Arthur Miller’s legacy lives on through his impact on the University community. His life and work influenced many involved in theater at his alma mater.
“We mourn the death of Arthur Miller, one of the nation’s most celebrated playwrights and a loyal alumnus whose affection for the University endured for his lifetime,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said yesterday.
“Arthur Miller expressed his genius in an exquisite ability to communicate the beauty and the sadness of ordinary people and everyday life. We are proud that Michigan played a part in his life and grateful for the many ways this extraordinary man shared himself with us.”
Miller’s death was felt acutely by academics who studied and taught his work. Like many Americans today, English Prof. George Bornstein read Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in high school.
Bornstein said Miller’s plays continue to be taught at high schools nationwide because of his original style, which is realistic and accessible while dealing with weighty issues.
He offered as an example “The Crucible,” which he said illustrates the “dangers of overzealous ideologies” and the value of free speech.
Bornstein said the impact of the play — a parable set in 17th-century Salem, Mass. — is not confined to the virulent anti-Communist historical context in which it was written. Bornstein recounted a visit Miller made to China, where his audience was shocked to learn “The Crucible” was not about life under a Communist dictatorship.
“He transcended time,” he said. “He could create these … characters that people could identify with.”
The best known of these characters is Willy Loman, the down-on-his-luck salesman from Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
“Willy Loman is one of the great characters of American literature,” Bornstein said. “I think … ‘Death of a Salesman’ just spoke to our society and spoke to the loneliness you can have in life.”
Bornstein used to teach Miller’s most famous play, but in recent years he has taught “Incident in Vichy” — Miller’s only play that directly addresses Jewish concerns — as part of his course on Jewish-American literature.
Whereas many Jewish writers before Miller focused on the immigrant experience, Bornstein said, Miller wrote about American life at a time when Jews were beginning to assimilate into mainstream culture. As a result, Miller’s work is drastically different from that of other Jewish American writers.
“I was really surprised when I learned he was Jewish,” Bornstein said.
Miller’s avoidance of explicitly Jewish themes in his work was all the more surprising because “he’s such a socially involved playwright,” Bornstein said.
Though Miller’s work is largely secular, Bornstein said, “He’s probably the preeminent Jewish playwright of the 20th century.”
Many other faculty members expressed their sadness yesterday at Miller’s passing.
Theater Prof. OyamO, playwright in residence at the University, was shocked by the news of Miller’s death.
“I was listening to (National Public Radio) as usual, and someone broke into the show to say that Arthur Miller had died. It stopped me totally,” he said.
OyamO recalled his experience in a workshop led by Miller during his visit to the University last year.
“We were listening to the play, and when we were done I turned to him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed something from you,’ ” he said. OyamO was working on a play at the time about a man recalling his time in Africa and was inspired by Miller’s original title for “Death of a Salesman,” “The Inside of His Head.”
“He said, ‘I don’t mind, as long as you did a good job,’” OyamO recalled. “He was a great man and a great writer.”
Theater Prof. Philip Kerr noted that Miller’s impact lives on in the University’s Department of Theater and Drama.
“I think it’s a coincidence that the day he died, a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ opened at the (Lydia) Mendelssohn Theatre, and many members of that cast were in an Arthur Miller tribute a year ago and got to meet him. There’s a sense of (continuance) that I think Miller would have appreciated,” Kerr said.
Katherine Mendeloff, a lecturer of drama at the Residential College, echoed her colleagues’ praise of Miller, calling his work some of the “greatest dramatic writing that we have in this country.”
Mendeloff said she was saddened by Miller’s death because he had a profound impact on her career.
“He certainly has been an influence on me as a theater student and as a director … on my sense of what is important as an inner artist,” she said. Mendeloff uses Miller’s plays in several of her classes and said his work is beneficial for students because it helps them discover why theater is important.
One of those students, RC junior Ryan Bates, said Miller left behind a legacy of activist theater that has enabled the production of recent plays such as “The Laramie Project,” a play by Moises Kaufman that explores the motivations behind and implications of the murder of Matthew Shepherd, who was killed in 1998, allegedly because he was openly gay. The RC Players will be performing the play in late March.
“Having such powerful theater available, and to have it accepted as some of the best … made me look up to Arthur Miller,” Bates said.
He said Miller’s legacy impacts University student activism as well as theater.
“Everybody who has acted in the arts at the University of Michigan is aware of the legacies of Arthur Miller and wonders who will be the next Arthur Miller,” he said. “It reflects well on our tradition of being both socially conscious and artistically active.”
RC sophomore Lindsey Strauss also praised Miller’s social consciousness.
“He’s really important because he did take a stand against the government,” Strauss said, calling Miller an “inspiration for activist groups on campus.”
-Emily Kraack and Abby Stassen also contributed to this report.