Arthur Miller, Legendary American Playwright, is Dead
Arthur Miller, one of the great American playwrights, whose work exposed the flaws in the fabric of the American dream, died Thursday night at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 89. The cause was congestive heart failure, said Julia Bolus, his assistant.
The author of "Death of a Salesman," a landmark of 20th-century drama, Mr. Miller grappled with the weightiest matters of social conscience in his plays. They often reflected or reinterpreted the stormy and very public elements of his own life, including his brief and rocky marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his staunch refusal to cooperate with the red-baiting House Committee on Un-American Activities.
"Death of a Salesman," which opened on Broadway in 1949, established Mr. Miller as a giant of the American theater when he was only 33 years old. It won the triple crown of theatrical artistry that year: the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Tony Award.
But the play's enormous success also overshadowed Mr. Miller's long career. Although "The Crucible," a 1953 play about the Salem witch trials inspired by his virulent hatred of McCarthyism, and "A View From the Bridge," a 1955 drama of obsession and betrayal, would ultimately take their place as popular classics of the international stage, Mr. Miller's later plays never equaled his early successes. Although he wrote a total of 17 plays, "The Price," produced on Broadway during the 1967-68 season, was his last solid critical and commercial hit.
Nevertheless, Mr. Miller wrote successfully in a wide variety of other media. Perhaps most notably, he supplied the screenplay for "The Misfits," a 1961 movie directed by John Huston and starring Monroe, to whom he was married at the time. He also wrote essays, short stories and a 1987 autobiography, "Timebends: A Life." His writing remained politically engaged until the end of his life.
But his reputation rests on a handful of his best-known plays, the dramas of guilt and betrayal and redemption that continue to be revived frequently at theaters all over the world. These dramas of social conscience were drawn from life and informed by the Great Depression, the event that he believed had had a more profound impact on the nation than any other in American history, except possibly the Civil War.
"In play after play," the drama critic Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times, "he holds man responsible for his and for his neighbor's actions."
Elia Kazan, who directed "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman" and "After the Fall," recalled that "in the 30's and 40's, we came out of the Group Theater tradition that every play should teach a lesson and make a thematic point."
"Arthur organized his plays so that they came to a thematic climax," Kazan said. "He urged you to accept the thematic point."
The Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, who worked frequently with Mr. Miller, found a "rabbinical righteousness" in the playwright. "In his work, there is almost a conscious need to be a light onto the world... He spent his life seeking answers to what he saw around him as a world of injustice."
Mr. Miller, a lanky, wiry man whose dark hair turned to gray in his later years, retained the appearance of a 1930's intellectual whether wearing work boots and blue jeans while fixing his back porch or seated behind his word processor or typewriter when the power failed at his 350-acre farm in Litchfield County.
Writing plays was for him, he once said, like breathing. He wrote in "Timebends" that when he was young, he "imagined that with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do."
He also saw playwriting as a way to change America, and, as he put it, "that meant grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck."
He had known hard work firsthand in an automobile-parts warehouse during the Depression; in what he called a mouse house, where he earned $15 a month feeding mice used in medical experiments; and on the night shift in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
But Mr. Miller called playwriting the hardest work of all. "You know," he said, "a playwright lives in an occupied country. He's the enemy. And if you can't live like that, you don't stay. It's tough. He's got to be able to take a whack, and he's got to swallow bicycles and digest them."
What Mr. Miller could not swallow was critics. During a 1987 interview, he dismissed them as "people who can't sing or dance." It was a reprise on a bitter theme he had sounded throughout his working life.
"I'm a fatalist," he said. "I consider I am rejected in principle. My work is, and through my work, I am. If it's accepted, it's miraculous or the result of a misunderstanding."
Mr. Miller once said, "I never had a critic in my corner in this country," and said he never saved the reviews of his plays, even the raves.
"There's an instinct in me that I had to exist apart from them, lest I rely on them for my esteem or despair," he said. "I don't know a critic who penetrates the center of anything."
Mr. Miller's antipathy was understandable. At one moment he was hailed as the greatest living playwright, and at another as a has-been whose greatest successes were decades behind him. Even at the height of his success, Mr. Miller's work received harsh criticism from some prominent critics. Eric Bentley, the drama critic for The New Republic in the 1950's, dismissed "The Crucible" writing, "The world has made this author important before he has made himself great."
Mr. Miller also despaired of the American theater, which he believed was too profit-oriented to allow writers and actors to flourish. He noted that opera and ballet in America were supported through contributions, but that what he called the "brutal inanity" of Broadway required that the American theater pay for itself.
"If the thing is gonna be regarded the same as the fish business, it ain't gonna work," he said in the feisty tones of his New York City boyhood. "In the whole entertainment enterprise, the theater has become a fifth wheel. People only take parts hoping it will lead to the movies."
Arthur Miller was born on West 110th Street in Manhattan on Oct. 17, 1915, to Augusta and Isidore Miller. His father was a coat manufacturer, and so prosperous that he rode in a chauffeur-driven car from the family apartment overlooking the northern edge of Central Park to the Seventh Avenue garment district. For young Arthur, life, as remembered in "Timebends," unfolded "as a kind of scroll whose message was surprise and mostly good news."
The Depression changed everything for the family, and it became a theme that etched its way through Arthur Miller's plays, from "Death of a Salesman" to "The Price" and "After the Fall," from "The American Clock" to "A Memory of Two Mondays." The crash meant the collapse of the coat business and a move from the apartment overlooking the park to considerably reduced circumstances in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where the teenage Arthur worked as a delivery boy for a bakery and developed a knack for carpentry, which left him fascinated, he said, with "the idea of creating a new shadow on the earth."
He attended James Madison High School, graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1932, and then went to work in the auto parts warehouse, earning $15 a week and saving $13 each week for college. Mr. Miller said he was not much of a student, but he knew by the time he was 16 that he wanted to be a writer. He recalled a terrific urge to tell stories, a talent that he said made him a center of attention at Dozick's corner drugstore.
When he had put away enough money for his freshman year, Mr. Miller went to the University of Michigan with the hope that he could write a play good enough to win the Avery Hopwood Award, an honor administered by the university that carried a prize of $250, enough for a second year at college.
He did not win the first year, but managed to scrape together enough money to go back. He went on to win two Hopwood Awards, as well as a $1,200 award from the Bureau of New Plays of the Theater Guild. He earned more money by winning that one award than he had earned in three years at the warehouse. It became clearer than ever that playwriting was for him.
Within two years after his graduation, Mr. Miller had written six plays, every one of them rejected by producers except for "The Man Who Had All the Luck." When that play lasted only four performances on Broadway in 1944, he added two or three more plays to the reject pile and wrote "Focus," a novel about anti-Semitism.
In 1940 he married his college sweetheart, Mary Grace Slattery, with whom he soon had two children. To support his family he worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, wrote scripts for radio and gave himself a final shot at writing a play.
"I laid myself a wager," he wrote in his autobiography. "I would hold back this play until I was as sure as I could be that every page was integral to the whole and would work; then, if my judgment of it proved wrong, I would leave the theater behind and write in other forms."
That play was "All My Sons," which Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of The New York Times, called "an honest, forceful drama about a group of people caught up in a monstrous swindle that has caused the death of 21 Army pilots because of defectively manufactured cylinder heads." It was selected as one of the 10 best plays of 1947, won two Tony Awards and took the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. (Eugene O'Neill's "Iceman Cometh" was the runner-up.)
"All My Sons" enjoyed a revival and new relevance when it was shown on public television in 1987, a year after the Challenger space shuttle exploded because of defective seals in the joints of its booster rocket.
In 1949 Willy Loman, riding on "a smile and a shoeshine" and determined to be not just liked but well liked, made his way into American consciousness in "Death of a Salesman." Mr. Miller wrote the play in six weeks, and for the first time in Broadway history, a play made a clean sweep of the top three awards: the Pulitzer, the Tony and the Drama Critics' Circle.
Acclaimed as a modern American masterpiece in its first reviews, translated into 29 languages and performed even in Beijing, "Salesman" was no sooner a major success of the Broadway stage than it was savaged in the intellectual journals as sentimental melodrama or Marxist propaganda.
"Death of a Salesman" stunned audiences. Mr. Atkinson called it "a rare event in the theater" and "a suburban epic that may not be intended as poetry but becomes poetry in spite of itself."
Lines from the play became hallmarks of the postwar era. "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away," Willy bellowed, coming to grip with the fact that he was no longer the hot-shot salesman he once was and finding himself pleading with his young boss to keep his job. "A man is not a piece of fruit." More eloquently, Willy's careworn wife spoke for the inherent dignity of her husband's life, providing a stirring refutation of the cruelties of America's capitalist culture: "Attention must be paid."
In 1950, Mr. Miller wrote an adaptation of Ibsen's drama "An Enemy of the People." This 19th-century play, whose hero resisted pressure to conform to the ideology of the day, resonated in the McCarthyite climate of the mid-20th century. Mr. Miller was encouraged to undertake the work by one of the foremost acting couples of that generation, Fredric March and his wife, Florence Eldridge, who, Mr. Miller wrote, were suing a man for libeling them as Communists and had agreed to play the leading roles.
The work, in philosophy at least, served as a forerunner of "The Crucible," a dramatization of the Salem witch hunt of the 17th century that implicitly articulated Mr. Miller's outrage at McCarthyism. In his autobiography he recalled that at one performance, upon the execution of the leading character, John Proctor, people in the audience "stood up and remained silent for a couple of minutes with heads bowed" because "the Rosenbergs were at that moment being electrocuted in Sing Sing."
"The Crucible" marked Mr. Miller's explosive rift with Kazan, the director of his greatest successes. Kazan's decision to name names at a House Committee on un-American Activities hearing incensed Mr. Miller, and the play was seen by some as a personal rebuke. Searching for a replacement, Mr. Miller and his producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, turned to Jed Harris, a domineering director whose career had faltered after a string of successes in the 1920's.
But Mr. Harris' production was not well received, with Atkinson criticizing his "overwrought" work. Five months into the run, with the box office lagging, Mr. Miller restaged the play himself, inserting a scene that had been cut. The revised version was better received, but the initial run was still unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, the play won Mr. Miller another Tony Award in 1953 and would go on to become his most frequently produced work.
"I can almost always tell what the political situation is in a country when the play is suddenly a hit there," he wrote in "Timebends." "It is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past."
Mr. Miller recalled that when he wrote "The Crucible," he hoped it would be seen as an affirmation of the struggle for liberty, for keeping one's own conscience.
"That's what it's become," he said with considerable satisfaction in a 1987 interview. "I was very moved by that play once again when the Royal Shakespeare Company did a production that toured the cathedrals of England. Then they took it to Poland and performed it in the cathedrals there, too. The actors said it changed their lives. Officials wept; they were speechless after the play, and everyone knew why. It was because they had to enforce the kind of repression the play was attacking. That made me prouder than anything I ever did in my life. The mission of the theater, after all, is to change, to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities."
In 1956, Mr. Miller was himself called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. By this time, his relationship with Monroe had made him a far more public figure than any of the awards he had won, and therefore a prime target who could attract attention to the committee in its waning days. Mr. Miller wrote in "Timebends" that his lawyer said there had even been an offer to cancel the hearing "provided Marilyn agrees to be photographed shaking hands" with the chairman of the committee, Representative Francis E. Walter of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Miller was applauded in Hollywood and in New York theater circles when he refused to name names, a courageous act in an atmosphere of palpable fear. He was cited for contempt of Congress, although he said he had never joined the Communist Party.
Of Mr. Miller's performance before the committee, Mr. Atkinson wrote in 1957: "He refused to be an informer. He refused to turn his private conscience over to administration by the state. He has accordingly been found in contempt of Congress. That is the measure of the man who has written these high-minded plays."
The year he appeared before the committee was the year the University of Michigan gave him an honorary degree. Two years later, the courts dismissed his citation for contempt of Congress.
In 1956, even as Mr. Miller's testimony had continued, he and Monroe were married, a union that Norman Mailer sourly remarked brought together "the Great American Brain" and "the Great American Body." The marriage - less than a month after his divorce from Ms. Slattery and two years after her divorce from Joe DiMaggio -- was the consummation of a lengthy obsession that Miller, a moralist, had agonized over and even guiltily confessed to his wife. (John Proctor, the flawed hero of "The Crucible" in 1953, confesses a similar affair with a younger woman.)
He and Monroe had met in 1951 at a Hollywood party. Monroe was dating Kazan at the time, but the director had asked Mr. Miller, the newly minted Pulitzer winner, to cover for him as Kazan went on a date with another actress. It was a decision that Kazan would later regret as Monroe -- the struggling, richly ambitious young actress -- and Miller, the bold young voice of American theater, seemed to bond immediately.
"I watched them dance," Kazan would recall years later in his autobiography. "Art was a good dancer. And how happy she was in his arms!"
Whether both men's attraction - and sexual involvement - with Monroe played a part in their professional alienation is unclear. But in the end Miller captured Monroe's heart and she his mind.
For most of the four years of that marriage, Mr. Miller wrote almost nothing except "The Misfits," composed as a gift to his wife, who found herself increasingly tormented by personal demons and drug abuse despite a deep love for her husband. The film would premiere early 1961, shortly after the couple's marriage ended in divorce. A year later, Mr. Miller would remarry, and six months after that, Ms. Monroe would be found dead, a suicide, at her house in Los Angeles.
In a biography of Monroe, Maurice Zolotow wrote that Mr. Miller had "to give up his entire time to attend to her wants."
He was once asked if he had resented having to care for her to the detriment of his work. "Oh, yeah," he answered.
"After the Fall," his most overtly autobiographical play, brought Mr. Miller a storm of criticism when it was produced in 1964, shortly after Monroe's death. The play, which had been written soon after the collapse of their marriage, implies a search for understanding of his responsibility toward her, of her inability to cope and of his failure to help her. He insisted that he was dealing with large human themes and professed surprise when critics noted the resemblance between Monroe and Maggie, the drug-addicted, blond-wigged protagonist in the play, and accused him of capitalizing on Monroe's fame and defiling her image.
"The play," he said at the time, "is a work of fiction. No one is reported in this play. The characters are created as they are in any other play in order to develop a coherent theme, which in this case concerns the nature of human insight, of self-destructiveness and violence toward others." And although many of the characters were seen as thinly veiled representations of Mr. Miller himself and the people who had passed through his life, he said they resembled real people "neither more nor less than any other play I ever wrote."
Almost no one took his explanations at face value, and some of his critics considered the play a cruel way of getting even, not only with Marilyn Monroe but with her teachers from the Actors Studio, Paula and Lee Strasberg, who came in for Mr. Miller's special contempt.
Similar criticisms were voiced when Mr. Miller's last play, "Finishing the Picture," was produced at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in the fall of 2004. The play depicted the making of the movie "The Misfits."
But "After the Fall" did occasion Mr. Miller's reunion with Kazan, the most insightful director of his work. It was brought about by Mr. Whitehead, one of the architects of the ambitious plan to create an American repertory theater company as part of the new Lincoln Center complex. In his autobiography, "A Life," Kazan wrote, "Once brought together, Art and I got along well - even though I was somewhat tense in his company, because we'd never discussed (and never did discuss) the reasons for our 'break.' "
"After the Fall" was the inaugural production of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, although the new Vivian Beaumont Theater was not finished in time and the first season of the company was produced elsewhere. Mr. Miller contributed a second play, "Incident at Vichy," to the following season, but it, too, was not well received. Mr. Miller accepted the presidency of PEN International, the association of poets, editors, essayists, novelists and other literary figures, in 1965, and became increasingly active in defending the rights of writers. He was fond of recalling an appeal he received in 1966 to send some sort of message to Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who was about to take over the Nigerian government, to save the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who was facing execution.
"Gowon," he wrote in his autobiography, "on seeing my name, asked ... whether I was the writer who had been married to Marilyn Monroe and, assured that that was so, ordered Soyinka released. How Marilyn would have enjoyed that one!" Mr. Soyinka went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986.
Mr. Miller, who had spoken against the Vietnam War in 1965 at the first teach-ins on the subject at the University of Michigan, was also active in local political affairs in Connecticut and was elected to serve as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
In 1967, he published a book of short stories, "I Don't Need You Any More," and continued to write plays. "The Price," a drama about two brothers, one a successful surgeon, the other a police officer who had given up the chance for a more promising career to support his father, was a modest success and received some critical approbation. Both would become increasingly elusive in the years that followed, even as Mr. Miller's works began to appear Off Broadway.
"The Creation of the World and Other Business," a serio-comic treatment of the human predicament in the Garden of Eden, closed after 20 performances on Broadway in 1972. Two years later, Mr. Miller turned to Genesis again and reworked "The Creation of the World" for his first musical, "Up From Paradise." It was produced Off Broadway and it, too, flopped.
Two later plays, "The Archbishop's Ceiling" (1976) and "The American Clock" (1980), which recalled his family's struggle during the Depression, were more successful in London than in the United States.
Mr. Miller made a less than triumphal return to Lincoln Center in 1987 with two one-act plays about the danger of remembering and the danger of forgetting, called "Danger: Memory!" Frank Rich, who was then the chief drama critic of The New York Times, wrote in a review, "While Arthur Miller's admirable voice of conscience remains firm as always, 'Danger: Memory!' is an evening in which the pontificator wins out over the playwright."
Mr. Miller enjoyed greater critical acclaim in 1980 with his dramatization for television of "Playing for Time," a book by Fania Fenelon, who survived Auschwitz by playing the violin to entertain Nazi officers. Mr. Miller opposed demands to have Vanessa Redgrave removed from the lead role because of her support of Palestinian causes.
"To fire her now because of her political views would be blacklisting," Mr. Miller said. "Having been blacklisted myself in time past, I have fought against the practice abroad as well as here, and I cannot participate in it now."
In his later years, Mr. Miller seemed to get greater satisfaction from writing books, although he continued the difficult work of writing plays.
After his divorce from Miss Monroe, Mr. Miller married Inge Morath, the Austrian-born photographer, with whom he had a daughter, Rebecca, an actress and a painter. With Ms. Morath, Mr. Miller collaborated on a number of books: "In Russia" (1969), "In the Country" (1977), "Chinese Encounters" (1979) and " 'Salesman' in Beijing" (1984).
Ms. Morath died in 2002. Besides Rebecca, he is survived by the children of his first marriage, Jane and Robert; a sister, Joan Copeland, an actress; and four grandchildren. He is also survived by his companion, Agnes Barley, a young painter whom he met shortly after Ms. Morath's death.
After his autobiography was published in 1987, he reflected in an interview on the course he had taken in life. "It has gone through my mind how much time I wasted in the theater, if only because when you write a book you pack it up and send it off," he said. "In the theater, you spend months casting actors who are busy in the movies anyway and then to get struck down in half an hour, as has happened to me more than once... You have to say to yourself: 'Why do it? It's almost insulting.'"
But when asked how he wanted to be remembered, he did not hesitate. "I hope as a playwright," he said. "That would be all of it."
Charles Isherwood and Jesse McKinley contributed reporting for this article.