By Lisa Larson
Poignant. Thought-provoking. Timelessly relevant. Such superlatives could be used to describe many of playwright Arthur Miller’s theatrical contributions, as those privileged to see this summer’s Utah Shakespeare Festival production of The Price will surely surmise.
Emerging as a playwright from the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II, it’s little wonder Miller chose themes highlighting the plight of the white working class as the underlying message in so many of his works. In his own words Miller said, “I reflect what my heart tells me from the society around me,” according to the Arthur Miller Biography on the Chicago Public Library web site (https://www.chipublib.org/Arthur-miller-biography). Yet his observations and his eloquent commentary on society of the early to mid-1900s are still relevant today.
Born in New York City in 1915 to a Jewish immigrant father and a New York-native mother, Miller spent his early years witnessing the success of his father’s garment manufacturing business. Then, in 1928 the family moved to Brooklyn as his father’s business began to fail, a microcosm of the societal decay brought on by the Great Depression.
Witnessing this devastation seemed to fuel Miller’s disillusionment with the American dream. He worked to earn tuition to attend the University of Michigan, where in the 1930s he began writing his own plays. He even won the prestigious Hopwood Award from the university for two consecutive years: for No Villian (which was not produced again for eighty years) and for Honors at Dawn (which also saw little success).
His first plays after attending the university were also not successful. He, like many other playwrights, stumbled through some difficult times. His Broadway debut, The Man Who Had All the Luck lasted only four performances and was considered a flop. He followed up by publishing two books, Situation Normal in 1944 and Focus in 1945, and continued to write plays and radio plays. When Miller’s early plays were rejected by producers, Miller , now married to his college sweetheart Mary Slattery, went to work for Brooklyn Navy Yard and also wrote radio scripts to support his family.
Then, in 1947, his piece All My Sons became a Broadway hit and edged him toward star status. Close on the heels of All My Sons and its 328 performance run, Miller again captivated audiences with Death of a Salesman in 1949. Known for its controversial themes and what some called “anti-American” sentiments, 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.
The play opened the eyes of many across the world to the basics of capitalism and lead character Willy Loman’s desire to “drink from the Grail of the American Dream.” For Miller, according to his biography on IMDB.com (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0007186/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm), this dream is the desire to “excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved and above all, perhaps to count.”
The third of Miller’s major plays emerged in 1953 when Miller, overwhelmed by post-war paranoia and intolerance, penned The Crucible. Set in Salem during the witch-hunts of the late 1800s, The Crucible is ostensibly an indictment of McCarthyism of the early 1950s, according to PBS.org American Masters. The themes force audiences to contend with “extraordinary tragedy in ordinary lives.”
No effort to recount the life and influence of Arthur Miller would be complete without his experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
According to an article by Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker in March 2018, Miller was called to testify before Congress — and was ultimately found guilty of contempt for refusing to name the names of people he had seen at meetings of the Communist Party.
The trouble started when a friend and colleague of Miller’s by the name of Elia Kazan appeared before this congressional committee and named members of the Group Theatre, who had been members of the Communist Party, according to the PBS American Masters feature essay on Elia Kazan. Later, Kazan and Miller spoke about Kazan’s experience just before Miller left for Salem, Massachusetts to research the 1692 witch trials for The Crucible. In their conversations, Miller drew several parallels between the investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC and the Salem witch trials.
It wasn’t long after The Crucible opened that HUAC took an interest in Miller and he was called to testify. His conviction of contempt of Congress was later reversed in 1958 according to Encyclopedia of World Biography.
Despite the impact of his experience with HUAC, Miller’s theatrical success propelled his career forward, even as his personal life floundered. In 1956 he divorced his wife and married one of Hollywood’s brightest starlets: Marilyn Monroe.
He later reflected on the fact that this marriage was “doomed to fail” from the beginning because of Monroe’s “highly destructive” tendencies, according to Miller’s biography on IMDB.com and information from his 1989 autobiography, Timebends. Miller says he was in love and all his energy and attention was devoted to trying to help Monroe solve her problems.
Ultimately, he did not succeed. The marriage ended in 1961 while filming The Misfits, an original script he wrote specifically for Monroe, according to the IMDB.com biography.
Miller married again in 1962, this time to a photographer, Inge Morath. During their marriage they collaborated on several photojournalistic projects. At the same time, Miller’s interest and active role in various social and political issues continued. And so did his work as a playwright and ultimately to the silver screen when he collaborated on the 1996 film version of The Crucible.
It was during his time of political activation that he penned the 1968 production, The Price.
Playing in the 2019 season at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, The Price tells the story of Victor Franz who gave up going to college in order to support his father—one of many stories marking the casualties of the Great Depression. When Victor goes to clean out his parents’ Manhattan brownstone attic, he is faced with the aftermath of a decision he made years ago, as well as a rocky relationship with his estranged brother. In typical Miller style, The Price delves into the cost of one’s decisions and the impact of the circumstances of one’s birth, upbringing, relationships, and more.
Despite reaching what some might consider his career peak in the 1950s and ’60s, Arthur Miller is recognized by many to be one of the most important figures in twentieth century American theatre, according to the Arthur Miller Biography from the Chicago Public Library website.
His continued attention as a man unwilling to back away from controversial political and social issues earned him a name beyond the theatre. His achievements earned him many awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award in 1981, the John F. Kennedy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1984, the National Medal of Arts in 1993, the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, the Japan Art Association lifetime achievement award in 2001, and more.
Miller died in 2005, leaving behind a body of work which reflects key aspects of society during his life, with themes that continue to impact people today.