Arthur Miller - His life and literary achievement

Arthur Miller - His life and literary achievement



The playwright was born in Harlem, on 17 October 1915, and grew up during the American Depression, the economic crisis of the 1930s when many enterprises were bankrupted. The economic climate affected his own family when his father's clothing business experienced financial difficulties. Arthur Miller's father, an all but illiterate immigrant from Poland, employed nearly a thousand workers to make women's coats. Arthur Miller himself worked briefly as a salesman, and his experience as a schoolboy of working in a car parts warehouse for a miserly sum is one which clearly echoed in his plays. Through this succession of small jobs he earned his way to university. Many of Arthur Miller's plays focus on aspects of the Jewish experience, although Arthur Miller's own Jewish background does not seem to feature greatly in his plays. The economic crash of the Depression put great strain on relationships in the Miller family.

On graduating from university having studied journalism, Arthur Miller began to write plays. On leaving university Miller briefly joined the Federal Theatre, a nation-wide organisation designed to give work to unemployed writers, actors, directors, and designers. Among other works he submitted was a play called "The Golden Years", which was finally produced, for the first time, in a radio and television version, nearly fifty years later. Thereafter he wrote radio plays, mostly for Du Pont's drama series Cavalcade of America, while also working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a school injury ruling him out of the military.

His first Broadway play, "The Man Who Had All the Luck" (1944), closed after four days. Though, nearly fifty years later, the Bristol Old Vic in Britain successfully produced the same play. His response was to return to the novel. "Focus", a work about anti-Semitism in America, proved remarkably successful. He nonetheless returned to the theatre with "All My Sons", a play written during wartime but  produced in 1947 and it ran for 328 performances. It was an immediate success. "Death of a Salesman" was performed in 1949, ran for much longer and won the Pulitzer prize. With this success, Arthur Miller was established as a playwright. In 1953 he wrote "The Crucible", a story of the persecution of witches in the early America of 1692. The plot is a thinly disguised treatment of contemporary events. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the leading force in a campaign during the 1950s to bring to light any Communists who existed in America. The unfairness of the interrogations is cleverly revealed. In 1957 Arthur Miller was brought before the Congressional Committee which investigated "unamerican activities" or Communism, and he refused to name anyone who has expressed left-wing sympathies. He was convicted of contempt of Congress. He admitted to having flirted with Communist ideas, but he did not believe that these ideas threatened the integrity of creative artists. The press respected him for his cool and dignified manner under interrogation. The conviction for contempt was reversed the following year by the Supreme Court.

It was at this point that Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, whom he was to divorce four years later. In 1962 Arthur Miller married his present wife Ingeborg Morath, a photographer. Arthur Miller's career has continued and his stature as one of America's playwrights has been consolidated and "Death of a salesman" became for many his most memorable work.                    


The Crucible


In 1953, when Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible' ran on Broadway at the Martin Beck, despite being a box office success and acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, it was always considered second best to his prior 'Death of a Salesman.' As Brook Atkinson for the New York Times reported the day after the opening, '[T]he theme does not develop with the simple eloquence of 'Death of a Salesman.''
Although the events of the play are based on the events that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Miller was liberal in his fictionalisation of those events. For example, many of the accusations of witchcraft in the play are driven by the affair between farmer, husband, and father John Proctor (Arthur Kennedy), and the Minister's teenage niece Abigail Williams (Madeleine Sherwood); however, in real life Williams was probably about eleven at the time of the accusations and Proctor was over sixty, which makes it most unlikely that there was ever any such relationship. Miller himself said, 'The play is not reportage of any kind . [n]obody can start to write a tragedy and hope to make it reportage . what I was doing was writing a fictional story about an important theme.'
The 'important theme' that Miller was writing was clear to many observers in 1953 at the play's opening. It was written in response to Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee's crusade against supposed communist sympathizers. Despite the obvious political criticisms contained within the play, most critics felt that 'The Crucible' was 'a self contained play about a terrible period in American history.'


Set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Arthur Miller's The Crucible describes the witch hunt that saw harmless people hanged for crimes they did not commit. The Crucible provides an accurate historical account of the witch hunt, but its real achievement lies in the many important issues it deals with. Miller's concerns with conscience, guilt and justice develop into significant and thought-provoking themes throughout the play. These themes are developed through the characters of Abigail Williams, John Proctor and Deputy Governor Danforth. The Crucible is even more successful when the wider relevance of these issues is considered. This occurs particularly when the themes of the play are examined in relation to the events occurring at the time Miller was writing.

The inhibitions born out of the Puritanical values of the time are perhaps what forced Abigail Williams into such evil behaviour. Abigail and the girls are allowed no freedom to have fun, a point illustrated by their fear that their parents will discover they were dancing in the forest. Later, as the girls successfully accuse more and more people of witchcraft, they begin to seek revenge on the adults in their lives who have oppressed them and who, until now, they were bound to obey unfailingly. Abigail Williams depicts Miller's concern with guilt and conscience. When speaking of the Salem witch hunt, Miller talks about 'men handing conscience to other men'. This handing over of conscience is one of Miller's most prominent concerns in the play. When people shed the responsibility of their conscience, they are no longer able to feel guilt, and their sense of right and wrong is left in utter confusion. Miller saw guilt as 'a quality of mind capable of being overthrown'. This is seen through Abigail who sheds her conscience firstly to get herself out of trouble by accusing Tituba, and eventually to seek revenge on the adults who make her life miserable. The court of Salem accepts Abigail's false claims and, in doing so, divests her of her conscience and she is left with no sense of guilt for what she has done.

This handing over of conscience eventually spreads throughout the wider Salem community where people willingly shed their conscience in the developing state of hysteria. In The Crucible, people feel guilty for not being as 'pure' as they are supposed to be. The trial is an opportunity for these people to shed their guilt and prove publicly and to themselves the extent to which their behaviour accords with the dominant beliefs.

John Proctor's struggle is in understanding the fundamental significance of his conscience. What separates him from the other characters is that he will not hand over his conscience, even for the sake of saving his life. Proctor is aware that he is a 'sinner'. He feels that his affair with Abigail was wrong, not because this is what contemporary moral fashions denote, but because he himself feels it is wrong. In the final Act, Proctor decides to confess because he knows he is not a 'good' man and feels that dying for the cause of being 'good' is therefore a pretence. He says of his confession: 'I think it is honest, I think so; I am no saint'. However, it is when Proctor is pressed to disclose other witnesses that he realises he cannot confess. By naming others, Proctor would be handing over his conscience. The masterful scene between Proctor and his wife in the final act deals with his struggle to be true to himself. Elizabeth refuses to judge Proctor and influence his decision to live, saying: 'I am not your judge, I cannot be'. Proctor now realises that the only one to judge him is himself: he has a conscience. By refusing to let others judge him, Proctor keeps his conscience and hangs as an innocent man rather than living as a liar.

At the time Miller wrote The Crucible in the early 1950s, the United States of America was experiencing a modern 'witch hunt' of its own. Senator Joseph McCarthy, prompted by the tensions of the Cold War, was convinced that the American government was polluted with communists and was determined to hunt them out, just as the Salem judges hunted out witches. McCarthy led the Senate Committee on Internal Security which, also like the Salem judges, forced people to confess, and then name associates. The parallel between the two situations is remarkable: both sought to hunt out 'witches' going against the dominant values of the time; both created hysteria among the public obscuring the course of justice and forcing people to comply through lies; both involved individuals speaking out against others in order to prove their lack of guilt. Miller masterfully recognised this direct parallel and was able to use the unfamiliar time and place of the Salem witch hunt to comment on his own time. He wrote about McCarthyism indirectly to protect himself at the time, but more importantly, he set The Crucible in Salem in 1692 to prove the wider, on-going relevance of his themes. The play was topical, but not particular. The problem it addresses - not specific but, indeed, timeless - could now be seen in perspective. Certainly, the play remains successful and relevant today.

The witch hunt in Salem in 1692 and McCarthyism in the USA in the 1950s are remarkably similar situations, and the issues dealt with by Miller in documenting one of these describes almost perfectly the issues of the other. Both deal with public concerns and fears developing into hysteria, and in both cases it is the effects of the hysteria which prove far more dangerous than the alleged threats themselves. This is because people lose their sense of justice through the 'handing over' of conscience and the shedding of guilt. The fact that this pattern repeats itself throughout history indicates the mastery of Miller: he recognises a crucial concern of the individual in society.

Throughout Arthur Miller's The Crucible the issues of the 'handing over' of conscience, the divesting of guilt, and the administration of justice are presented to create a masterful drama. The Crucible deals with issues crucial to all people of all time and is therefore a timeless and momentous play.

Death of a Salesman


When it was first performed on Broadway, "Death of a Salesman" ran for over 742 performances, and was a striking success. It made Arthur Miller's reputation and some thought it set the standard for American drama in general. Some critics were even moved to call this the American "King Lear". Arthur Miller recalls that people were stunned after the first performance and then moved to lengthy, rapturous applause. Some people openly wept. The corresponding performances in London and Paris were less ecstatic: much of the American style of the play would not be so familiar to international audiences in 1949 who did not know as much about America from the media as we do today.



Capitalism and the value of life

"Death of a Salesman" is the story of a man who comes to the conclusion that he can only save his life by losing it: Willy Loman eventually has to commit suicide to redeem himself in his own eyes and achieve something for his family. The play suggests that tragedy may befall the most ordinary life in contemporary society, and for this reason, it raises issues about the way we all live and work and dream of happiness. As Arthur Miller has written, the play represents the need to "face the fact of death to strengthen ourselves for life".

Despite the setting in 1949, many of the features of American society which it depicts are still with us. The economic system of capitalism, where we are encouraged to accumulate capital as a symbol of success and a protection against disaster for our families, is familiar to today's audiences. Willy finds that purely financial terms he is worth more dead than alive. This, of course, is not an uncommon situation for some of us today. The insurance money he believes his family will collect if he dies may enable them to survive in much better conditions and realise the dreams he could not fulfil. On the face of it, therefore, to come to such an conclusion is a terrible indictment of the world in which we live.

Willy Loman presents the ultimate challenge to an "unreal" society which is based on capitalism, since he concludes that twenty thousand dollars is worth more than his life. Can a man really be valued at the amount of money which he is worth? If so, then capitalist societies such as America, have reduced human beings to commodities, and dehumanisation is inevitable.

If the play is an indictment of our way of life then it has profound implications for all societies which now embrace the ethos of capitalism. Arthur Miller's early flirtation with Marxism is often suspected to be an influence here, but he has explicitly rejected the idea that the play is overtly political. Whilst he obviously had sympathies with aspects of Communist thinking, he maintains that his work is much more than the sum total of its political implications.

An ordinary man

For some critics, the play shows a central character who makes a number of rather obvious errors. Willy may be making ordinary mistakes, but he is also fighting back against his fate in an unusual way. Willy Loman is sometimes full of contradictions, overly ambitious, blind to his vanities and unsympathetic towards those who love him. At other times, however, he is courageous, determined to the point of fanaticism, and almost a martyr to his family.

The contradictions in Willy's character perhaps seem less strange now than they did in 1949, as inconsistency of character has almost become a hallmark of literature in the latter part of the century. The view that we are pulled in different directions by social forces which work against each other has become increasingly accepted.

Arthur Miller's own position is that he is neither blaming society alone, nor presenting a pathetic character who is the author of his own misfortunes. The play, according to Arthur Miller offers something between these two extremes - it is a study of how man and society interrelate. In Willy, Arthur Miller has created a character who compels his audience to ask fundamental questions about human freedom and necessity which we can all recognise as significant. As Arthur Miller put it, "the assumption was that everyone knew Williy Loman".

A View from the Bridge


First performed as a one-act play in 1955, Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" was later rewritten and restaged as a full-length, two-act play. In "Timebends", his autobiography, Miller speaks at length of his interest in the Brooklyn waterfront and of his relationship with Vincent James "Vinny" Longhi. Longhi and Longhi's friend, Mitch Berenson, sought out Miller to help them make known and keep alive the work of Pete Panto, a young longshoreman who had earned a gangland execution for attempting to foment a revolt against the union leadership of Joseph Ryan, the corrupt head of the International Longshoremen's Association. With Longhi and Berenson as his cicerones, Miller entered the dark, dangerous, corrupt world of Red Hook, the largely Italian, Brooklyn waterfront neighbourhood. From this experience and from a Longhi anecdote the story and atmosphere of "A view from the Bridge" seem to have been born.


Justice and the law

Alfieri, as a lawyer, is aware that the law, despite its limitations, must be upheld. However, he is also aware of the inability of the law to dispense total justice. He feels powerless to intervene when a character in the play decides to find justice in his own way - outside the law.

Eddie Carbone is a man who does not understand the reasons for the limitations of the law. Early in the play he asks Beatrice to tell Catherine the story of Vinny Bolzano. In Eddie's eyes and in the eyes of the community Vinny was guilty of injustice and his family ensured that justice was done when he was punished and shunned by the neighbourhood.

There is a feeling that if people always abide by the law then they will have to "settle for half". Alfieri seems to be saying that the law is often incapable of satisfying everybody.

Eddie tries to force Alfieri to give him his kind of justice. He believes that Rodolpho is going to marry Catherine in order to make him a legal immigrant. He feels that this is unjust and that the law should be capable of making a case against Rodolpho. Alfieri is very rational and unemotional as he informs Eddie that no law has been broken.

The real injustice as far as Eddie is concerned is that Rodolpho, who, according to Eddie, is an effeminate "weird guy", is taking Catherine for his own and away from Eddie who is, in his own opinion, all that a man should be.

Alfieri warns Eddie that if he betrays the brothers he will be breaching the code of his people and that they will turn against him. Here Alfieri is placing the law against natural justice - he is emphasising that it would be unjust to betray the Italians even if Eddie is actually upholding the law by reporting them.

Throughout the play there is an emphasis on justice, but as Alfieri tells us there is a price to pay for total justice - a price that most people, most of the time, are not prepared to pay. This is why the majority feel that "it is better to settle for half".

As its very title suggests, Miller's play is about being between extremes, about disparate loyalties and mixed motives, about tribal versus codified law, about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. "The Hook" and "On the Waterfront" simplify, "A View from the Bridge" problematizes. In this way, "A View from the Bridge" marks Miller's significant development as a writer after "The Hook".     

All My Sons


Arthur Miller wrote several plays prior to "All My Sons", but only one of them, "The Man Who Had All the Luck", was produced in New York. Unfortunately, it closed after four performances. Years later, Miller was able to see how those previous attempts prepared him to write his breakthrough play.

Winner of the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award for best play of 1947, "All My Sons" is the work that launched Arthur Miller's long and distinguished career in the theatre. While few would argue that it is Miller's best or most important play, no one would dispute the fact that "All My Sons" deserves a special place in the playwright's canon because it constitutes his first major theatrical achievement, displays his extraordinary skill in handling dramatic form, and presages even better things yet to come from one of America's greatest dramatists.


Ultimately, "All My Sons" is a play about both paradox and denial - or to state it more precisely, it is about a theme that Miller has described as "the paradox of denial."

The crimes against society committed by Joe Keller derive from the same instinct for self-preservation and self-assertion that foster the adoption of a counterfeit innocence and the illusion of one's being a victim at the hands of others. Keller prefers to see himself as a victim of others. Instead of acknowledging his complicity in the crime that sends unsuspecting pilots to their deaths, he lies about his involvement and denies his personal culpability so that he can preserve his false image of himself and maintain the illusion that he has regained his rightful place in society. Keller denies his connection to the disaster because he blinds himself to the impulses that make him a danger to himself as well as to others.

Paradoxically, the very denial that is designed to protect him from prosecution and incarceration sets in motion the chain of events that leads to Keller's own self-imprisonment and self-imposed execution. Therefore, the paradox of denial in "All My Sons" is that not only does denial dehumanize, by nullifying the value of he social contract through the justification of indefensible anti-social acts, but it also intensifies the personal anguish and the irremediable alienation that plunge an individual into despair and bring about his tragic suicide.

Keller's crime is magnified in his son's eyes because he has all too successfully manufactured the illusion that he is the infallible father figure. By attempting to fulfil the inhuman demands of perfection that this mythic, almost godlike, presence demands, Keller unwittingly sets himself up for a fall. Like Miller's most popular father, Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman", Keller never realises that his effort to protect and confirm in his family's eyes his self-chosen image has contributed his downfall.

In "All My Sons", Miller shows how the impulse to betray and to deny responsibility for others, when left ungoverned, can run rampant and wreak havoc on the individual, his family, and his society - even, perhaps, civilisation as a whole. The paradox of denial, therefore, is that the very defence mechanism that is employed to justify the rightness of a socially reprehensible act can ultimately become the exclusive means by which an individual self-destructs. The Kellers, and many of those around them, choose to blame everyone else for their dilemma, but only they are the authors of their destiny - and their failure to accept the tremendous burden of their freedom and responsibility is itself the cause of their personal tragedy.


·       The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller; Edited by Christopher Bigsby; Cambridge University Press 1997

·       York Notes: "A View from the Bridge"; Notes by Shay Daly

·       York Notes Advanced: "Death of a Salesman"; Notes by Adrian Page

·       Cliffs Notes on Miller's "The Crucible" by Denis M. Calandra and James L. Roberts







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