Obituary: Arthur Miller

One of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, whose work explored the dilemmas of the American dream

Arthur Miller, one of America's greatest playwrights, who has died aged 89, was an active and prolific writer across seven decades. In Death Of A Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), he created two of the century's most durable dramatic myths, and, in Timebends (1987), one of its outstanding autobiographies. He walked his own life into the glare of living myth when, at the height of her fame in 1956, he married Marilyn Monroe.

Miller was born in Harlem, New York. Both Jewish grandfathers came from the same hamlet in Poland; his father Isidore - lzzie - had been dispatched alone from Radomizi to relatives in New York at the age of six and became a prince of the Manhattan rag trade. Ruined in the depression, he had had the good sense to marry the sassy and beautiful Augusta Barnett (Gussie), who was much smarter than him.

Arthur was closer to his mother, but tender to the memory of both parents, and their spirit, ambition and disappointments are present in most of the plays. He once said that everything he had written was based on somebody he had seen or known, and although Death Of A Salesman is not strictly autobiographical, it is hard to imagine without the lives of Izzie and Gussie Miller.

The Millers left Harlem for Brooklyn in the early 1920s. Arthur, their second son and middle child, was proceeding normally through an American suburban boyhood - baseball, skating, crooning, football - when Wall Street crashed. He was 14. This first great discord of the American century informs all his work. Like Dickens and Ibsen, he drew from his father's financial disaster the lifelong convictions that catastrophe could strike without warning and that the crust of civilised order was perilously thin. Miller would later pour scorn on the sentimental myth of the American depression as a golden age of good neighbourliness - "Everybody was your friend? Horseshit! Nobody was your friend!"

In 1934 he went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he became a student journalist, wrote his first play, No Villain, and three more with the kind of grand, resonant titles which reflect the gathering global melodrama of the time: They Too Arise, Honors At Dawn, and The Great Disobedience. He won a $1,250 prize from the Bureau of New Plays run by the New York producers, the Theater Guild. Tennessee Williams - four years his senior - won a New Plays Prize in the same year.

Miller's graduation in 1938 coincided with a rare moment of generous state funding for the arts in the US, and he joined the Federal Theater Project (FTP) at $22.77 per week. Set up in 1935 by Roosevelt's work-creation programme, the FTP's purpose was to provide jobs for the unemployed of the theatre industry. Congress killed it off in 1939, believing it to have become too left-wing; but in its short life the Federal Theater played to more than 12 million people in New York City alone, allowed Orson Welles and John Houseman to fly the pirate flag of disobedience with The Cradle Will Rock, produced The Swing Mikado, and bought a little time for the ambitious young Arthur Miller.

In 1940, Miller finished The Golden Years, a drama of confrontation between Cortez and Montezuma. The script, mislaid by Theater Guild, turned up many years later at the University of Texas and was premiered in Britain, on BBC's Radio Three in 1987. Today, it reads like a cross between a Hollywood costume epic and an opera libretto in translation; but the subject of genocide in 16th-century Mexico laid down a pattern in Miller's career, whereby he often chose to write about the horrors of the 20th century at one remove. The real stories behind The Golden Years were the bombing of Guernica and the appeasement of fascism.

A college football injury kept him from active service in the second world war. He worked on an army training film, wrote for the radio, drove a truck, published a novel about anti-semitism and became a fitter at Brooklyn navy yard. Miller was the kind of writer on whom no experience was wasted: just as the navy yard turned up years later in A View From The Bridge (1955), so a nightmare visit to see Václav Havel in 1969, in the wake of the Prague Spring, inspired one of Miller's most tensely wound later plays, The Archbishop's Ceiling (1977).

He made Broadway at last in 1944, with The Man Who Had All The Luck, a hubristically named fable which closed after four performances. The play is significant, however, because it is Miller's first attempt to mix the disciplines of suburban tragedy, folkish realism and ironic farce. It draws on a gorgeous inheritance of Brooklyn family and neighbourhood stories and flags up a theme which recurs throughout his work: personal honour.

By the end of the second world war, Arthur Miller had written many kinds of theatre out of his system, and could figure the mood of the time to some purpose. What would America's peace be like? His answer was a play that can still deliver an emotional knock-out, and became his first hit. Opening at the Coronet Theatre on January 29, 1947, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Ed Begley, Beth Merrill, Karl Malden and Arthur Kennedy, All My Sons ran for 328 performances - a good length for an unfamiliar playwright, and one he rarely surpassed.

This was a new Broadway, and All My Sons was a watershed show. Eighteen months after the euphoria of V-J Day, audiences were ready for what is a back-from-the-war play. A family tale of corrupt profiteering at home that led to the death of US pilots abroad, it exploded in the pause between victory and the attempted press-ganging of show business for Washington's cold war. From this point on, Miller's best scenes display a mastery of conversation, a gift for sketching vivid characters on the margins of a play, and a narrative talent for seizing the spectator's attention from the start.

The Broadway theatre of the 1940s and 1950s, in which Miller and Tennessee Williams made their name, was something of a public tribune, led by spectacular performers, directors, artists and writers: Kazan, Eugene O'Neill, William Inge, the designer Jo Mielziner, actors such as Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Lee J Cobb. The tribune was graced by the golden age of the American musical which ran alongside it, and attended by a highly responsive press. Subtitled Certain Private Conversations In Two Acts And A Requiem, Death Of A Salesman opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, and played for 742 performances: it was the biggest success of Miller's career and has recently enjoyed a revival on Broadway which is due to transfer to London in May.

Sales rep, husband and father, "way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine", Willy Loman is a slave to the US ideals of pitching, hard work and equal opportunity, driven by the disciplines of exemplary manliness in the home and the need to keep up appearances outside it. Like Williams's Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire - the two plays are contemporaneous - Willy freefalls through American society by following its false dreams. He destroys his sons with great expectations, and is working himself to death.

If you met Willy Loman going on about his boys in a hotel bar out on the road, you would make for the door within minutes. The strength of the play is that Miller makes this exasperating dumbness precisely the reason why the economic injustice against him is so great. After two decades of depression and two world wars, the nation was still not respecting his own. A man whose insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive, does what Hamlet only talks of doing, and walks into the air. It is a shameful, culpably American suicide, and the play asks two questions. What is "America"? And what should America be?

The questions are asked, too, in All My Sons (1947), The Crucible (1953) and A View From The Bridge (1955). Talking to Eric Hobsbawm later in life, Miller identified two paradoxes that make the US so volatile and contradictory. In the land where the individual is king, society rules supreme. In a nation of immigrants, the "alien" is necessary and forever being redefined - the subject of A View From The Bridge. "Once you've accepted the idea that orthodoxy is required", he said, "you have to go through the Inquisition".

By 1949, a new inquisition had indeed detected a new heresy - the enemy within - and sniffed a pandemic of Marxism on the wind. Joy in victory was rapidly tarnished by the paranoia of McCarthyism. The House Un-American Activities Committee was hijacked by the hard right, and one of its first tasks would be to disinfect the Augean stables of showbiz.

Miller's integrity was tested like steel. There was never a blacklist on Broadway like those in Hollywood and Washington, but many of his old friends and colleagues were pressed by HUAC to shop anyone who had once attended some pathetic, long-forgotten, left-wing meeting or conference, and who may or may not have belonged to the Communist party. Miller began to feel as if he was living in an occupied country.

Some of the most moving pages he ever wrote are in Timebends, and describe the anguish of Elia Kazan, whom he loved and admired like a brother, as the great director walked him through the chill, untapped woods of a Connecticut spring, trying to explain why he had decided to remain in work by throwing HUAC a few names.

Miller drove straight from the Kazans to Salem. He had noticed that ceremonies of observed ritual and public contrition were common to the HUAC hearings and to the Massachusetts witch-trials of the late 17th century: "What I sought was a metaphor, an image that would spring out of the heart, all-inclusive, full of light, a sonorous instrument whose reverberations would penetrate to the centre of this miasma."

The Crucible was that metaphor, and the penetrating strength of its light has not dimmed. New York was at first discomfited, even offended, by the historical analogy proposed, and the play - which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on January 22 1953, and ran for a modest 197 performances - enjoyed greater success in revival two years later. People then claimed that Miller had rewritten it, made it "warmer". His response was trenchant: he had not changed a comma, but Joe McCarthy was dead, and the high tide of fear had receded. Not completely, however, and in 1956 HUAC pulled Miller himself in. He refused to testify, was found guilty of contempt of Congress, and had his passport withdrawn. By this time, his life had moved on to the front page of the world, and remained there for the next six years.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, who married over the weekend of June 30 1956, were not indulging a whirlwind romance. They had had an affair in the early 1950s and corresponded regularly since; each seems to have become a kind of beacon to the other in a storm-darkened world. Arthur, Marilyn's fourth husband, made himself a hostage to fortune from the start when he told the press: "Marilyn will only make one film in every 18 months or so, which will take her about eight weeks". "And the other 18 months?" "She will be my wife. That's a full-time job". It looked as though it might be. Within a year she had risked her own - always precarious - Hollywood career by going with Miller to Washington to speak in his favour at the contempt hearings; her intervention helped to keep him out of prison.

Each married an idea of the other that could not be sustained. She called him "Papa", not entirely in jest. He saw her as a revolutionary idealist. They were both right, and both wrong. Lurching between romance and misery, the marriage suffered two miscarriages and lasted just five years. In Britain, it occasioned early tabloid frenzy, with a crude script which never changed: Pompous Yankee Egghead Marries Dumb Beauty. The script was male-defined, and its subtext malign envy and lecherous resentment. Miller could not win. He looked back on the filming of The Misfits, which he wrote, in 1961 - with Monroe, John Huston, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift - as the lowest point of his life. "Neither of us reproaches the other," he told Huston when it was all over, "and there's no one else to blame."

For more than a quarter of a century it was understood by interviewers of Arthur Miller that Marilyn was off-limits, but after the writing and publication of Timebends the problem went away, except that he then said he had written everything he wanted to say: "It was impossible to guess what she wanted for herself when she herself had no idea beyond the peaceful completion of each day. When she appeared the future vanished; she seemed without expectations, and this was like freedom. At the same time, the mystery put its own burden on us, the burden of the unknown."

After her death in 1962, he wrote his first play for seven years, and placed it entirely inside the autobiographical protagonist's head: After The Fall, the most interior play by an American master since O'Neill's Strange Interlude in 1928, opened to a storm of publicity and outrage on January 23 1964 at the Anta Theatre on Washington Square. The outrage was that Miller had dared to "put Marilyn on stage" so soon, although audiences today are more likely to feel that, in taking stock of his life so far, he deals far less gently with his first wife Mary Slattery, whom he married in 1940, and with himself. But critics who complained that he had failed to do justice to the "great magic subject" of Marilyn Monroe would have to wait for Timebends. He returned to the subject of Monroe again, many years later, in his play Finishing The Picture (2004).

The 1960s began Miller's wilderness years ("I didn't speak with a contemporary accent"), but a watchdog in the wilderness still has work to do, and Miller's was well mapped. He married Inge Morath, the Magnum photographer, in 1962; the marriage lasted until her death (obituary, February 6 2002).

Through the fame of his second marriage and divorce, and the universal nature of his two most performed plays, he became iconic at 50. His views and his signature were sought on everything. He was the first American President of International PEN (1965-69) and the world's most famous playwright since Shaw.

He continued to write, like Ibsen, with a civic insistence on the causality of human behaviour. Survival depended on men and women taking responsibility for what they do and, more contentiously, for what they know other men and women to be doing. "It's me", he said at the height of the Vietnam war, "I'm responsible. I'm paying the taxes that pay for the rope that ties the guy's hands, and my bucks are paying for the gas that drives the truck." He led an American group to Paris in 1968 with a proposal to stop the war, but on stage he refined his anger into the blistering family comedy of The Price (1968), and never set a play in Vietnam.

He described himself as someone who wrote about what was "in the air", but he often did this obliquely. His best writing about the Holocaust is contained in the guilty introspection of After The Fall, not in the oddly prurient television play about the Auschwitz womens' orchestra, Playing For Time (1981). When, in Broken Glass (1994), he appeared to be writing openly about Kristallnacht and our universal responsibility for the genocide of the late 1930s and 1940s, the real subjects were more personal and urgent: the spiritual void of the early 1990s, his own Jewishness, and the obscene reappearance of genocide, half a century after the Holocaust, in Yugoslavia.

In a tribute on Miller's 80th birthday, the writer Carlos Fuentes said that bigotry would be the sin of the 21st century, and was staring at us out of A View From The Bridge.

The theatre remained his first and last love - neither fiction nor the cinema ever tempted him for long - and an Indian summer of witty, troubled, ironic and often undervalued pieces for the stage graced his last three decades. He believed that theatre would survive, because it was "the art of the present tense", and audiences would still want to give. But it would, he thought, be simpler. Of the far from simple, and very diverse, later plays perhaps only The Price will join the quartet of the 1940s and 1950s in the standard rep. This is partly because in Solomon, the junk dealer who attacks English grammar with a Yiddish pickaxe, Miller invented a show stealer on the scale of the sozzled photographer in Priestley's When We Are Married. But four one-acters, paired as Two-Way Mirror (1985) and Danger: Memory! (1986) are masterly magazine stories for the stage; and The American Clock (1980), a depression vaudeville where Izzie and Gussie Miller finally take centre stage, has enormous charm, power to move, and some of the funniest scenes Miller wrote.

The true masterpiece of these later decades, however, is Timebends, a profoundly sharp and honest memoir that plays fast and loose with conventional chronology, but holds its narrative firm by the seductively conversational tone in which it is, almost like music, often composed. By its very success, it denies Miller's distinction between dialogue and prose. "One could walk around a play," he writes. "It excited an architectural pleasure that mere prose did not." Yet Timebends exemplifies the kind of prose that may be walked around, and there is nothing mere about it.

Miller became mantrically obsessed with Broadway's decline, and never shed his generation's sense of a Broadway hit as the true benchmark of success. In 1984, Salesman returned to Broadway with Dustin Hoffman. The old tribune was delighted, but wise: "Fashion and rejection are experiences felt by all. Know that, or go mad."

Then in 1998 came his play Mr Peters' Connections, premiered at the tiny Signature Theater on the W 42nd Street fringe. Both playwright, and theatre, still carried sufficient clout to attract a star player such as Peter Falk. For their season in 2000, Chicago Lyric Opera commissioned an opera of A View From The Bridge from William Bolcombe, and Miller's interest was keen. Although he wrote of it rarely, he loved music.

Throughout his long career, there was no shortage of distinguished dissenting Americans against Miller, firing from left and right: Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, the academic theatre critics Robert Brustein and Eric Bentley, the film critic Pauline Kael. He was too intellectual for Broadway, and too "Broadway" for the intellectuals. "This theatre is corn," snapped McCarthy in 1958, by which she probably meant he attempted to decode plain lives and asked the kind of embarrassing 19th century-type questions modern highbrow writers were not supposed to ask. Such as: How can we be useful? and, why do we live? Vidal begged him to stop telling people what they already knew, missing the point (for once) that the best bloodyminded writers have done that since the beginning of time.

For a decade, from the mid-1980s, his work was more highly valued in Britain, where a succession of younger theatre directors Paul Unwin at Bristol Old Vic, David Thacker at the Young Vic, Richard Eyre at the National - offered time, intelligence and tender loving care. Audiences seized on Miller as the revitalising sage the British theatre did not have; Christopher Bigsby set up the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia. In 1995 he celebrated his 80th birthday in Norwich; over the following week he was toasted at the Ivy, received a packed evening at the National and an honorary degree from Oxford, where he was visiting professor of drama. In New York, PEN gave a do at the town hall.

Journalists, no less than theatre people, loved listening and talking to him. Variously compared to a watchful heron, an obelisk in motion, an amiable crocodile and Mount Rushmore (all of it), Arthur Miller cut a considerable figure well into his ninth decade. Low-voiced, curling and folding himself into sofas and chairs, he was a generous and masterly interviewee; no two Miller interviews were ever the same.

He wrote his plays in his country home, with its 380 acres, in Connecticut, where he died. Well into old age he got up at 6.30am, swam every morning, and went straight to his studio a hundred yards from the house. All his life he loved making things, and in Connecticut he built chairs, cabinets, a dinner table, a bed - many of them, he noted, with a rueful grin and one eye on the Puritan farmers of Salem, vaguely churchy. As farming in the east continued to decline during the 1980s and 1990s, he delighted in the return of wild turkeys and coyotes to the same New World wilderness the settlers had anathematised as the devil's lair. Paradise, lost to bigotry and paranoia 300 years before, was being a little regained.

He is survived by a son and daughter from his first marriage; and a daughter from his marriage to Inge Morath.

· Arthur Miller, playwright, born October 17 1915; died February 10 2005


Michael Ratcliffe

The GuardianTramp

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