“I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world,” wrote Arthur Miller, who would have turned 100 today.
Still one of the most-produced playwrights in America, Miller is best known amongst his more than 40 plays for Death Of A Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge, and All My Sons, as I write in an article in Broadway Direct commemorating Miller’s centennial. Both A View From the Bridge and The Crucible are being revived this season on Broadway, by the Belgian-born avant-garde director Ivo van Hove.
Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915 in Harlem, the son of an illiterate clothing manufacturer. He wrote his first play at the age of 20 as a student at the University of Michigan. That first experience filled him with awe at what he later called “the magical force of making marks on a piece of paper and reaching into another human being, making him see what I had seen and feel my feelings.” It’s a sign of resurgent interest in Miller that that first play, entitled No Villain, is getting its world premiere in a theatre in London in December.
“Play writing was an act of self-discovery from the start and would always be,” Miller wrote inTimebends, his 1987 memoir. “It was a kind of license to say the unspeakable, and I would never write anything good that did not somehow make me blush.”
It took more than a decade after that first play for Miller to score on Broadway with All My Sons, in 1947, about a manufacturer during World War II who knowingly ships out defective airplane parts, with tragic results. Miller was so ambivalent about his sudden fame and fortune that he took a low-paying job in a factory assembling beer box dividers, but he couldn’t tolerate the boredom and quickly quit.
Two years later, he created what is widely considered among the most important and stirring American plays of the 20th century, Death of a Salesman, with one of the most famous monologues in American literature:
“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
Like Tennessee Williams, Miller lived past the period of his public adoration, but both kept writing.
Indeed, his later years were among his most productive, as he explained to me in 1997, when he was 82. “As the theater has developed in New York, I have become more and more remote from it,” he said. “And so I’m free of that anxiety of pleasing real audiences. I just write for myself.”
“His later plays are not well known in America, but have had considerable success elsewhere, especially in England,” says Geoffrey O’Brien, the editor in chief of the Library of America, which has issued a three-vollume boxed set of his plays.
“Miller’s position in society in the 50s and 60’s was as a public intellectual. It’s the position that Tony Kushner fills now,” critic John Lahr told me. “That may have alienated people after a while.”
What has happened since his death ten years ago, says Lahr, traces a “fluctuating graph of his popularity.”