Arthur Miller, born 1915, has been the dean of American playwrights since the opening of Death of a Salesman in 1949. His steady output as a writer and a playwright began with his first publications after college in 1939, when he worked in the New York Federal Theatre Project, a branch of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), Franklin D. Roosevelt’s huge Depression effort to put Americans back to work.
Miller, the son of a Jewish immigrant, was born and raised during this early years in Harlem section of Manhatten and later in Brooklyn after his father’s business failed. In high school, Miller thought of himself more as an athelet than a student, and he had trouble getting teachers’ recommendations for college. After considerable struggle and waiting, he entered the University of Michigan, where his talent as a playwright emerged under the tutelage of Kenneth Rowe, his playwriting professor. His undergraduate plays won important university awards and he became noticed by the Theatre Guild, a highly respected theater founded to present excellent plays (not necessarily commercial successes). His careeer was under way.
Miller wrote radio plays, screenplays, articles, stories, and a novel in the eight years it took him to write a successful Broadway play. His work covered a wide range of material, much of it growing out of his childhood memories of a tightly-knit and somewhat eccentric family that provided him with a large gallery of characters. But he also dealt with political issues and problems of anti-Semitism, which was widespread in the 1930s and 1940s. Miller’s political concerns have been a constant presence in his work since his earliest writings.
All My Sons (1947) was his first successful play. It ran on Broadway for 300 performances, a remarkable record for a serious drama. The story centers on a man who knowlingly produces defective parts for airplanes and then blames the subsequent crashes on his business partner, who is ruined and imprisoned. When the man’s son finds out the truth, he confronts his father and rebukes him. Ultimately, the man realizes not only that he has lost his son because of his deceit, but that the dead pilots were also "all my sons." The play won the New York Critics Circle Award.
We also know Miller’s work because of his other two famous plays: The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. It was clear to many people that The Crucible‘s subtext was about contemporary witch hunts orchestrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1909–1957) in the early 1950s. McCarthy conducted Senate hearings that were supposed to flush out suspected communists from government and other areas of American life, including the Arts. In the anti-communist hysteria that possessed the nation, many writers, artists, and performers came under close, often unfair, scrutiny for their political views and allegiances. Some were blacklisted–prevented from working in comercial theaters and movie companies–some were imprisoned for not testifying at others’ trials, adn some had reputations and careers destroyed.
Arthur Miller was fearless in facing down McCarthy’s committee. He was convicted of contempt of court for not testifying against his friends. For a time he too was blacklisted, but the conviction was soon reversed, for he was not imprisoned for his resistance to the committee. Given his personal political stance during this dangerous time, it is not a surprise to find that his themes usually center on matters of social concern.
No matter what the circumstances, when we look at a Miller play, it is as if we are looking in a mirror. What we have seen had always involved us, although it may not always make us pleased with ourselves.