Interviewer Charlie Rose once asked Arthur Miller what the great American playwrights—Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Miller himself—had in common. "I personally think that what the big ones have in common is a fierce moral sensibility," Miller told Rose. "They are all burning with some anger at the way the world is."2 Among the pantheon of great American dramatists, Arthur Miller stands out as the writer most committed to this ideal: that with passion, hard work and determination, a person can make the world a better place. For Miller, writing was an act of defiance, of courage, a way to (acceptably) slap people across the face and wake them up to reality. "In play after play," one drama critic wrote, "he holds man responsible for his and for his neighbor's actions."3
Though audiences around the world have found parallels to their own cultures in Miller's plays, his was a distinctly American life and career. Whether he was writing about the dark underbelly of the American dream in Death of a Salesman or political persecution in The Crucible, Miller had the uncanny ability to tap into the deepest part of the American psyche at just the right moment. His own life was sort of a Forrest Gump-esque journey through twentieth-century American history: the son of hard-working immigrant parents busted by the Depression, his adventures included fame, marriage to an American icon (Marilyn Monroe), and persecution under McCarthyism. He was a harsh critic of American policies, in part because he deeply loved his country. "Because America has been bigger on promises than any other country, she must be bigger by far on deliveries,"4he wrote in an impassioned 1968 essay, responding to the murder of Robert F. Kennedy.
Through it all, Miller kept writing, right up to his death in 2005 at the age of 89. Critics dismissed many of his later plays and stories as shadows of his earlier successes (though theater-goers abroad appreciated many works that American audiences did not). But Miller didn't really care what the critics said. As long as the world still had problems to solve, Arthur Miller still had something to say.