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Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

Playwright of Broken American Dreams

By Bart Barnes and Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page A01

Arthur Miller, 89, widely regarded as one of the greatest American playwrights, whose works included oft-performed classics "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible" and "A View from the Bridge," died of congestive heart failure Thursday at his home in Roxbury, Conn.

He was surrounded by his family, said his assistant, Julia Bolus. She declined to say if Miller had been ill but noted that he had completed his latest work, "Finishing the Picture," last year and that "he was always writing."

Actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller embrace on the lawn of Miller's home in Roxbury, Conn., a few hours before their wedding. (1956 Photo Victoria Arocho -- AP)

Arthur Miller Remembered

Photo Gallery
Portraits from the life and career of legendary playwright Arthur Miller.

__ Online Discussion __
Transcript: Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith on Arthur Miller
__ Multimedia __
Photo Chronology: The Career of Playwright Arthur Miller
Video: Miller Dies at 89
__ From the Post Archives __
Arthur Miller, Center Stage (March 24, 2001)
NEH Honors Miller (Jan. 5, 2001)
Miller Feted at Tony Awards (June 7, 1999)
Many Faces of the Salesman (April 25, 1999)
Miller's Dialogue With the World (Dec. 15, 1996)
Arthur Miller, Selling the U.S.A. (May 15, 1989)
Excerpt From Autobiography (Dec. 13, 1987)
__ Reviews __
'After the Fall,' 2004 Revival (July 30, 2004)
'Death of a Salesman,' 1999 Revival (Feb. 11, 1999)

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Theaters on Broadway dimmed their marquee lights last night for a minute in tribute to Miller, the League of American Theaters and Producers said.

Miller's plays were produced on Broadway, in regional and world theaters and on high school stages nationwide. They addressed the weightiest matters of conscience, the torments and tragedies of ordinary men and women struggling for dignity, respect and a sense of community in an increasingly dehumanized and impersonal world that they often did not understand. They were a literary reflection of an era of metamorphosis and redefinition in America following a great victory in World War II.

As a character himself, Miller exemplified the New York intellectual world of the 1950s, a gravel-voiced Brooklyn native married to glamorous actress Marilyn Monroe and outraged by the anti-communist political crusades of the time.

His plays were psychological and social. They explored misplaced and misunderstood values, out-of-control materialism, dysfunctional families and conflicts between fathers and sons. His characters were good people who frequently acted badly under pressure. They were insightful, but they had blind spots. They avoided reality and denied the truth when it was painful. They were assertive, yet indecisive; aggressive, but also timid.

"A lot of my work goes to the center of where we belong -- if there is any root to life -- because nowadays the family is broken up, and people don't live in the same place for very long," Miller said in a 1988 interview. "Dislocation, maybe, is part of our uneasiness. It implants the feeling that nothing is really permanent."

His prolific career, which began in 1936, brought him four Tony awards (one for lifetime achievement), a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy, the Kennedy Center Honors and the award as the center's Jefferson lecturer in the humanities, among other prizes. In addition to plays, he wrote television and motion picture scripts. Among these were "The Misfits," a 1961 movie written for his actress wife Monroe, and "Playing for Time," the true story of an inmates' orchestra at the World War II Auschwitz concentration camp, which was broadcast on CBS television in 1980.

A 2003 PBS documentary, "Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without a Sin," explored the breakdown of the relationship and artistic collaboration between the longtime friends over Kazan's decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Miller refused to testify in 1956 and was blacklisted and convicted of contempt of Congress as a result. The conviction was overturned by the courts in 1958.

Miller, described by novelist William Styron as resembling a "Jewish Abraham Lincoln," was an activist all his life, appearing before the U.S. Senate last year to back legislation that would allow playwrights to jointly negotiate a standard contract for their work without violating antitrust laws. He also testified in 1975 about the Soviets' refusal to allow dissident Andrei Sakharov to travel to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At a 1985 ambassador's party in Ankara, he denounced the imprisonment of hundreds of Turks for their beliefs. In 2000, he traveled to Havana to discuss human rights with Fidel Castro.

At the Kennedy Center's Jefferson Lecture, shortly after the seemingly interminable presidential election of 2000, his talk was overtly political: "The amount of acting required of both President Bush and the Democrats is awesome now, given the fractured election and the donation by the Supreme Court. . . . Bush has to act as though he was elected, the Supreme Court has to act as though it was the Supreme Court, Gore has to perform the role of a man who is practically overjoyed at his own defeat, and so on."

But he will best be remembered for his plays and particularly for the plays that he wrote in the decade immediately following World War II.

The most critically acclaimed was the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Death of a Salesman," the tragic story of the emotional collapse of Willy Loman, an aging salesman, husband and father who has sold his soul for a set of hollow values. It has been translated into 29 languages, is performed all over the world and is required reading in many college American literature courses. Critics have said it is likely to become one of only a few 20th century American plays to survive into future centuries. One reason is the soliloquy by Loman's wife, which is embedded firmly in American memory.

"I don't say he's a great man," she says in the play. "Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."

"The Crucible," Miller's timeless drama about the witch trials in Salem, Mass., during the 1600s, was an immediate hit when it opened in New York in 1953. Audiences saw parallels between the witchcraft hysteria of 17th century Salem and the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Thirty years later, "The Crucible" played to packed houses in Beijing, where Chinese audiences found similar parallels with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

His plays, such as "A View From the Bridge," written in 1955, were revived two or three times during his lifetime, and he never stopped writing new works. In 2002, he premiered "Resurrection Blues" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and in October, he premiered "Finishing the Picture" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. A short story of his appears in the current issue of "Harper's Magazine." Writing, he said, "is my art."

"I still love the form," he told the New York Times in April. "It's a great, great human adventure. Imagine having a human being stand up on a platform and mesmerize an audience and sometimes even illuminate something for them. You don't need machinery. It's a very primitive art. That's the beauty of it."

His career had ups and downs. In 1956, following his marriage to Monroe, Miller's playwriting career went into an eclipse. The marriage was troubled and tempestuous, and the couple was hounded relentlessly by the media. Monroe's dependence on barbiturates and her profound emotional problems compounded their difficulties.

Nevertheless, Miller did find much in his wife that was admirable, and in 1961 he wrote the movie script for "The Misfits" as a last-ditch effort to save the marriage and Monroe's life. It was an exploration of the dying myth of the Wild West cowboy through the experiences of three down-at-the-heels drifters and a tormented divorcee. John Huston directed the film, which gave Monroe and Clark Gable their final roles, and both Miller's script and Huston's direction won critical praise. But the picture was not a box-office success. Shortly after completion of its filming, Monroe filed for divorce. In 1962, she died of a drug overdose.

In 1964, Miller took up playwriting again with "After the Fall," a drama about a lawyer struggling to resolve past crises in his life, including the suicide of his wife and his confrontation with the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite Miller's denials, the play was widely viewed as autobiographical, and Miller was criticized for having taken advantage of his life with Monroe and his relationship with colleagues who had turned informer during the McCarthy era.

Arthur Miller was born Oct. 17, 1915, in New York. He attended high school in Brooklyn, where his performances on the athletic fields were more impressive than in the classroom. Not until he had graduated did he acquire any literary ambitions, and this came about only after he had read "The Brothers Karamazov," which had a profound effect on him.

He held a variety of clerical and warehouse jobs and in 1934 entered the University of Michigan, where he studied playwriting. He supported himself by washing dishes and working as night editor of the student newspaper.

It was at Michigan that Miller met his first wife, the former Mary Slattery. They were married in 1940 and divorced in 1956. The marriage produced two children, Jane Ellen and Robert.

Exempt from the draft because of a football injury, Miller spent the World War II years writing radio dramas while working part time as a truck driver and a steamfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. His first play, "Honors at Dawn," was produced in 1936. His first Broadway effort, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," about a Midwest auto mechanic, closed after four performances. The playwright then spent two years writing "All My Sons," which established him as a figure in the literary community and enabled him to buy a 350-acre farm in Roxbury, where he built a studio and wrote the rest of his plays.

In 1962, he married Inge Morath, an Austrian-born photographer, who died in 2002. They had a daughter, Rebecca, who is also a playwright.

His literary production over the next 40 years was steady, and his work played in the United States and England to a variety of reviews. But he never achieved the literary heights of the first decade after the war.

He wrote a well-received autobiography, "Timebends: A Life" (1987), as well as fiction and a collection of essays.

In his final years, revivals of his work and international awards cheered the writer. Salman Rushdie praised him as "a giant figure" whose courage in speaking out for persecuted writers, both during his years as president of PEN International (1965-69) and after, gave him a moral stature equaled by few.

He acknowledged to a writer from Knight Ridder Newspapers nine years ago that it was more fun to be Arthur Miller at age 80 than at age 50.

"In a way it is," he said, beginning to smile. "I can't divorce such a question from the fact that -- let's face it -- not a lot of things last a half a century. Even buildings fall. One of my joys in life is to see that what I've done has lasted."

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