Arthur Miller, the acclaimed American playwright, passed away yesterday at the age of 89. One of the University’s most distinguished alumni, he stood out not only for his influential and symbolic playwriting but also for his consistent social activism. Though published decades ago, his plays still stand as pillars in theater, offering social and political commentaries that are just as relevant today as they were when they were written. He has left behind a timeless legacy, channeling his uncompromising ideals through his art and his activism. Although the University has lost a cherished member of its extended community, Miller will remain an example of and a testament to the power that a single idea or person can have in society.
As an English major at the University, Miller worked his way through school during the Great Depression, writing for The Michigan Daily and forming ideas that would be pivotal in his future works. Writings from his time at the Daily bear witness to his strong social conscience; Miller was a committed anti-fascist who was deeply sympathetic to striking autoworkers fighting to gain recognition for their union.
His first major breakthrough was with “Death of a Salesman,” a strong social commentary depicting what Miller perceived as the saddened state of the middle class in the mid-20th century. The lead character, Willy Loman, a salesman who questions the worth and significance of his own life, has served as a symbol for the failed American dream.
Miller generated further attention with the publication and production of his most political play, “The Crucible,” which compared the panic of the Salem Witch Trials to the blacklists and inquisitions of the McCarthy era. When Miller was himself subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he heroically refused to denounce his friends as communist. For his brave stand, Miller earned himself not only a permanent place on anti-communist blacklists, but also iconic status among those outraged over the McCarthy hearings.
Miller’s activism was not confined to the politics of the Cold War, however. Throughout his life, he upheld a determined commitment to his beliefs on multiple fronts. Through both literary and physical protest, Miller drew publicity to the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and more recently, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On one occasion, Miller even returned to Ann Arbor to speak at a student and teacher-led sit-in protesting the Vietnam War.
Miller’s strong, often controversial social and political positions attracted great deals of publicity — both positive and negative — during his lifetime. Although history seems to have revealed the moral righteousness of many of his known causes, they were not always well received. In “The Crucible,” Miller took a great risk by standing strongly against the intrusive and humiliating witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. As a result, he — along with many others in Hollywood — spent decades with a blemished name. However, even while many of his works were refused production, his personal beliefs were never compromised.
Arthur Miller will remain a legend through the works he left behind — literary masterpieces that have simultaneously captivated audiences while advancing political and social ideals. Even today, decades after they were originally written, his words impart valuable lessons. There are striking parallels between the political paranoia and persecution he decried during the Cold War and the political environment in today’s world. Despite his passing, his teachings — in actions and in words — carry on with us. Both in his life and his plays, Miller had a unique gift that enabled him to expose the trials and pain of the human experience. The American theatre and American nation shall remain in debt to Miller for the enduring works he has left behind.
The University has recognized his monumental achievements by deciding to build a new theatre in his name. Located on North Campus, this theater will be a fitting tribute to one of the University’s most influential and admirable alums. However, his legacy extends well beyond the doors of the theater program.
The way in which Miller lived his life can remain an example to all University students who are struggling to figure out how they can best channel their own passions in order to create lasting change. Unyielding in his pursuit for social and political justice, he was able to harness his talent as a writer to stand up for what he believed in. Miller’s memory will be best honored not simply by the naming of buildings, but by recognizing the impact that one individual can have when he is persistent in his beliefs. The theatrical community, the University family and all those with the will to stand strong amid adversity will greatly miss Arthur Miller.