America is mourning the death of one of the nation’s most celebrated playwrights. Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Death of A Salesman, succumbed to heart failure Thursday (February 10) at the age of 89 at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.
Although Mr. Miller wrote comparatively few plays, each one had an indelible impact on the American theater. His first successful work came just after World War II. The 1947 drama All My Sons was the story of an unscrupulous wartime contractor who knowingly shipped to the military a faulty batch of aircraft engine parts -– and who was haunted and eventually destroyed by guilt.
Two years later, his powerful and most famous work, Death of a Salesman, also dealt with the struggles and moral dilemmas of the white working class. The play centers on Willy Loman, an aging door-to-door salesman, who is getting by -- in Miller’s words -– “on a smile and a shoeshine,” and struggling to find worth in the emptiness of his dreams. In desperation, he commits suicide so that his son might collect his life insurance money.
Death of a Salesman won Arthur Miller the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949, when he was just 33. It also garnered the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Tony Award. The play has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and Arthur Miller once described it as a universal metaphor.
“The salesman is a metaphorical idea in the play,” he said. “We’re all salesmen in the sense that we have to convince others that we exist. And Willy is that kind of a salesman, among other things.”
Miller’s third major play was 1953’s The Crucible, a story of the intolerance and mass hysteria that surrounded the infamous 17th century witchcraft trials in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. But The Crucible was also an indictment of the political witch-hunt underway in America during the early 1950s, when extremist lawmakers tried to purge communist sympathizers from U.S. government posts and other positions of influence.
Arthur Miller was one of those accused of being a communist. When he was summoned to testifybefore the House Un-American Activities Committee, Mr. Miller refused to “name names” and identify any associates as communist sympathizers.
The 1950s also brought Mr. Miller unwanted notoriety for his tumultuous marriage to Hollywood’s most famous actress, Marilyn Monroe. In 1961, he wrote the screenplay for The Misfits, the film that would feature Ms. Monroe in her last screen appearance. Their marriage also became the basis for his play, After the Fall, first staged in 1964.
In 1984, Arthur Miller received a lifetime achievement award at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for his contributions to American culture. During the ceremony, actor Karl Malden -- who appeared in Mr. Miller’s first play -- paid tribute to the playwright’s unique gifts.
“I pulled out [the script for] All My Sons,” he told the distinguished crowd. “And there, inscribed, was: ‘For Karl, for whom I didn’t make it very easy in this one.’ Well, Arthur, let me tell you, you’re not supposed to make it easy for actors. You’re supposed to make it interesting, exciting, provocative and above all, challenging. And that you did in all your plays.”
Arthur Miller continued to write plays, novels and travel essays well into his ninth decade. In 1999, 50 years after the Broadway debut of Death of A Salesman, a new production of the drama opened to outstanding reviews. It won several Tony awards that year, including Best Actor and Best Revival of a Play.
Arthur Miller is being remembered as a writer who shared with American and international audiences a willingness to face major issues of the day with honesty and conviction. In doing so, he enriched the theater everywhere -- a respectable legacy for any dramatist.