Study Guide

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller Introduction

By the time American playwright Arthur Miller died in 2005, he had written more than two dozen plays over the course of a career that lasted almost 70 years. Though he's best remembered for standouts like Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and The Crucible, every play Miller wrote was created with the same goal—to make the world a better place, even if it meant, as he once said, "grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck."blank">Reaganism, to the failure of the American Dream, all in a way that helped audiences understand the issue by showing them a piece of themselves.

His go-to piece was the spleen, until the police were like, "Arthur, stop showing people their spleens, this is seriously messed up."

Miller was a relentless critic of America, in part because he believed so passionately in its promise. His own life was a version of the American Dream writ large—the son of hard-working immigrants, he rose to prominence via his own talent, married America's reigning bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, and fought off McCarthyism with the strength of his own principles. He changed American theater, but he also changed America.

Wow. The only thing we've changed recently is our underwear. 

...Actually, scratch that. We haven't changed anything recently. 

Arthur Miller Trivia

  • According to Miller's autobiography, when the character of John Proctor was executed at one 1953 performance of The Crucible, the audience "stood up and remained silent for a couple of minutes, with heads bowed," for at that same moment Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were being electrocuted for espionage.
  • Miller had serious beef with "The Lion King." The flamboyant Broadway adaptation of the animated Disney flick stood for everything the playwright believed was wrong with modern theatre.
  • Miller was also apparently born without a soul. C'mon, dude...it's "The Lion King." It's not supposed to be high art. 
  • In 1966, Miller's third wife Inge Morath gave birth to their son Daniel, who was born with Down Syndrome. The couple placed the boy in an institution. Miller never publicly acknowledged his disabled son, and Daniel was not present at any of Miller's memorial services.
  • Miller fell out with his longtime friend Elia Kazan over his response to HUAC subpoenas. Whereas Kazan named names, Miller refused to do so. However, some speculate that the men's shared attraction to Marilyn Monroe also played a part in their split—Kazan introduced Miller to Monroe, whom he had previously dated.
  • When Miller and Marilyn Monroe married in 1956, the acerbic writer Norman Mailer described their marriage as the joining of "the Great American Brain" and "the Great American Body." We hope she used a certain finger on that "Great American Body" to convey her feelings towards "the Great American Butthole."
  • As president of the writers' rights-group PEN, Miller wrote a letter in 1966 pleading for clemency for Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who was facing execution. When General Yakuba Gowon got Miller's letter, he contacted him to ask "with some incredulity whether I was the writer who had been married to Marilyn Monroe," Miller recalled. When the playwright confirmed that the bombshell had indeed been his wife, Gowon ordered Soyinka released. Soyinka won the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature. TL;DR: Marilyn Monroe is a lifesaving hero. 
  • Miller was elected to serve as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
  • When Vanessa Redgrave was cast as a Holocaust survivor in film Playing for Time, which Miller wrote, Jewish groups protested the decision because of her outspoken support of Palestinians. Miller refused to have her removed from the movie, saying, "To fire her now because of her political views would be blacklisting."
  • Miller's daughter Rebecca is married to the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who played the lead in the 1996 film version of The Crucible.

Arthur Miller Resources

Books

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (1949)
Critics have said that if Arthur Miller had never written anything but Death of a Salesman, he would still be considered a great playwright. The tragedy of Willie Loman is a monument to the disappointments of the American Dream. This play won more awards, including a Tony and Pulitzer, than any of Miller's other works.

Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953)
Miller's play about the Salem Witch Trials premiered as America was undergoing its own sort of witch hunt, with Senator Joseph McCarthy destroying lives in search of suspected communists. The real-life parallels are fascinating, but on its own The Crucible is a wrenching look at desire, fear, loyalty and courage.

Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (1987)
In his autobiography, Miller tells his own story with as much drama and emotion as he did his plays. The playwright addresses his personal and professional life, as well as the political battles and fascinating public figures he encountered in his long career.

Enoch Brater, Arthur Miller: a Playwright's Life and Works (2005)
An excellent biography that addresses in detail Miller's life and his plays. Brater, a professor of English and theater at Miller's alma mater Michigan, traces Miller's career from his humble New York roots to the center of a national political storm.

Christopher Bigsby, ed., Remembering Arthur Miller (2005)
Bigsby, Miller's authorized biographer, compiled these remembrances from actors, writers and others following Miller's death in 2005. The book offers insight into Miller from the point of view of those who knew him best.

Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1999)
Schrecker's book has been called the best single-volume explanation of the McCarthy phenomenon and its impact on the United States. Hope she stuck that on her LinkedIn.

Music

The Crucible Opera
Composer Robert Ward wrote an opera in 1961 based on Miller's play. The tension and life-or-death significance of the action in The Crucible lends itself to operatic drama. Ward's opera won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962.

The Crucible Soundtrack
The music chosen for a film adaptation usually echoes the mood of the story. Listen to George Fenton's score while you read the play for heightened drama.

"The Death of Arthur Miller"
In 2003, songwriters Tom Flannery and Lorne Clark set themselves the goal of writing a song a week, which they posted—lyrics and music included—for free on their blog. In February 2005, the week of Arthur Miller's death, they wrote this song in tribute to him. 

A View From the Bridge
Miller co-wrote the libretto for this opera, which is based on a one-act play Miller wrote in 1955. It focuses on life among New York's dockworkers. Miller and his friend Elia Kazan discussed this idea some years earlier—for Miller it became A View from the Bridge, and for Kazan it became the film On the Waterfront.

Marilyn Monroe
Miller's second (and certainly most famous) wife is an American icon in her own right. Some of her breathy renditions are classics—"Happy Birthday Mr. President," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"—and others presage her sad end, like the song "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)." She and Miller secretly dated before he left his wife to marry the actress—let's hope the song isn't about him.

Images

Arthur Miller
A portrait of the playwright.

Arthur Miller
The playwright in his younger days.

Miller and Monroe
The playwright with his second wife.

Miller and Morath
Miller with his third wife, photographer Inge Morath.

Miller and Kazan
Miller and longtime friend, director Elia Kazan.

HUAC
Miller testifies before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Movies & TV

The Crucible (1996)
If your teacher hasn't already made you watch this in class, bump it to the top of your Netflix queue—it's a compelling adaptation of one of Miller's best-known plays. Warning: You may find yourself more haunted by an imprisoned Daniel Day Lewis's unbrushed teeth than by Judge Danforth's perversions of justice.

Death of a Salesman (1985)
A 1951 film by Hungarian director Laslo Benedek was the first adaptation of Miller's classic play, but this made-for-TV production counts as our favorite. Dustin Hoffman stars as Willy Loman and John Malkovich plays his son Biff. Both men won Emmys for their roles. After this movie Hoffman went on to play an autistic person in "Rain Man," and John Malkovich went on to be fantastically creepy in everything else.

The Misfits (1961)
Miller wrote the screenplay for this film, directed by John Huston and starring his wife Marilyn Monroe. Though now a classic, the film was beset with problems during its making, from Huston's drinking and gambling habit to Monroe's drug dependency and fraying marriage. It was the final film for leading man Clark Gable, who died 12 days after filming ended, as well as for Monroe, who died of a drug overdose a year and a half later.

Playing for Time (1980)
Miller wrote the screenplay for this made-for-TV adaptation of the autobiography of Fania Fenelon, a Jewish musician who survived Auschwitz by playing the violin for her Nazi guards. The movie was well-received by many people but not by Fenelon, who hated Vanessa Redgrave's portrayal of her. She said that she had wanted to be played by Liza Minnelli. You can make your own call about who would have done the better job.

Everybody Wins (1990)
It's a good thing Miller didn't like critics—this film (whose screenplay he wrote) bombed upon release. Nick Nolte and Debra Winger star in this story of a mysteriously murdered doctor, the private investigator on the case, and the crazy lady who insists she knows who really did it.

None Without Sin (2003)
This documentary from the PBS American Masters series chronicles the careers of Arthur Miller and director Elia Kazan. It focuses on the men's very different responses to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Their long friendship dissolved in the toxic stew of the anticommunist witch hunt, though some speculate that their shared desire for Marilyn Monroe also played a part in their split.

Websites

Arthur Miller Society Official Website
The official site of Miller academia. If you're looking for a bunch of Miller eggheads who will do your work for you, look somewhere else. "While sympathetic to students writing papers, we do not write those papers for you," the site says. As people similarly opposed to cheating, we back the Society up.

National Endowment for the Humanities
In 2001 the National Endowment for the Humanities asked Miller to give its annual Jefferson Lecture. In honor of the occasion, the organization compiled this site, which features essays in appreciation of Miller's career as well as the lecture itself.

PBS American Masters
PBS created this site as a companion to the excellent documentary "None Without Sin," which examines the responses of Miller and director Elia Kazan to McCarthyism. It's a great introduction to the HUAC phenomenon, despite the comments from disgruntled student visitors.

Professor Carpenter's List
Professor Charles A. Carpenter of Binghamton University has compiled this incredibly detailed timeline of Miller's life and career. For $20, he will email you a 125-page bibliography to what we assume is pretty much everything ever written by or about Arthur Miller.

Death of a Salesman
In 1999, director Robert Falls staged a revival of Death of a Salesman on Broadway, starring Brian Dennehy. The production was a huge success, and this website was created as a companion to the play. Its coolest feature is a compilation of reviews of every major Broadway production of Salesman from 1949 to 1999.

PEN
To get a sense of the political causes that inspired Miller most, take a look at the PEN website. The literary and human rights organization speaks out against censorship and on behalf of persecuted writers. The organization is as active today as it was when Miller was president in the 1960s.

Video & Audio

Miller speaks
A two-part interview with Miller about HUAC.

Charlie Rose
A fascinating 1992 interview with Miller on the state of modern theater.

Death of a Salesman
An interview with Miller about his reasons for writing the play, spliced with scenes of Dustin Hoffman's performance in Death of a Salesman.

Atheism
Miller speaks about his atheism.

Obituary
Miller's obituary on NPR.

Monroe Interview
Marilyn Monroe is interviewed about Miller after their engagement. (The sound quality isn't great, but watching the 1950s paparazzi in action is compelling.)

Monroe Interview Number Two
A brief interview with Monroe during Miller's HUAC trial.

Miller and Monroe
A short documentary about the famous pairing.

Primary Sources

Obituary
Miller's 2005 obituary in the New York Times.

"Looking for a Conscience"
Miller's 2003 essay on the relevance of modern theater.

"On the Shooting of Robert Kennedy"
An essay Miller penned after Kennedy's 1968 assassination.

"On Politics and the Art of Acting"
Miller's 2001 speech.

Oates on Loman
An essay by writer Joyce Carol Oates about Death of a Salesman.

Times Topics—Arthur Miller
The New York Times archive of all articles by and about Miller.