Arthur Miller died on Thursday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut at the age of 89. The author of Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View From a Bridge, Miller was, with Tennessee Williams, one of the pillars of post-War American drama and the playwright most closely identified with the struggles of the working man. If Williams was the lyrical voice of the middle 20th-century stage, Miller was its conscience. A generation of playwrights, from David Mamet to Tony Kushner, shares a debt to Miller for carving out a space for the tragedy of the unsung—and often morally complicated—hero, who grapples not with fate but with a system every bit as indifferent to his dignity and unspectacular dreams.
A strapping, plainspoken man, Miller never lost sight of his Brooklyn roots. Though born in Manhattan to an upper middle class family, he moved to Flatbush after his father fell upon hard times during the Great Depression. Keenly aware of the vicissitudes of fortune, Miller had a lifelong solidarity with individuals who refused to buckle under the weight of social and economic hardship: characters who suffered—and often provoked suffering—as a result. Miller’s art reflected his life, and vice-versa—nowhere more so than in The Crucible, his Tony-winning parable about the Communist witch hunts undertaken by Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee, which the playwright disguised as the witch trial of Salem, Massachusetts of 1692. Three years after The Crucible‘s Broadway run, Miller was convicted of contempt of congress for his refusal to identify artists believed to have had Communist associations.
Famous for his Broadway success in 1949 with Death of a Salesman (for which he won the Pulitzer and Tony for Best Play), he became known outside theatrical circles for marrying Marilyn Monroe in 1956, a short lived but profoundly affecting relationship that found its way into his writing (most notably in the screenplay for The Misfits and later the stage play After the Fall). Though his career as a playwright continued through the last year of his life (his more recent play, Finishing the Picture, was produced by the Goodman Theater in Chicago last fall), Miller earned his place in the American theatrical pantheon early on with Willy Loman, the salesman protagonist whose tragedy persuaded a generation of artists that attention to the common man must be paid.
“I have never been able to separate public and private,” Miller once aptly observed of himself. “The way you live your life has consequences for the way everyone else lives his life.”
Look for Michael Feingold’s appreciation of Miller on Saturday, February 12.