands it. Let this be his epitaph: “Attention must be paid.”