“I reflect what my heart tells me from the society around me. We are living in a time when there is great uncertainty in this country… I am trying to delve to the bottom of this and come up with a positive answer, but I have had to go to hell to Broadway premiere of meet the devil. You can’t know what the worst is until you have seen the worst, and it is not for me to make easy answers and come forth before the American people and tell them everything is all right when I look in their eyes and I see them troubled.”
—Arthur Miller, in his testimony before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee
Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915 and grew up in New York City’s Harlem. He enjoyed a comfortable childhood until his father’s business was lost during the Depression and the family faced financial hardship. This first-hand knowledge of the fragility of the American dream would become a recurring theme in his later work as a playwright.
Miller enrolled in the University of Michigan’s journalism program in 1934. Despite his limited exposure to the theater, he began writing plays and won the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award for two consecutive years. After earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1938 and marrying his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, Miller struggled to establish himself as a playwright. As his early plays were rejected by producers, Miller worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and wrote radio scripts to support his family. With the production of All My Sons in 1947, Miller finally established himself. Directed by Elia Kazan, the play received immediate acclaim, running for 328 performances and winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and two Tony Awards. This success was quickly followed by the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman in 1949, again under the direction of Kazan. Although its “anti-American” themes sparked controversy, Death of a Salesman ran for 742 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
By the 1950s, anti-communist suspicion in the United States was everywhere, and Miller’s next two plays, an adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and The Crucible, criticized McCarthyism and confronted themes of mass hysteria, irrational fear and political persecution. The Crucible premiered in 1953 with a staging by Jed Harris, as Miller’s friendship and close working relationship with director Elia Kazan had been severed after Kazan testified for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Although The Crucible initially received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, it won the Tony Award for Best Play.
Following a divorce from his first wife and remarriage to actress Marilyn Monroe in 1956, Miller would not write another play for nearly a decade. He was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC and was charged with contempt of Congress for his refusal to provide names of colleagues who participated in communist activities. Although Miller was never officially blacklisted and his conviction was overturned the following year, the experience affected him deeply. During this time, Miller wrote a screenplay adaption of his short story “The Misfits” to give Monroe the opportunity to play a serious role, but the film was largely unsuccessful. The couple divorced in 1961.
In 1962, Miller married photographer Inge Morath and the couple collaborated on several photo-journalistic projects. Miller also continued to concern himself with social and political issues: He actively spoke out against the Vietnam War; accepted the presidency of International PEN, an organization that defended the rights of politically oppressed writers; and served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Timebends, an autobiography, was published in 1987 to critical acclaim, and he collaborated on the 1996 screenplay adaption of The Crucible. Miller’s final play, Finish the Picture, was based on the difficult filming of The Misfits. (It premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2004 under the direction of Robert Falls.)
Arthur Miller is recognized as one of the most important figures in 20th century American theater, as well as an activist who drew public attention to controversial political and social issues of his time. Frequent revivals of The Crucible and Death of a Salesman in both the United States and abroad, including such locations as Beijing and Moscow, are truly a testament to the plays’ enduring value and universal themes.
- “Arthur Miller.” Contemporaty Authors Online. Gale, 2006.
- Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. Penguin, 1995.
Content last updated: October 31, 2007