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Arthur Miller: A View from History




Arthur Miller in 2005

Arthur Miller — one of America’s greatest playwrights whose work reflected his affinity for the underdog and who translated his social conscience into political action — was born 100 years ago (October 17, 1915) and died in 2005.

A Miller play is always being performed somewhere in the world, but there’s a remarkable revival of five of his creations about to take place in New York, where he grew up. Next month, A View From the Bridge opens on Broadway, a staging of Incident at Vichy opens Off-Broadway, and a Yiddish version of his most famous work, Death of a Salesman (with English subtitles) is about to open, too.

In the spring, The Crucible, starring Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo, will open in New York as well. Meanwhile, his play Broken Glass recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut.

Each of these plays stirred controversy when they debuted, but a work that Miller never even saw staged has recently triggered a heated debate. When his long-buried screenplay, The Hook, was adopted into a play and staged for the first time in England earlier this year, critics wondered whether Miller’s one-time friend and collaborator, director Elia Kazan, along with screenwriter Budd Schulberg had stolen Miller’s earlier work when making their 1954 Oscar-winning film, On the Waterfront.

As with any thinking person, Miller’s politics evolved, but he always believed in civil liberties and the right of artists, and all people, to express themselves freely. Although he later rejected the Marxism of his youth, he never lost his commitment to progressive causes and democratic rights. His writing was shaped by the major events of his lifetime — the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism and the Cold War, the upheavals of the 1960s, and the global tensions of the Reagan era.

In 1965, Miller turned down an invitation to witness President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Arts and Humanities Act as a protest against LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War. In a telegram to Johnson, he said, “The signing of the Arts and Humanities bill surely begins new and fruitful relationship between American artists and their government. But the occasion is so darkened by the Viet Nam tragedy that I could not join it with clear conscience. When the guns boom, the arts die.”

Miller never forgot his introduction to Marxism. He was a teenager, playing handball in front of Dozick’s drugstore in Brooklyn. While straddling his bike, waiting for his turn to play, an older boy approached him and began telling him that there were two classes of people, workers and employers, and “that all over the world, including Brooklyn, a revolution that would transform every country was inexorably building up steam.” The idea was astonishing to Miller, raised in a family of businessmen who viewed workers, however necessary, as a “nuisance.”

This chance encounter revolutionized his own conception of the world and of his family. “The true condition of man, it seemed, was the complete opposite of the competitive system I had assumed was normal, with all its mutual hatreds and conniving,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Miller was born into a prosperous Manhattan family. His immigrant father had established a successful company, Miltex Coat and Suit. The family had its own chauffer. In the 1920s, “all was hope and security” in Miller’s world.

But the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression wrecked the family fortune. They Millers moved to Brooklyn, and his father never again achieved success in business. He attempted to open another coat factory, where Arthur helped out and witnessed the company salesmen being ill-treated by buyers. He wrote a short story about the salesmen, In Memoriam, which planted the seed for his best-known play, Death of a Salesman.

For two years Miller took odd jobs, including working in an auto parts warehouse, to help out the family and to save money for college. In 1934 he talked his way into the University of Michigan, after being twice rejected because of his less-than-sterling high school academic record. (He flunked algebra three times.)

At Michigan, a significant number of students were more interested in the union organizing and sit-down strikes in nearby Flint and Detroit than in football games and fraternities. Miller joined the staff of the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. In 1937, the paper sent him to Flint to cover a United Auto Workers strike at a General Motors factory. Miller saw the company using violent thugs and paid spies to infiltrate the union. Informing and betrayal would become central themes of Miller’s dramatic works. Those years, Miller recalled, were “the testing ground for all my prejudices, my beliefs and my ignorance. It helped to lay out the boundaries of my life.”

Miller never joined the Communist Party, but he was part of the left-wing movement that sided with workers’ struggles and saw hope for the working class in the Soviet Union. Some of Miller’s friends joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighting alongside antifascists in the Spanish Civil War.

Before college, Miller had seen few plays, but his interest was piqued at Michigan. “I chose theater,” he recalled, because “it was the cockpit of literary activity, and you could talk directly to an audience and radicalize the people.”

Miller was not alone. During the Depression, many young playwrights, actors, and directors used theater as a vehicle to promote radical ideas and action. Their plays revealed the human suffering caused by economic hard times and celebrated the burgeoning protests by workers, farmers, and others. The Group Theater in New York City, founded in 1931, was one of the first efforts to present plays in a naturalistic style, sometimes called “social realism.”

Its members, like their counterparts in similar theater groups around the country, were inspired by European-born composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht. The Group Theater’s performances of Clifford Odets’s plays Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing in 1935 helped create a new kind of Depression-era social drama. Some theater groups performed plays about current events that they called “living newspapers,” designed to document injustice and inspire political action.

Miller was influenced by this combination of political idealism and social realism. The Depression had shattered the nation’s social and psychological stability, and Miller’s plays dramatized the family and community tensions brought about by economic hard times, war and a repressive political climate. Miller focused on the moral responsibility of individuals and society.

Miller’s early plays reflect the radical spirit of the Depression. In 1935, during his sophomore year, Miller wrote No Villain, which won the university’s prestigious Hopwood Prize. A later rewrite, They Too Arise, earned a $1,250 prize from New York’s Theater Guild. It told the story of a coat manufacturer facing a strike and bankruptcy. His two sons can help resolve the dilemma, but only if they compromise their principles. The father observes that they live in a dog-eat-dog world and that one has to choose sides. One of his sons responds that the solution is to “change the world.”

Miller’s second play, Honors at Dawn, is even closer to Odets’s agitational style. The play opens in a giant automobile factory where autoworkers are calling for a sit-down strike. The managers try to recruit Max, the protagonist, to spy on the union, but he refuses and is fired. Later, the company owner offers the nearby university a generous donation, but only if the president fires a radical faculty member and helps identify engineering students who are union sympathizers or Communists. When the president capitulates, Max begins to understand the corrupt relationship between business and the university. He returns to the factory to help the workers organize. Honors at Dawn earned Miller his second Hopwood Prize.

After graduating, Miller returned to Brooklyn and began writing plays and fiction. For six months he earned $23 a week working for the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project, which allowed writers and artists to patch together a living while producing theater during the Depression, a project Congress disbanded in 1939 because of the radical views of many participants. Miller also worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration, collecting oral histories in the South for the Library of Congress.

To earn money to support his wife and two children, Miller wrote radio plays for NBC’s Cavalcade of America series and others, honing his skills with dialogue and storytelling. During the war he also worked the night shift at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

He was about to abandon playwriting but gave it one last shot with his 1947 play All My Sons. The play critiques an economic system that pits an individual’s ethics against his desire to be successful in business. Based on a true event, it tells the story of a manufacturer’s cover-up of defective plane parts that leads to the deaths of twenty-one army pilots. The play, directed by Elia Kazan, a veteran of the Group Theater, was Miller’s first real commercial success, winning two Tony Awards and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

Miller went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1949, among other major awards, for Death of a Salesman, the tragic story of Willy Loman and his hopeless struggle for respect. The modern tragedy, based on the life of his Uncle Manny, stunned audiences and quickly came to be considered a masterpiece of American theater. It has been translated into 29 languages and has been performed around the world. The Communist Party’s Daily Worker panned Death of a Salesman for being defeatist and lacking sufficient militancy.

The McCarthy era inspired Miller’s most frequently produced work, The Crucible, which premiered in 1953. The play portrays the collective psychosis and hysteria engendered by the Salem witch trials of 1692. Miller made no secret of the parallels to McCarthy’s anticommunist witch-hunt. By then, Miller had not been politically active in radical causes for years. But he was a vocal critic of McCarthyism and of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). That alone was enough to make him suspect.

When Death of a Salesman was made into a movie by Columbia Pictures, the American Legion threatened to picket theaters because of Miller’s left-wing affiliations. Columbia pressed Miller to sign a declaration that he was not a Communist. He refused. Columbia then made a short film entitled Life of a Salesman to be shown with the main feature.

The short consisted of business professors praising sales as a profession and denouncing the character of Willy Loman. Miller wrote, “Never in show-business history has a studio spent so much good money to prove that its feature film was pointless.”

In 1954, when Miller tried to renew his passport to travel to Belgium to attend the first European performance of The Crucible, the State Department turned him down, telling the New York Times that it refused passports to people it believed supported communism. The next year, New York City officials caved to pressure from HUAC and refused Miller permission to film scenes of a move he was making about juvenile delinquency in the city.

Miller was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC in 1956. This was during his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, for whom he had left his wife. According to Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, HUAC chair Representative Francis Walter contacted Miller’s attorney the night before the hearing was to begin, offering to drop the whole thing if Walter could have his photo taken with Monroe.

Miller declined, and the hearing proceeded, lasting several days. The main evidence against him was a stack of petitions he had signed twenty years earlier as a college student. By that time, some former Communists and fellow travelers who had also been called before Congress, including Clifford Odets and director Elia Kazan, not only recanted past beliefs but also gave investigators the names of others who had been part of the same groups or participated in the same events.

Miller was not the only witness who refused to name names, but he was among the most well-known, so his principled stance generated significant media attention. He was cited for contempt of Congress, a crime punishable with imprisonment. He instead received a year’s suspended sentence and a $500 fine — and legal bills of $40,000. In 1958, a U.S. court of appeals overturned his conviction.

Miller continued to write short stories, films, and plays (including several about the Holocaust), but, except with The Price, he never again enjoyed the critical success he had with All My SonsDeath of a SalesmanThe Crucible, and View from the Bridge . Nevertheless, his midcentury plays secured his reputation as one of America’s greatest playwrights. His work is regularly staged throughout the world.

Miller took seriously his responsibility to be an active citizen, expressing his views not only through his plays but also through his actions. During the Vietnam War, he returned to the University of Michigan to participate in the first antiwar teach-in. And as president of PEN International, an association representing literary figures, he helped transform the struggling organization into what he called “the conscience of the world writing community.”

Through the 1970s and 1980s, he campaigned for writers persecuted in Lithuania, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Latin America, the Soviet Union, and even closer to home, by school boards in Illinois and Texas. Miller’s works were banned in the Soviet Union as a result of his work to free dissident writers.

One play that Miller never got to see performed was The Hook, which he wrote in 1950 but which wasn’t performed until this June, when the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northhampton, England turned the screenplay into a play and staged it for the first time.

The staging of The Hook ignited another controversy, a decade after Miller’s death in 2005.

Set on the docks of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1950s, Miller’s hero is Marty Ferrera, an Italian immigrant who works as a longshoreman and fights a corrupt union. Miller described him as that “strange, mysterious and dangerous thing” that is a “genuinely moral man… it’s as though a hand had been laid upon him, making him the rebel, pressing him towards a collision with everything that is established and accepted.”

In 1951, at the peak of the Cold War, Miller and his friend director Elia Kazan traveled to Los Angeles to pitch the screenplay to Harry Cohn, head of Columbia studios. Cohn said he was interested in making the film but only if Miller would change the villains from corrupt union bosses into Communists. Miller refused and The Hook stayed on the shelf for 65 years. But The Hook inspired two cultural classics — Elia Kazan’s and Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront and Miller’s own play, View from the Bridge.

Miller’s friendship and collaboration with Kazan ended in 1952 when Kazan cooperated with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and named former and current members of the Communist Party.

Two years later, Kazan directed On the Waterfront, starting Marlon Brando as a longshoreman who, like The Hook’s Marty Ferrera, fights the corrupt union bosses. In Kazan’s version (written by Schulberg, who was also a “friendly” witness before HUAC), the hero turns on his brother who is part of the corrupt union. This has been widely interpreted as Kazan’s defense of his own informing on his former Communist friends. On the Waterfront received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint, and Best Director for Kazan.

Kazan and Schulberg claimed that their film was based on Crime on the Waterfront, a series of articles about union corruption, extortion, and racketeering in Hoboken, New Jersey by reporter Malcolm Johnson published in the New York Sun that won the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting in 1949. There’s no doubt that Shulberg drew on Johnson’s book for On the Waterfront. But Miller was no doubt also aware of Johnson’s investigation when he was writing The Hook in 1950. Kazan and Shulberg clearly lifted much of their award-winning film from Miller’s earlier screenplay.

Miller’s next play, A View from the Bridge, which debuted in 1955, is clearly a revision of The Hook but also a rebuke to Kazan and other informers. It is a tragedy about Eddie Carbone, an Italian American dockworker who informs on an illegal alien and dies because of it.

When Miller finished A View from the Bridge, he sent a copy to Kazan. Kazan responded that he would be honored to direct it. Miller replied, “I didn’t send it to you because I wanted you to direct it. I sent it to you because I wanted you to know what I think of stool pigeons.”

This article is crossposted from the Huffington Post with permission.

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