Arthur Miller: Modern Theater's Fiery Spirit

Throughout the 1950s, a generation of artists, many of whom had helped America triumph during World War II, recoiled in horror from the growth of faceless corporations, government watchdogs, and bigoted citizens' groups. The pounding of the keys of hundreds of typewriters sounded a cadence of rebellion. They resisted the new order and created a road of written pages which gave other rebellious souls encouragement for the revolution to come. Arthur Miller was in the forefront.

Miller survived a childhood of sudden poverty in the face of the Great Depression, but what's clear is that it left him with a mistrust of societial and governmental schemes. World War II left its mark as well. He was not able to participate in the War due to an injury, but he did visit army camps and wrote a journal about his experiences, Situation Normal, which he published in 1944. His first successful Broadway play, All My Sons (1947), dealt with the after-effects of the War on a family whose father had sold defective plane parts to the U.S. government.

Before his serious successes, his wife and the mother of two of his children, Mary Grace Slatterly, supported the family by working as an editor and a waitress. Miller became involved with liberal causes as well as leftist organizations. After he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for Death of a Salesman, his career took off. Hollywood soon followed as did his romance with Marilyn Monroe (for whom he wrote The Misfits) and the breakup of his marriage.

Death of a Salesman

 

"A time will come when they will look back at us astonished that we saw something holy in the competition for the means of existence. But already we are beginning to ask of the great man, not what has he got, but what has he done for the world. We ought to be struggling for a world in which it will be possible to lay blame. then will the great tragedies be written, for where no order is believed in, no order can be breached, and thus all disasters of man will strive vainly for moral meaning."
--Arthur Miller, ''The 'Salesman' Has a Birthday," The New York Times (February 5, 1950), section 2, pp. 1, 3.

Within the confines of a deceptively simple plot, Death of a Salesman laid bare the soul of one ordinary man, Willie Loman, who late in life discovers that all his striving for material success as a salesman has wrecked his family life. He has left no discernable positive mark on the world. The tragedy is that he comes to realize this at the last.

The Crucible

In 1945, well before The Crucible, Miller wrote the novel Focus about the crush of anti-Semitism in Miller's Brooklyn neighborhood. In 2001, it was made into an impressive film starring William H. Macy and Laura Dern.

In The Crucible, Miller continued to explore the destructive effects of religous bigotry. The play is really a story with two impressive facets, both related to a resistance to tyranny. On the one hand, it may be seen as a carefully researched historical play. All the characters named are real: the hysterics, the martyrs, and the judges.

But it is the play's timeless themes, so relevant during the 1950s, of social responsibility and human weaknesses of compromise, guilt, love, and fear that make it great work of literature. From Miller's perspective in the early 1950s, Sentaor Joseph McCarthy's "witch-hunt" for communist infiltrators made an easy parallel to the hysterical trials and their fiery consequences which played out in Puritan Salem.

Ironically, in 1956, Miller would be called upon to make the same hard choice as his characters. When he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he testified readily about his past association with communist groups. However, he adamantly refused to name other members. He was cited for Contempt of Congress and joined the massive blacklist of actors, writers, and directors who were forbidden to work in the entertainment industry. He was in talented company: Dashiell Hammett, Burl Ives, Paul Robeson, Orson Wells, Richard Wright, and Leonard Bernstein, among others.

This webliography is presented for audiences and readers who wish to gain a better understanding of the playwright's motivations and struggles. All eBooks are available to read online at no charge with a netLibrary account. Click here for more information on this service.

From the Library

 

Arthur Miller edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom.
Contents:
Arthur Miller / Raymond Williams -- Strength and Weakness in Arthur Miller / Tom F. Driver -- Death of a Salesman / Esther Merle Jackson -- Clinton W. Trowbridge -- The Action and Its Significance / Orm Overland -- The Drama of Forgiveness / Dennis Welland -- The Perspective of a Playwright / Leonard Moss -- A View from the Bridge and the Expansion of Vision / Neil Carson -- Drama from a Living Center / C.W.E. Bigsby -- History and Other Spectres in Arthur Miller's The Crucible / E. Miller Budick.

 

Conversations with Arthur Miller edited by Matthew C. Roudane.
Arthur Miller speaks of his work and gives insights to his motivations and the creative process.

 

The Crucible
The actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s inspired Miller’s classic story of the Salem Witch Trails. Also available as a sound recording and on video.

 

Death of a Salesman; Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem by Arthur Miller.
Willy Loman wanted the American dream of riches and respect, but somehow it never worked out that way. At age 63, he tries to determine at what point his search for success took a turn for failure and unraveled his family relationships. Also available on video, starring Dustin Hoffman.

 

The Portable Arthur Miller.
Miller's acclaimed works are brought here together in one volume.
Contents:
Timebends (1987) -- The Golden Years (1939-1940) -- Death of a Salesman (1949) -- The Crucible (1953) -- After the Fall (1964) -- The American Clock (1980) -- The Last Yankee (1993) -- Broken Glass (1994)

 

Psychology and Arthur Miller by Richard I. Evans.
Examines the extraordinary psychological implications of Miller’s plays. Part of the series, Dialogues with Notable Contributors to Personality Theory.

 

Student Companion to Arthur Miller by Susan C.W. Abbotson.
This eBook has useful information for students of theatre, history, literature, and political science.
Contents:
Life of Arthur Miller -- Literary Heritage -- Tragedy: Death of a Salesman (1949) -- Family: All My Sons (1947) and A View from the Bridge (1956) -- The Depression: The American Clock (1980) -- The Holocaust: After the Fall (1964) and Broken Glass (1994) -- House Un-American Activities Committee: The Crucible (1953) -- Continuing Concerns: The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991).

 

Timebends: A Life by Arthur Miller.
Follows the playwright from his childhood in Harlem and Brooklyn in the 1920s into the Great Depression and onward through successes and disappointments in love, politics, and literature. Timebends is also available as an abridged sound recording, read by the author.

 

Understanding The Crucible: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents edited by Claudia Durst Johnson and Vernon E. Johnson.
This eBook provides primary historical documents and commentary on The Crucible within the context of two relevant historical periods: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, when the play was written.

On the Web

 

Arthur Miller, "Are You Now Or Were You Ever?"
from The Guardian/The Observer (on line), Saturday, June 17, 2000

http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/miller-mccarthyism.html
"Are you now or were you ever...? The McCarthy era's anti-communist trials destroyed lives and friendships. Arthur Miller describes the paranoia that swept America - and the moment his then wife Marilyn Monroe became a bargaining chip in his own prosecution."

 

The Arthur Miller Society Official Web Site
http://www.ibiblio.org/miller/
Includes a chronology of the playwright's life and works, current events and personal appearances, brief synopses of his major works, and annotated links to sites connected to Miller and his contemporaries.