Arthur Miller could seem a bit dry in public, in the way that the heartbroken sometimes do. Yet there was always a shatteringly human frailty in his plays. Tears flowed copiously in their wake. A number of years ago, he was in his publisher's office in Manhattan, where he was introduced to a writer from China. Told that she was face-to-face with the author of "The Crucible," the woman broke down.
Miller, recalling the incident at a commemoration of his 80th birthday that I wrote about for the New York Times, said he asked the writer what had moved her so. "I couldn't believe," she replied, "a non-Chinese had written this play."
Arthur Miller outside a Broadway theater in 1949 shortly after the premiere of "Death of a Salesman." He was 33 when he wrote the play that created an indelible antihero, Willy Loman.
At performances of his masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman," you could often look around the audience and see men in business suits weeping openly. Miller, the greatest social dramatist this nation has produced -- in fact, the country's greatest living playwright until Thursday night -- addressed big isms in his remarkable oeuvre. McCarthyism. Nazism. Capitalism. His gifts, though, included a common touch. He loved and even ennobled the little guy, with all of -- and because of -- his flaws. In works tackling the loftiest subjects, he touched nerves so deep, it was as if the plays were customized arrows, aimed at the unique contours of each theatergoer's heart.
Eight months shy of 90 years old, Miller died in his beloved farmhouse in Connecticut, the one he had shared with his third wife, the late Inge Morath. Death does not diminish the memory of the man's vigor. Feisty and opinionated, he believed ferociously in the power of the theater to assault the senses, invigorate debate and afflict the conscience.
"I thought he'd just go on and on," a director who had worked with Miller on one of his later plays mused the other day, after hearing that the playwright was gravely ill. It's a comfort, our fantasy that people of impressive longevity will always be around, but Miller's ultra-long tenure in the public eye gave us an extra dose of encouragement. He was only 33 in 1949 when "Death of a Salesman" came to Broadway, in one of those seismic events that would shift the tectonic plates of the theater. Fifty-five years later, he was still going about the often painful business of debuting new work. The final premiere to be staged in his lifetime, of the presciently titled "Finishing the Picture," made its bow at Chicago's Goodman Theatre last fall, with the kind of handsome roster (Scott Glenn, Frances Fisher, Matthew Modine, Stephen Lang, Linda Lavin) that reminded you of how hungry fine actors remain to speak Miller's words.
He'd earned his seat in the first-class cabin of American theater, along with Eugene O'Neill, founding father of modern American drama; Tennessee Williams, the nation's theatrical poet laureate; and Edward Albee, the brilliant absurdist. His life, however, was lived more conspicuously than any of these others, a life intertwined with the history of the American Century. There was the political turmoil of his contempt citation, issued by Congress in 1957 for his refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (It was reversed on appeal.) There was the fascinating foray into Communist China in 1983, to supervise a now-legendary production of "Death of a Salesman" in Chinese. There was his immersion in the civic life of the nation through groups such as PEN, the international writers' organization, whose American chapter he headed in the 1960s. There was even a mythic unity of brains and beauty that fascinated the country in his 1956 marriage to the quintessential movie goddess, Marilyn Monroe. (The divorce came five years later.) Yes, it was an eventful 89 1/3 years.
For all the glamour and achievement, however, Miller nursed late into his life a sense of grievance over assessments of the significance of his work and the state of theater in general. Much of his drama after the 1960s got a tepid reception from theater critics, and the merit of his more acclaimed plays has been questioned by some of the country's eminent literary authorities. Commenting somewhat coolly on "Death of a Salesman" in 1988, the critic Harold Bloom wrote, "I myself resist the drama each time I reread it, because it seems that its language does not hold me, and then I see it played onstage . . . and I yield to it."
Miller complained to sympathetic ears that he was never championed by a major critic. He was, in fact, prone to wounded exaggeration, for he received many notices that were bountiful valentines. But he was more pained by what he seemed to view as a rejection by his peers of his dramatic values -- in the intelligentsia's gravitation to absurdism and nonlinear forms of drama, and Broadway's ever-expanding embrace of frivolous, tourist-driven spectacle.
"We never did have, at least on Broadway, a whole lot of acerbic social commentary, but there was sometimes a steady trickle, which seems now to have dried up," Miller wrote in a short 2003 essay in the New York Times. Of recent theater, he said, "I can't think of when the narrow-minded, the prejudiced, the stupid, the reactionary could have been outraged by something on the Broadway stage."
The themes of his tumultuous plays were inspired by tumultuous events. Born in Manhattan in 1915, Miller enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class upbringing with his brother and sister. His father was a ladies' coat manufacturer. The comforts would be wiped out by the Depression -- he had to earn his way through college. The experiences with penury and menial labor would forever inform his politics and his theater.
Although he occasionally wrote for movies ("The Misfits," with Monroe and Clark Gable) and television ("Playing for Time," with Vanessa Redgrave), his home was the stage. He was a storyteller of extraordinary skill, and he was viewed as a patient, cooperative collaborator. "He is a most meticulous craftsman," the critic Harold Clurman, who directed several Miller plays, wrote in the introduction to a collection of Miller's work. Miller had his moments of vanity, apparently: "He likes to read his plays to the acting company," Clurman noted. But revisions were rarely required by his producers because "his plays are virtually complete in every detail by the time he submits his scripts to them."
The vivid stories he unspooled for the theater reflected his deep sense of morality, whether the subject was war profiteering ("All My Sons") or the legacy of the Holocaust ("Incident at Vichy"). In the powerful "A View From the Bridge," he offered as a kind of latter-day Greek tragedy the tale of an average Joe longshoreman with an unhealthy fixation on his niece. In 1967, responding to what he believed was an unfolding disaster in Vietnam, he wrote "The Price," in which he examined the ways a family paid for the mistakes of the past.
Miller wrote not to purge his demons, as O'Neill sometimes needed to, or to give lyrical expression to the power of memory, as was Williams's wont. His work, it seems, was shaped by a responsibility he felt to society. The idea of a communal bond, the fealty a person owes to something more important than himself or herself, courses through Miller's plays.
" 'The Price' grew out of a need to reconfirm the power of the past," he wrote in the Times in 1999, at the time of a well-received revival. "It seemed to me that if, through the mists of denial, the bow of the ancient ship of reality could emerge, the spectacle might once again hold some beauty for an audience. If the play does not utter the word 'Vietnam,' it speaks to a spirit of unearthing the real that seemed to have very nearly gone from our lives."
He will, of course, be remembered best for two seminal works. "The Crucible," his cautionary parable about political paranoia and the McCarthy era set at the time of the Salem witch trials, is familiar to virtually every school-age kid in the country. It is Miller's most frequently produced play. The other anchor of his legacy, "Salesman," gave the American theater its most tortured antihero, Willy Loman, the misguided dreamer, the stand-in for the bottomless terror of American life, the fear of being branded a failure.
"I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you," the son, Biff, declares soberly, in the final movement of the play. "You were never anything but a hardworking drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!" Miller's epitaph can be drawn from ideas such as this, the wrenching, simple truths that flow from the mouths of his everyday people.