One of the greatest dramatists of 20th century theatre, Arthur Miller’s writing continues to speak volumes with its timeless and universal themes.
There are few names in American playwriting more powerful than Arthur Miller. He lived from 1915 to 2005, and in that time conducted a life that has been the subject of countless biographies, journals and documentaries. His five-year marriage to film icon Marilyn Monroe certainly helped raise his profile from serious dramatist to one-half of America’s most talked-about couples. However, Miller’s legacy started and remains on the stage.
Born to wealthy Jewish manufacturers in New York City, Miller and his family lived on W110th Street with a holiday home in Far Rockaway. But faced with financial ruin during the Depression, the family moved across the East River to Brooklyn, where their upper Manhattan privileges ceased overnight. Miller volunteered to sell bread before school to help his parents through this difficult time. As a result, a young socialist was born; learning lessons at the knee of his Polish immigrant father who had watched his great wealth vanish in an instant.
Upon completing college in Michigan, Miller turned down a lucrative scriptwriting contract with 20th Century Fox in favour of joining a small theatre troup in his home city of New York. It didn’t take long for Miller’s genius to be recognised, and in his third decade, he wrote his four most celebrated plays: All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953) and A View from the Bridge (1955, revised 1956).
The success of these four works catapulted Miller into the lofty echelons of 20th century American playwriting, joining the ranks of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and Thornton Wilder. Between them a new era of playwriting was born, as Americans were encouraged to look inward at the social furores that troubled them, and question the politics of a nation they were so assuredly raised not to question. Playwrights became spokespeople for social movements, and major theatres transitioned from being places of pure entertainment, to places where people left politicised and hungry for change.
In a 1986 interview with actor and director Mark Lamos, Miller said, ‘You see, I go by two theatres of the past – the Elizabethan and the Classical Greek. In both cases you had more or less the whole society in those theatres … When I began writing, when Tennessee Williams began writing, we shared the illusion that we were talking to everybody. Both of us wrote for the man on the street. So consequently the architecture of our plays, the embrace of our plays, their breadth, was in accordance with that conception. It was the very opposite of an elitist theatre, the very opposite of an intellectual theatre.’
Miller’s most notable attempt to ‘question’ the nation was explored in The Crucible, which acted as an allegory for the government’s communist sympathising crack-down, headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The McCarthy era saw the prosecution of anybody deemed to be promoting subversive socialist or anti-national activities, and all without the proper constitutional practice of supplying evidence. Miller was amongst many prominent writers and entertainers embroiled in the second ‘red scare’ of the 40s and 50s.
In 1956 – the same year Miller married Monroe and his play A View from the Bridge premiered in London – he was subpoenaed by the HUAC and found guilty of contempt of Congress. The conviction was overturned a year later, but the ordeal of the trial had an undeniable impact on his life and work. The tabloids’ scrutiny of Miller and Monroe at this time was relentless, coining them ‘the hourglass and the egg head’, whilst describing their union as the most unlikely pairing since the Owl and the Pussycat. Photographers and reporters chased them everywhere they went.
Five years after their marriage, the famous couple separated on the set of The Misfits – a film Miller wrote for his wife. The pressure of their lives in the spotlight had become insufferable. A year later, Monroe was dead from an overdose of barbiturates. Miller continued to produce work late into his life. However, the height of his career had materialised in those years when he was entangled with Monroe, under the immense pressure of the government and constant public scrutiny.
For Director Iain Sinclair, A View from the Bridge is Miller’s finest work. ‘It rekindles all the familial warmth in All My Sons, the chaos and volatility of community hysteria in The Crucible, and the subterranean wilful blindness of Death of a Salesman. And then it doubles down, tightens and contracts on each of them, while also adding an excruciating sense of momentum and merciless inevitability that can only be rivalled by the ancient Greeks.’
Sinclair compares Miller to the great tragedians of the ancient world – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – and groups him with the world’s most popular playwright of the Renaissance era – Shakespeare. ‘Miller’s characters sit comfortably alongside the biggest names in tragedy like Oedipus, Hecuba, Hamlet and Lear,’ he says, ‘He is the greatest tragedian of our modern age.’
A View from the Bridge is playing at Southbank Theatre from 9 March until 18 April 2019.
Published on 19 March 2019