Miller, who gained national renown for his twin plays criticizing McCarthy-era America, “The Crucible” and “Death of a Salesman,” died Thursday. These works exposed the tenuous bonds between government and private life. His career spanned six decades, and he reached an unparalleled level of fame among American playwrights.
His role in the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings brought a new face to Cold War paranoia. Additionally, Miller became entrenched in the public consciousness through his much-publicized and tumultuous marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
Miller lived a relatively secure childhood in Harlem, N.Y. However, the Great Depression crippled his father’s coat business and forced the family to move from Harlem to Brooklyn in 1929.
After dropping out of City College of New York in 1932, Miller attended the University and began his writing career. He found success early in Ann Arbor, winning two Hopwood awards for drama in 1936. He developed an affinity for the works of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen early in his writing career. Ibsen’s shift in focus from the traditional aristocratic dramatic settings toward domestic, intimate locations reverberated through Miller’s own work: One of his most successful plays, “An Enemy of the People,” is a direct adaptation of Ibsen’s well-regarded drama.
After Miller graduated from the University, he struggled to create a successful career in writing. His early plays failed to elicit public or critical interest, with only “The Man Who Had All the Luck” seeing production. Though the work made it to Broadway, it closed after only three days and four performances. During this uneasy period in the 1940s, Miller wrote a controversial novel, “Focus,” which deals with the era’s anti-Semitism. With no immediate success in sight, he worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to support his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery, whom he married in 1940.
Miller remembered the early period of his career as a time of desperation. “I laid myself a wager, I would hold back this play until I was as sure as I could be that every page was integral to the whole and would work,” he wrote in his autobiography “Timebends.”
The end result, “All My Sons,” established Miller as one of America’s most promising young playwrights and gave Miller’s career a solid foundation. The play, a moralist drama that focuses on two World War II families embroiled in war racketeering, was selected as one of the ten best plays of 1947, earned two Tony Awards and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award — defeating Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”
Along with these accolades, “All My Sons” established the dramatic hallmarks that would go on to become Miller’s signatures: the blurred lines between familial and professional obligations, government paranoia and personal guilt. The play also marked the first of three collaborations between Miller and director Elia Kazan.
In the wake of his first true professional success, Miller turned to themes of his youth for what would become his most important and enduring contribution to American theater. “Death of a Salesman” opened in 1949 to universal acclaim. The tragic tale of Willy Lohman’s fall from grace echoed not only Depression-era fears, but also Miller’s own experience with his father’s business defeats.
Winning the triple crown of American theatrical awards — the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony and Drama Critics’ Circle — the play is regarded as Miller’s creative zenith. Hailed in some circles as the definitive American play, it has been translated into almost 30 languages and has enjoyed countless revivals.
Miller gradually became more political as he grew closer stylistically to his forerunner Ibsen. 1950’s Ibsen adaptation, “An Enemy of the People,” immersed Miller in the Communism debates of the era. Thematically, the work foreshadowed his overtly political and socially subversive “The Crucible.”
As Red Scare paranoia reached its peak, Miller’s relationship with Kazan deteriorated. Kazan named names in the HUAC hearings, creating a rift that divided the creative partnership.
In 1953’s “The Crucible,” Miller used the 17th century Salem Witch Trials as an allegory to expose the hypocrisy and mindless hysteria of McCarthyism. The work’s premiere could not have been timelier; initial performances of the show coincided with the execution of the Rosenbergs — a husband and wife convicted of treason on the grounds that they were Soviet spies.
In the years surrounding the creation of “The Crucible,” Miller’s personal life began to surpass his career in notoriety. He began a romantic relationship with Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe, former wife of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, after Kazan introduced the two. The couple forged a strong and immediate bond.
After his courtship of Monroe thrust him into the spotlight of American celebrity, Miller was called to appear before the House on Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. In a display of emotional fortitude and courage, Miller refused to reveal the names of Communist sympathizers during questioning and was subsequently found in contempt of Congress.
Miller and Monroe were married in 1956 in the midst of his testimony in Congress. The marriage took place less than a month after Miller divorced his first wife. Their years together were marked by Miller’s singular obsession with “The Misfits,” a film script he wrote and dedicated to Monroe; the production was to be her last film. Their marriage dissolved in 1961 as Monroe’s spiral into drug abuse and mental illness became too much for Miller to endure.
Miller remarried in 1962. Six months later, Monroe committed suicide at her Los Angeles home. The premier of Miller’s most personal play quickly followed her death in 1964.
“After the Fall” is a clear retelling of their marriage. The play’s protagonist is an intellectual lawyer caught in the McCarthy trials and forced to grapple with his wife’s escalating insanity and drug addiction. Maggie, the platinum blonde, drug-addled wife, bore an uncanny relation to Monroe, and audiences and critics alike noted the similarities. “After the Fall” also reunited Miller with Kazan. The two put on the work as the premiere performance at Lincoln Center in New York.
In 1965, Miller became president of the PEN International, an association of literary figures, which he held until 1969. His activism led him to take part in the 1968 Democratic National Convention, as a representative from Roxbury, Conn.
Though his later works failed to capture the same critical or audience acclaim of his previous plays, he remained prodigious in his output. His plays were frequently translated to film and television, with varying success. Miller’s final play, “Finishing the Picture,” played this fall in Chicago.
Throughout his life, writing remained an integral component. In his 1965 Hopwood address, Miller said, “The only recognition an author ought to have is that he has the power to vanquish life’s brutal fist and see what lies beyond.”