Obituary: A Miller's Tale

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(294)

Arthur Miller lit up the darkest days of the 20th century.

When I heard that Arthur Miller had died I felt a pang which I normally only feel for people I knew personally. I have known of his work since I was a teenager. My school play in 1967 was Death of a Salesman, generally recognised as Miller's masterpiece. And we knew that Miller's other most famous play, The Crucible, used its subject of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in the 1690s to attack that modern US witchhunt, the McCarthy hearings.

Miller was born in 1915, the son of fairly wealthy Jewish parents, and lived a comfortable life on New York's upper east side. His life changed dramatically in 1929 when his father lost his money in the Wall Street Crash and the Millers moved to Brooklyn in straitened circumstances. This change in his life - and the much greater change to American society that came about with the Great Depression - had a profound influence on Miller's life and thinking. Just as Charles Dickens was coloured by the experiences of his father's ruin and the debtors' prison, so Miller returned to the insecurity of capitalism and the failure of the American Dream time and again.

He was a playwright who dealt with the detail of life - community, work, and especially the family - but showed how it was affected by the much bigger forces at work in society. In All My Sons, written just after the Second World War, he dealt with death in wartime and the corruption of the arms dealers dangerously cutting corners to make a quick profit. The Crucible placed love and adultery against the whole of society becoming obsessed with a witchhunt. A View from the Bridge was a story of incest among the Italian American longshoremen of New York.

It was Death of a Salesman, however, that encapsulated the contrast between the aspirations of those who subscribe to the American Dream, and the crushing reality of life. The character of Willy Loman, the salesman who believes that everything is possible in this land of opportunity, eventually commits suicide as his failings become more and more apparent to himself and to those around him. His alienation is summed up in the words, 'I still feel kind of temporary about myself.' Miller writes of how loyalty to the firm, the system, the country, is not necessarily rewarded but leads to a greater sense of emptiness.

Miller's ideas were formed by the Depression and the world war that followed it. He was on the left, feared the rise of fascism in Spain, Italy and Germany, and was horrified by the effects of war. He wrote of post-war Paris, which he visited in the late 1940s, where he saw people short of food, living amid ruined buildings, where fresh flowers were still laid on the plaques commemorating fallen resistance fighters, and he wondered whether he would have had the courage to resist.

His courage in opposing McCarthyism was real, however. Miller had been to Communist meetings in the 1930s, as had many other artists and writers. By the early 1950s there was incredible pressure to name those who had been or were Communists. He not only resisted that pressure but came out publicly against the climate of fear which now existed in the US, where every dissenting voice was now labelled un-American. Miller had been working with the left wing film director Elia Kazan on a film about the longshoremen in New York. He had extensively researched the subject and looked at the links between the men's union and the mob. Hollywood put pressure on Kazan, wanting to change the script so that the mob were replaced by Communists. Miller refused, saying that there were few if any Communists connected with the union in New York, and withdrew his script.

Kazan now buckled completely, going before the House Un-American Activities Committee to name those Communists he had known up to 15 years before and went on to make his film On the Waterfront, widely regarded as a capitulation to the witchhunt.

No one could miss the point of The Crucible - the Salem witchhunt of the late 17th century created an atmosphere of hysteria which led to the death and imprisonment of many innocent people. The same thing was happening on a much larger scale in 1950s America. The play was not a runaway success. Many of Miller's acquaintances snubbed him and mass audiences stayed away, but it was a powerful statement. One night the audience stood in a minute's silence at the moment Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were being executed allegedly for spying as Cold War hysteria grew.

Miller was famously married to Marilyn Monroe. They were described as 'the owl and the pussycat' in the press. Monroe had strong ideas about acting and politics which were never taken seriously but Miller did take her seriously. He saw her as a woman damaged by abandonment and an unhappy childhood but with great qualities. In a way her personal life mirrored the failings of the American Dream which were such a theme of his writing: beneath the glamour and success of her life lay insecurity and fragility.

Arthur Miller kept writing all his life. He campaigned against the Vietnam War in 1968 and later took up human rights causes, especially about censorship worldwide. He was not an innovator theatrically in the way that Ibsen or Brecht was but his plays remain a very powerful record of 20th century life. He above all provided a voice for a dissenting, radical America in some of its darkest days. Although he has died, that voice will endure and inspire future generations.