Arthur Miller is this canonical, pantheon-level American playwright. How do we know he is such a pantheon playwright? Well, he has been on the cover of a lot of magazines—American Theatre Magazine, The Atlantic, even Humanities, the official magazine for the National Endowment of the Humanities. He has won a lot of awards: a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Molière Award, which is what the French give if you are really good at writing plays. If you wanted to mail a letter to a great American playwright, you might put an Arthur Miller stamp on that letter. You know that you are somebody when you have your face on a stamp.
Arthur Miller has reached a cultural status that only a few playwrights might ever reach—Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, maybe, although that is mostly on the basis of Our Town. But Arthur Miller is at the top of what we think a great American playwright should be. I want to investigate why.
Maybe it is because of his plays. They are great works of drama—All My Sons, Death of a Salesman. The Crucible, of course, is one of the most performed plays all over the world and one of the most performed plays in history. It is up there with Shakespeare in terms of the number of performances in the twentieth century. The Tony Award-winning, very renowned A View From the Bridge was recently on Broadway. Then maybe you have heard of After the Fall, which is his play about his divorce from Marilyn Monroe. The American Clock, a vaudeville. Broken Glass. Incident at Vichy, his play about the Holocaust, ringing any bells? No? The Man Who Had All the Luck, his first Broadway play, which closed after four performances. What else do we have . . . The Price, The Archbishop's Ceiling, The Conversation, An Enemy of the People. Resurrection Blues, No Villain, The Ride Down Mount Morgan. Ringing any bells?
Arthur Miller wrote thirty-six plays over the course of his life. We remember four of them, and they are all from a seven- to ten-year period in the late forties and early fifties. Almost everything else on this list very rarely gets performed or read or mentioned. If this is a batting average, he is four for thirty-six, which is not a great batting average. How do you get from this tiny little batting average of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View From the Bridge to being this pantheon-level playwright?
The argument I want to make is that these four particular plays are doing something very specific at a crucial moment in American culture and in American theatre history. They take on an outsized importance that has accrued to Arthur Miller the man, Arthur Miller the playwright, Arthur Miller the face on a stamp. He happened to hit his stride at a moment when he was doing something that was interesting and important in American culture, and that culminates in The Crucible. (A View From the Bridge comes after and was originally a flop; Miller significantly revised it and turned it into a decent play.) But then he has a long fallow period when he is married to Marilyn Monroe and that seems to take up all his time. He does not write another major play until he is divorced from her, and then he starts writing plays again, but he never really gets back into his stride, so to speak.
To think about this period in Arthur Miller's life, we need to go backwards in time to 1916, the year after Arthur Miller was born. I think the story of where he comes from starts in 1916 with a group called The Provincetown Players, a theatre company in Provincetown, Massachusetts. John Reed was one of the founding members, along with Eugene O'Neill and Louise Bryant. [You may know these names from] the movie Reds, and the title of that movie is important for one of the points I want to make about where Arthur Miller comes from. If you were to call someone "red" in political terms in 1916, it meant he was a communist. John Reed was actually one of the founders of the American Communist Party. Starting with the Provincetown Players in 1916 and the involvement of figures like John Reed, American art in general, but American theatre in particular, started to become highly politicized in a very particular far left-leaning direction. It is not a coincidence. John Reed was not a far-left political figure who just happened to like theatre. The theatre became a beacon for left-leaning artists and intellectuals at that time.
In 1922, the Provincetown Players moved from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Greenwich Village, New York, and opened the Provincetown Playhouse. This is a significant moment in American theatre history. Arthur Miller is seven years old in 1922, not yet writing plays of course, but this is forming the groundwork for where he is going to come into American theatre. The Provincetown Players changed the theatre scene in New York by producing plays about the lives of everyday, working-class Americans—factory workers, ship workers. A lot of the Provincetown Players' pieces are not especially political in terms of advocating for specific political action, but they are trying to use drama as a way to bring into the cultural conversation stories of working-class people who are often left out of more traditional high melodrama. This is laying a groundwork.
Fast-forward to 1931 and you get the next iteration of politically-minded theatre groups: a very famous company in American theatre history called simply the Group Theatre. The list of people who helped found the Group Theatre is sort of a who's who of American actors and American acting instructors—Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Stanford Meisner. Tennessee Williams was very briefly a part of the Group Theatre. It was a clearinghouse for people who would become major figures in American theatre. It was founded with the mission of carrying on the vision of the Provincetown Players. The Provincetown Players by this point in time had dissipated. A lot of them, like Eugene O'Neill, had been picked up by Broadway and gone on to bigger careers. The Group Theatre fills in as a small group doing active, politically-minded theatre work, but their politics are even more on their sleeve than the Provincetown Players. One of the Groupe Theatre's major productions was Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets in 1935. This was one of the first prominent American family dramas by Clifford Odets, who was a son of Jewish immigrants and grew up in New York. It was about his family and their economic and political struggles. This forms a template for a play like Miller's Death of a Salesman. The idea of making a semi-autobiographical family story the centerpiece of a play becomes a significant tradition in American drama, and it starts with this play from the Group Theatre.
They get even more political than that. Waiting for Lefty is a play, also by Clifford Odets, about taxi workers organizing a labor union to negotiate better wages. It ends in this famously rousing moment where the taxi workers have taken a vote and decided to strike so that they can form their union, and it ends with a rousing chant of "Strike! Strike!" Then the audience is supposed to stand up and everyone is going to yell "Strike!" and then . . . go home. I do not really know what is supposed to happen after that. It is still just a play. But it becomes a famous moment in American theatre where theatre is used for a much more directly political purpose, even more than the Provincetown Players did. Harold Clurman, who was one of the founders of the Group Theatre and would go on to become a famous theatre critic, spoke of this moment, saying, "Our youth had found its voice. It was a call to join the good fight for a greater measure of life in a world free of economic fear, falsehood, and craven servitude to stupidity and greed."
But this great rousing moment of political action did not exactly go anywhere. Clifford Odets, now considered a major American playwright, could not make ends meet with these political plays he was writing, and he ended up moving to Hollywood and writing a bunch of very sappy, awful boxing movies.
We get one more iteration [of politically-minded theatre] before we get to Arthur Miller, who is in college when the Federal Theatre Project starts in 1935. During the Great Depression, the Work Projects Administration funded all sorts of public service projects, one of which was the Federal Theatre Project. Theatre practitioners were out of work, just like many other people in the Great Depression, so the government funded theatre productions via the Federal Theatre Project to put theatre artists back to work. Costume designers, set designers, and actors could go back to work with these publicly funded presentations.
Unlike most other public works projects at the time, the Federal Theatre Project quickly and somewhat self-destructively becomes very political in a far left direction. They start producing musicals about labor unions and about strikes and about organizing. One of them is a play called The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles, which was so political in its intent that Congress shut it down before it could open. Federal troops closed down the theatre. Orson Welles, being the madman that he was, took the actors to a venue down the street and said, "We're going to do the show here!"
The Cradle Will Rock was essentially a piece of left-wing musical theatre by a man named Mark Blitzstein. This is the big rousing chorus told to the evil capitalist antagonist:
That's thunder, that's lighting,
And it's going to surround you.
No wonder those stormbirds
Seem to circle around you.
Well, you can't climb down, and you can't sit still . . .
That's a storm that's going to last until
The final wind blows . . . and when the wind blows . . .
The cradle will rock!
There is an idea of a socialist uprising that is coming to pass and the workers will rise up. Clearly, the people funding this said this is not an appropriate use of our funding.
But the Federal Theatre Project persisted. In 1938, you get Living Newspapers, where writers would take issues from the day and write a play around it in real time, a sort of forerunner to something like The Daily Show. They would take the news of the moment and then create a theatre piece around it that would be put on very quickly. One-Third of a Nation was a Living Newspaper on the very exciting subject of government housing—a theatrical topic if ever there was one. The big moment comes at the end as the lights are coming down. One character says to a slum landlord, "Wait a minute! Hold it! Don't blackout on that yet! Bring those lights up—full! That's better. This scene isn't over yet. Now, Mister Landlord, we know that the conditions you showed us exist. They are a little exaggerated perhaps, but they exist. We can't just let it go at that. We can't let people walk out of this theatre knowing the disease is there but believing there is no cure. There is a cure—government housing!" Again, it is a very polemical political drama.
Why am I going on about these obscure plays that are highly political and questionable both in their artistic merits and as a public service? Arthur Miller's first job out of college was writing for the Federal Theatre Project in 1938. This is his entré into the theatre world, writing things like these Living Newspapers. He is coming of age as an artist around all of these other artists who are taking on these heavily political topics, trying to carry on the legacy of artists viewing their role as being primarily political.
But Arthur Miller makes a change in this formula around the time when he starts writing his plays that we actually remember today, and that change becomes important for his legacy and for the direction of American drama. A quote that encapsulates this change is from an article he wrote in 1945, when he had been a working playwright for a number of years at this point but had not had any big successes. He says, "The authentic theatre will rise again when a playwright comes along who will face the dirtiest corners of the Earth and will set about cleansing with real characters." He is interested in dealing with political issues, but he is not interested in doing polemical, "You're the bad guy, Mr. Landlord, this is what we have to do" plays. He is interested in exploring character in those situations. The agitprop plays that he grew up around really were not great as character studies at all. That is not what they existed for. They do not have great parts for actors. They are not really soulful in that way. Arthur Miller wants to take the same energy, but he wants to use it as a vehicle for character exploration.
This is basically a manifesto for his first major play, All My Sons. If you do not know the play, it is about a capitalist, someone who would have been "The Capitalist" in one of these agitprop plays, but, in Arthur Miller's play, he has a name. His name is Joe Klein. He has a family. He is the protagonist of the play, not the cartoon villain of that play. In the play, he was a contract manufacturer for the U.S. government during World War II, and he knowingly sold them defective parts, and a bunch of airplanes crashed because of this. His partner had gone to jail, but he had pled ignorance and gotten off the hook. He became very successful and rich off of these contracts, even though he had actually betrayed his government and betrayed the people fighting for his nation. He is exactly the kind of character you would find in a Federal Theatre Project play or in one of the more polemical of the Group Theatre plays. He would be the bad guy, the evil factory owner who has no morals and no scruples. Arthur Miller turns him into a person. The play is about him and his guilty conscience, it is about his sons figuring out that this man they worship has done this terrible thing, and it is about that process of betrayal. It is not about black and white characters, and it is not about proposing any particular political solution. For Miller, what would have been a purely political problem in some of these earlier theatre groups becomes a human problem. It becomes a problem of character and a problem of morals. He asks us to identify with these troubled characters.
This is also very much the story of Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman has not done anything so unscrupulous as Joe Klein in All My Sons, but he has done something that does disrupt his family—he has had an affair while he is on the road. His son has learned of this, and his son never really lives up to what Willy believes is his potential, in part as an act of rebellion against his father. Willy feels like he has failed his life, he has failed his career, he has failed at raising his sons. Again, he could easily be a cartoon bad guy in one of these other earlier plays, but Death of a Salesman becomes about him and about his own sense of failure and the failures that we feel in our own lives for our own shortcomings.
The kicker of this play is really different from something like The Cradle Will Rock or One-Third of a Nation. Here is the big speech that Willy's wife gives towards the end of the play after he has committed suicide. His wife says, "Willy Loman never made a lot of money, his name was never in the paper. He is not the finest character that ever lived, but he is a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He is not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention! Attention must finally be paid to such a person."
Let us do a little linguistic analysis here. Why would we mark this with red pen if we were reading this in a student essay? What is the stylistic sin being committed? This is passive voice! Where is the subject? The subject is floating somewhere not in the sentence. "Attention must be paid." By whom? "He is not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog." He is the object of the sentence. Who is the subject of the sentence? You. The government must pay attention to such a person. Capitalists must pay attention to such a person. His family must pay attention to such a person. Arthur Miller is deliberately using the passive voice here, and it is a marked shift from the "We have an answer—government housing!" approach to political playwriting. He does not answer the question of who is supposed to pay attention. Attention must be paid—by all of us. Arthur Miller does not pretend to have the answer to this question. He leaves that open to be filled in.
Miller was criticized by some of his political colleagues for being too soft in that way and not holding people to account. The counterargument is that he is not holding people to account on purpose. This is not about assigning blame. This is not about finding the bad guy. This is about considering the problems faced by ordinary working people in his day and age and recognizing that we all have some kind of responsibility to that. It is a broadening of the tight political message of the far left theatre groups that Arthur Miller comes out of in the earlier part of the century, and he is making this shift and these arguments at a very particular moment right after the ravages of World War II.
I do not think it is an accident that his career dovetails very closely with the post-war period. America had just come out of a global historical conflict, and the world was trying to heal. Arthur Miller is saying do not lose sight of these political issues, but let us not turn each other into enemies. Let us consider each other as all in this project together. If we are going to think through these problematic issues, we have to do it all together in a dialogue and not necessarily make enemies out of one group or another. It is a powerful message for that particular moment in time and a powerful legacy that Arthur Miller leaves us.
David Kornhaber is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Birth of Theatre from the Spirit of Philosophy: Nietzsche and the Modern Drama (Northwestern University Press, 2016). His work has appeared in PMLA, Modern Drama, Theatre Journal, Theatre Research International, and Philosophy and Literature, among other journals. He has served as guest editor of Modern Drama, as assistant editor for Theatre Survey, as an affiliated writer with American Theatre, and as a contributor to the theatre sections of The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The New York Sun. He is a member of the editorial board of Modern Drama.