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Arthur Miller

One of the greatest playwrights in America was born in New York City on October 17, 1915.  His father was the wealthy owner of a coat factory, and the family lived in a large Manhattan brownstone.  While their neighbors were barely making ends meet, the Millers enjoyed a chauffeur and a summer home at the beach.  But, when his father's business collapsed in 1928, Miller stood by helplessly as his parents sold their most valuable possessions, one by one, to pay the bills. 

Finally, with nothing left to sell, the family was forced to move in with relatives in Brooklyn.  Miller was made to share a bedroom with his grandfather.  He was thirteen years old. 

The young boy was devastated as he witnessed his father go from being so powerful to being so helpless.  He said, "It made you want to search for ultimate values, for things that would not fall apart under pressure." 

He paid his own way through college by working at a job in a research laboratory, where he fed hundreds of mice each night.  He had never been particularly interested in the theater, but he decided to enter a playwriting contest to make some extra spending money.  The first play he ever wrote won first place.  He won the same contest the following year and decided that he was born to write plays. 

After being graduated with a degree in English in 1938, Miller returned to New York where he joined the Federal Theatre Project.  There, he wrote scripts for radio programs, such as Columbia Workshop (CBS) and Cavalcade of America (NBC).  In 1940, Miller married a Catholic girl, Mary Slattery, with whom he had two children.  When the war broke out, he was exempt because of an old football injury.  His first play to appear on Broadway was The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), something Miller didn't have: it closed after four performances.  Crushed, he seriously considered giving up playwriting.

But he stuck with the theater, and three years later, it rewarded him with a production of All My Sons.  It's the story of a factory owner who sells faulty aircraft parts during World War II, resulting in the death of twenty-one soldiers.  The play ran on Broadway for 328 performances and was made into a movie the following year.  It went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle award. 

In 1944, Miller toured Army camps to collect background material for his screenplay, The Story of GI Joe (1945).  His first novel, Focus (1945), was about anti-Semitism.

Miller's plays often depict how families are destroyed by false values.  His earliest efforts especially show his admiration for the classical Greek dramatists.  "When I began to write," he said in an interview, "one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting."

Miller used the money he made from All My Sons to buy four hundred acres of farmland in Connecticut.  In 1948, he moved to Connecticut, where he lived alone.  He spent several months building a ten-by-twelve foot cabin by hand.  As he sawed the wood and pounded the nails, he thought about the main characters of his next play: a salesman, his wife, and his two sons.  He knew how the play would begin, but he wouldn't let himself start writing until he had finished the cabin.  When it was finally completed, he woke up and began to write.

He wrote all day long, stopped long enough to have dinner, and then wrote until he had finished the first act in the middle of the night.  When he finally got in bed to go to sleep, he found that his cheeks were wet with tears, and his throat was sore from speaking and shouting the lines of the very dialogue he had written.  The play was Death of a Salesman (1949).  It is about a man named Willy Lowman who loses his job and, in panic, realizes that he doesn't have much to show for his life's work.

Miller wrote, "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life.  He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine.  He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."  Salesman has since gone on to be the most widely produced play in the world, playing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Argentina.  It has been particularly popular in China and Japan.

But, for Miller, the wheel of fortune was slowly turning around.  In the 1950s, he was investigated by the committee of the United States Congress investigating Communist influence in the arts.  He was denied a passport to attend the Brussels premiere of his own play, The Crucible (1953).  It is based on court records and historical personages of the Salem witch trials of 1692.  In Salem, a person could be hanged because of ''the inflamed human imagination, the poetry of suggestion.'' 

In the play, the daughter of Salem's minister falls seriously and mysteriously ill.  Reverend Samuel Parris is a widower about whom little good can be said.  He believes he is persecuted wherever he goes.  Rumors of witchcraft spread throughout the village of Salem.  "The times, to their eyes, must have been out of joint, and to the common folk must have seemed as insoluble and complicated as do ours today."  The minister accuses Abigail Williams of wrongdoing, but she transforms the accusation into a plea for help: her soul has been taken over by witches.  Several young girls, led by Abigail, make accusations of witchcraft against townspeople whom they do not like.  Abigail accuses Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of an upstanding farmer, with whom she had once had an affair.  Elizabeth's husband, John Proctor, reveals his past lechery and begs for forgiveness.  Elizabeth, unaware, fails to confirm his testimony.  To protect him, she testifies falsely that her husband has not been intimate with Abigail Proctor and is herself accused of witchcraft and condemned to death.

The Crucible was a thinly veiled allegory for the McCarthy era and the mass hysteria that had affected the author personally.  It become one of Miller's most-produced plays and received the Antoinette Perry Award.  It was written in the atmosphere in which the author "accepted the notion that conscience was no longer a private matter but one of state administration."  In the play, he expresses his faith in the ability of an individual to resist conformist pressures. 

Miller saw two short plays produced under the collective title A View from the Bridge in 1955.  The drama was about incestuous love, jealousy ,and betrayal.

In 1956, Miller's fortunes turned suddenly around, and he became "the man who had all the luck."  He married glamour-girl actress Marilyn Monroe and turned his back on Broadway in order to write screenplays for Hollywood.  He wrote The Misfits with a role for his wife in mind.  The film was directed by John Huston and starred Mongomery Clift, Clark Gable, and Monroe.  It was a nightmare for Huston, who recalled Monroe being constantly late getting to the set.  She had begun using drugs heavily, and Miller's marriage was already floundering. 

In John Huston's touching memoir, An Open Book (1980), he wrote, "One evening I was about to drive away from the location - miles out in the desert - when I saw Arthur standing alone.  Marilyn and her friends hadn't offered him a ride back; they'd just left him.  If I hadn't happened to see him, he would have been stranded out there.  My sympathies were more and more with him."  Later Miller said that there "should have been more long shots [in the film] to remind us constantly how isolated there people were, physically and morally."

Miller returned to the stage in 1964 after nearly nine years away.  Since then, he has gone on to enjoy a long and prosperous career, publishing short fiction, essays, an autobiography, and many more plays.  His most recent theatrical venture, Resurrection Blues, premiered in 2002 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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