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Playwright’s Classic Dramas Dominated the U.S. Stage

Times Staff Writer

Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose dramas illuminating the agonies of the common man have moved audiences around the world for more than five decades, died Thursday night at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 89.

The cause was heart failure, according to his assistant, Julia Bolus.

Miller emerged as one of the most powerful voices on the American stage after the 1949 debut of “Death of a Salesman,” the best known of his more than 20 plays. It earned Miller a Pulitzer for its haunting portrait of a deluded salesman named Willy Loman, whose hapless struggle for the American dream was so universal it made theatergoers weep even in China.

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The dean of serious dramatists in America, who believed that a play should strive for “a well defined expression of profound social needs,” Miller wrote several classic plays during the first half of his long career. “The Crucible” was a parable about the Salem witch trials written during the Red Scare of the 1950s. “A View from the Bridge,” “After the Fall,” “The Price” and “All My Sons” have also endured in revivals.

“His death truly marks the end of an era,” Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where Miller’s last play, “Finishing the Picture,” debuted in November, said Friday. “Along with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, he was one of the giants who literally created the Broadway drama, bringing the American theater to its maturity.”

Landmark revivals of “Salesman,” including the 50th anniversary production on Broadway in 1999 that starred Brian Dennehy, have introduced new generations to Miller’s genius. George C. Scott in the 1970s and Dustin Hoffman in the 1980s were also distinguished interpreters of the iconic Loman, whose loss of livelihood results in tragedy.

“Any Monday morning you can be told you are no longer needed,” Miller told The Times in 1999, explaining the lasting appeal of “Salesman.” “This is something that goes very deep down. In a very primitive way, you just can’t tell somebody to just get lost,” he said, echoing one of the play’s most quoted lines. “You can’t just eat the orange and throw the peel away,” Loman laments when he is fired. “A man is not a piece of fruit!”

Miller, along with Williams, dominated the stage in the 1950s and 1960s. He was often called an American Ibsen for his passionate morality and distrust of social institutions.

In later decades, he enjoyed greater stature abroad, especially in England, where he was regarded as the preeminent analyst of the American condition. At home, however, American critics in the latter part of the 20th century had tired of what they saw as his homiletics about morality, family and personal responsibility. “He’s a good, sound, old-fashioned, traditional moralist -- which is not something to scoff at, but neither is it exciting in art,” veteran critic Stanley Kauffmann told The Times some years ago.

At the same time, however, Kauffmann could not deny Miller’s singular stature in modern theater. “How many playwrights in the world are there who, while still alive, enter into world repertory as he has? That’s inarguable,” Kauffmann said.

Miller’s plays were as intensely personal as they were moral. Willy Loman, for instance, was based on a boisterously competitive uncle who had been a salesman. “The Crucible” was inspired by the McCarthy era, when Miller was scorned for refusing to name radicals before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “After the Fall,” a 1964 play about a man who reflects on his two marriages, was widely seen -- and panned -- as a reflection of Miller’s failed relationship with Marilyn Monroe, the mythic Hollywood beauty who was his second wife.

“There’s no one [character] who’s actually me, that I’m sure of,” Miller once said. “But a writer projects himself into every one of his characters -- you can’t write convincingly about a character unless you identify with him.”

The most lasting of his three marriages was to photographer Inge Morath, whom he married in 1962 and who collaborated with Miller on three books. She died in 2002. He recently fell in love again -- with painter Agnes Barley, who was 55 years his junior.

He is survived by children Jane, a weaver, of Connecticut; Robert, who produced the 1996 Oscar-nominated movie “The Crucible”; Rebecca, a writer and filmmaker married to actor Daniel Day Lewis; and several grandchildren.

Miller had another son, Daniel, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after his birth in 1962. It is not known whether he survives his father because Miller never mentioned him in his autobiography or in any public way. He apparently never visited him at the Connecticut institution where he was sent to live, according to Martin Gottfried, a Miller biographer and longtime New York drama critic.

Politically engaged throughout his career, Miller served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and was an eloquent opponent of the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s, as international president of PEN, the association for novelists, essayists and poets, he became an advocate for politically oppressed writers in Russia and elsewhere.

He was a prolific essayist and also wrote screenplays, including a 1980 television drama about the Holocaust, “Playing for Time,” that won an Emmy. His 1996 adaptation of “The Crucible” starred Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder and earned him an Oscar nomination.

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Attracted to Marxism

Miller grew up in New York City, the second of three children of Isadore and Augusta Miller. His father, a gruff and semi-literate immigrant from Poland, succeeded in business as a manufacturer of women’s coats, doing well enough to afford a comfortable home in Harlem and a chauffeured limousine for his family. Although less cultured than his mother, a former schoolteacher with a love of books, his father may have been the more influential parent.

His father’s business was ruined in the stock market crash of 1929; as a result, Arthur took a $4-a-week job delivering bread. Distressed that most people, including his father, blamed themselves instead of the system for the economic disaster, he became attracted to Marxism “because it was the only viable explanation ... for this whole thing having happened.”

After a lackluster high school career, Miller went to work in an auto parts warehouse. On the long subway ride to his job, he began to read “The Brothers Karamazov.” The Dostoyevsky masterpiece not only changed his view of the world but also convinced him that writing was his destiny.

He began to see plays and soon set his sights on the University of Michigan, where his poor high school grades caused the rejection of his first two applications for admission. On his third try, he was accepted as a probationary student. He enrolled in playwriting classes with noted professor Kenneth Rowe, whose admiration of Ibsen’s treatment of social problems greatly influenced Miller.

By the time he graduated in 1938, Miller had twice won the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award for playwriting. In 1940, he married Mary Grace Slattery, a fellow Michigan student, with whom he had two children.

A high school injury kept him from serving in World War II, so he held odd jobs and continued to write. In 1944, he had his first Broadway production. “The Man Who Had All the Luck” ran for only six performances but won a Theatre Guild National Award.

In 1947, he scored his first Broadway success in the intricately plotted “All My Sons.” Considered Miller’s first substantial work, it concerns the family of a man whose decision to sell defective plane parts to the government causes pilot deaths during World War II. Directed by Elia Kazan, it ran for 328 performances on Broadway before going to Paris and Stockholm.

“With the production of ‘All My Sons’ last evening,” the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote, “the theater has acquired a genuine new talent ... a playwright who knows his craft.” It won the Drama Critics Circle Award, beating O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” and was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson.

With his profits from “All My Sons,” Miller bought a house in Brooklyn and a farm in Roxbury, where he wrote in a tiny cabin he built himself. He was holed up there one spring morning in 1948 when he conceived a play about his Uncle Manny, an obsessive salesman who saw his own two sons “in some race that never stopped in his mind.”

Beginning with just three lines -- “Willy!” and “It’s all right. I came back” -- and a death, Miller wrote into the night. He was intent on creating a new form of play, unbound by conventional notions of space and time.

When he finally lay down to sleep, Miller realized he had been weeping. Willy Loman had possessed him and had become, he said on another occasion, “something that has never existed before, a salesman with his feet on the subway stairs and his head in the stars.”

Willy Loman is a sixtysomething salesman on the verge of a breakdown, consumed by a drive to gain material success, which he believes is the only route to love. He mouths aphorisms rooted in American myth: “Be liked and you will never want” and “Personality always wins the day.” But the slogans never amount to much for Willy.

As the play progresses through a series of flashbacks, he realizes he is a failure and comes to see his own demise as a last chance to give his family an inheritance. His older son, the rebellious Biff, belatedly comes to understand his father’s tragic struggle for meaning. Only Willy’s wife, Linda, loves him unconditionally. In one of the play’s most stirring lines, she eulogizes him as a man to whom “attention must be paid.”

Kazan cried when he read it. In his 1989 autobiography, he called “Salesman” his favorite of all the plays he directed.

“Art does an extraordinary thing there; he shows us a man who represents everything ... [that Miller] believes to be misguided about the system we live in, then goes on to make us feel affection and concern, pity and even love for this man,” Kazan wrote. “He is ridiculous and he is tragic all at once. How is that accomplished? I don’t know any other play in any other language that does all these things at the same time. But Arthur Miller did them all -- that one time and never again.”

The cast starred Lee J. Cobb as Willy, Mildred Dunnock as Linda, Arthur Kennedy as Biff and Cameron Mitchell as Happy, Biff’s younger brother. The production was designed by Jo Mielziner, whose innovative lighting and minimal use of furniture and props set a new American style and were instrumental in achieving what Miller called his “mobile concurrency of past and present” in the play.

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Tears Before Applause

When the curtain fell on opening night in Philadelphia in January 1949, the audience sat in stunned silence for what seemed -- to the playwright -- an eternity. Then Miller noticed men weeping -- some openly, some with their faces covered. Others stood in small groups talking quietly to one another.

When the applause finally started, it was thunderous, “and then,” Miller observed, “there was no end to it.” Opening night in New York went much the same.

The play provoked considerable argument over whether Miller could rightly call “Salesman” a tragedy. Loman was not, in the classic sense, a tragic hero because he did not fall from a high position and was not fundamentally transformed as a result of his experience. One critic, John Mason Brown of Saturday Review, summed up the debate when he called Loman “a little man sentenced to discover his smallness rather than a big man undone by his greatness.”

Miller left no doubt about his intentions in an article published in the New York Times a few weeks after the Broadway debut: “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.”

“Salesman,” which ran for 742 performances on Broadway, brought Miller a Tony and a Drama Circle Critics Award in addition to the Pulitzer Prize. In the ensuing years, productions were mounted in France, Germany, England, Australia and Russia. In China, it was directed by Miller.

Its success transformed his life, not all for the good. Flush with success, he made the obligatory sojourn to Hollywood, but rising anti-Communist hysteria threatened the screen version of “Salesman.” Anxious to counter critics who were beginning to view the story as an attack on capitalism, Columbia sought to soften its effect with a short film of commentary by academicians, who said that the American dream of success was not under assault. Miller threatened a lawsuit, which blocked the release of the disclaimer film, but his troubles were only beginning.

In late 1950 he undertook an adaptation of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” the story of a Norwegian health inspector who is ostracized for exposing the pollution of the local water supply. Miller’s version was seen as an attack on the McCarthyites’ persecution of liberals and intellectuals. The production was a flop that, he later noted, “opened wide the door to my time of confusion.”

He began plays but couldn’t finish them. Then, in early 1951, the lanky playwright with rough-hewn features met Monroe and tumbled deeper into uncertainty. The voluptuous actress became “an immanence in my imagination, the vitality of a force one does not understand but that seems on the verge of lighting up a vast surrounding plain of darkness,” he wrote later. His marriage began to falter.

In early 1952, he came upon a copy of “The Devil in Massachusetts,” a book by Marion Starkey about the Salem witch hunts of 1692. By this time the hearings in Washington by the House Un-American Activities Committee were in full swing. Prominent writers and directors were being called to testify, including Kazan, who had become Miller’s close friend.

Gradually, the idea for a play on the subject grew. Miller decided to pursue the story about the same time that Kazan called him to his Connecticut home, in April 1952, to make a sober announcement: He planned to name names before the committee.

Although Miller saw “a certain gloomy logic” in Kazan’s decision, he believed it was wrong. “Had I been of his generation,” Miller wrote, “he would have had to sacrifice me as well. And finally that was all I could think. I could not get past it.” He did not speak to Kazan again for many years.

From Connecticut, Miller drove to Salem, where he immersed himself in material about the hysteria that had swept Salem more than two centuries earlier. He was particularly drawn to the story of John and Elizabeth Proctor, whose lives were ruined by the witch hunt.

In all, 20 people were found guilty of witchcraft and hanged, while others saved themselves by confessing to witchery and accusing others. Miller was particularly struck by one line that kept cropping up in letters by Salem residents: “Now no one is safe.”

The parallels to the Communist hunts in his own times were, he said, “so exact it was quite amazing. The ritual was the same,” he said in his 1987 memoir, “Timebends.”

“What they were demanding of Proctor was that he expose this conspiracy of witches whose aim was to bring down the rule of the church, of Christianity. If he gave them a couple of names he could go home, and if he didn’t he was going to hang for it.... [W]e weren’t hanged, but the ritual was exactly the same. You told them anyone you knew who had been a left-winger or a Communist and you went home. But I wasn’t going to do that.”

Directed by Jed Harris and starring Arthur Kennedy, E.G. Marshall and Beatrice Straight, “The Crucible” ran on Broadway from January to July of 1953. The production won a Tony despite the cool response from critics, including leading reviewers such as George Jean Nathan and Walter Kerr. “In light of the climate that then prevailed, one suspects that many reviewers and playgoers believed that viewing and approving of the play might taint them as sympathetic to communism. People in those highly charged times had lost their jobs for less,” Claudia Durst Johnson and Vernon E. Johnson noted in their 1998 book, “Understanding the Crucible.”

The play was seen as the final insult by Miller’s enemies in Washington, where officials denied his request for a new passport. In 1956 he was subpoenaed by HUAC. Refusing to name people he had seen at a communist writers meeting a decade earlier, he was cited for contempt of Congress, fined $500 and given a one-month suspended sentence. He later won on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and was acquitted.

“The Crucible” survived its initial tepid reception and became one of the most popular plays in repertory, both at home and abroad in cultures as diverse as Poland’s and China’s.

“Its meaning is somewhat different in different places and moments,” Miller said. “I can almost tell what the political situation in a country is when the play is suddenly a hit there -- it is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past.”

In the midst of his political troubles, Miller ended his first marriage with a Nevada divorce and married Monroe. He wrote no plays during the five years of their marriage, in part because of the demands of caring for his emotionally brittle, increasingly drug-dependent wife.

After Monroe had a miscarriage, Miller wrote a screenplay for her -- “The Misfits,” about a group of itinerants who chase wild mustangs. Her co-stars were Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Filming was halted at one point when Monroe was hospitalized for barbiturate addiction. The Miller union deteriorated and was over by the time the movie was released in 1961. A year later, Monroe was dead. Miller did not attend the funeral.

“After the Fall” was produced two years later. Directed by Kazan, with whom Miller had reconciled, the 1964 production starred Jason Robards as a lawyer who reflects on his two marriages, the second of which bore strong resemblance to the playwright’s ill-fated union with Monroe. People who saw the play assumed the Barbara Loden character -- an over-medicated, emotionally abusive seductress who ultimately overdoses on sleeping pills -- was Miller’s celebrated ex-wife, whose death had elevated her from sex symbol to martyr.

The idea for the play had come to Miller when he was still married to Monroe and was asked to write a screenplay based on Camus’ “The Fall.” Although he turned down the screenwriting job, he continued to ponder the moral dilemma Camus had posed about a man who witnessed a woman’s suicide and failed to stop her. His play was “about Morality and guilt. It’s about Miller,” Kazan, as quoted in Gottfried’s 2003 biography of the playwright, observed. But to Miller, “After the Fall” was simply a play that asked how responsible any person was for his own life.

Critics, however, were unable to ignore the parallels to Miller’s life. Reacting to Miller’s harsh treatment of the character they assumed was Monroe, they denounced the play as sensationalistic and exploitative. Robert Brustein, writing in the New Republic, called it “an act of exhibitionism, which makes us all voyeurs.”

The critical barrage marked a turning point in Miller’s career. “His image of moral integrity was destroyed,” Gottfried wrote. “Arthur Miller the playwright, the political figure, the celebrity -- all of them were being buried under this storm of righteous rage.”

Although his popularity on the stage was fading, more than a dozen Miller plays were produced over the next several decades, including “Incident at Vichy,” “The Price,” “The Creation of the World and Other Business,” “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” “The American Clock,” “The Last Yankee” and “Resurrection Blues.” His last play, “Finishing the Picture,” which revisits the Monroe mythology, earned mixed reviews.

By the time “Death of a Salesman” was earning a new round of applause in its 50th anniversary year, Miller had dismissed Broadway as a viable outlet for serious nonmusical drama.

Despite his displeasure with the state of his art, the grand old man of American theater never stopped working. He was an active presence in the Broadway revivals of “The Crucible” in 2001 and “After the Fall” in 2004, and at 89 he continued to refine his craft.

“Arthur,” said Falls, his frequent collaborator, “wrote every day of his life.”

“He was unremitting and remorseless in using his critical intelligence,” playwright Harold Pinter, a longtime friend, told the BBC on Friday. “He did this both as a man and as a playwright, and that’s why he’s such a remarkable figure.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Works by Arthur Miller

Plays

No Villain (1936)

The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944)

All My Sons (1947)

Death of a Salesman (1949)

Adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1950)

The Crucible (1953)

A View from the Bridge (1955)

A Memory of Two Mondays (1955)

After the Fall (1964)

Incident at Vichy (1964)

The Price (1968)

The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)

The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977)

The American Clock (1980)

Elegy for a Lady (1982)

Some Kind of Love Story (1982)

Danger: Memory! (1987)

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991)

The Last Yankee (1993)

Broken Glass (1994)

Mr. Peter’s Connections (1998)

Resurrection Blues (2002)

Finishing the Picture (2004)

Screenplays

The Misfits (1961)

Playing for Time (1980)

Everybody Wins (1990)

The Crucible (1996)

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Excerpts from ‘Death of a Salesman’

“I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were,” Miller said of Willy Loman, the hero of “Death of a Salesman,” which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Old Dave, he’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his green velvet slippers -- I’ll never forget them -- and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without even leaving his room, at the age of 84, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of 84, into 20 or 30 different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? Do you know? when he died ... hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that.... In those days there was personality in it.... There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear -- or personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me any more.

-- Willy Loman

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There were promises made across this desk! You mustn’t tell me you’ve got people to see -- I put 34 years into this firm ... and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit!

-- Willy Loman

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A salesman ... don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back -- that’s an earthquake.... Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

-- Charley, a neighbor

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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.

-- Linda Loman, Willy’s wife


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