One of the most acclaimed playwrights of all time, Arthur Miller wrote several popular and iconic plays that continue to be performed today, decades after they were originally written. Throughout the mid-20th century, Miller was a major public figure thanks to his high-profile marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe and his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Miller considered himself a social playwright with his works often focusing on deep, universal themes, offering a critical view on society and culture. Family, personal responsibility, and morality were recurring themes in his work, utilizing characters that struggled to balance their principles with reality.
While he was reserved and quiet, Arthur Miller was able to provide extensive social commentary on complicated subjects, often questioning authority and society. In Martin Gottfried's 2003 biography Arthur Miller: His Life and Work, the author notes, "For someone so socially concerned, however, Arthur Miller was a remote person, detached, contained and internalized, a man who would not, could not and did not reveal his innermost feelings." Writing was a natural outlet for Miller, using it as a medium to study the complexities of human nature and often drawing inspiration from his own life.
Arthur Miller was born October 17, 1915 in Harlem, in the New York City borough of Manhattan to August and Isidore Miller. His father Isidore was a wealthy businessman whose women's clothing company employed around 400 people and the family owned a summer house in Queens. Isidore invested heavily in the stock market and when the Great Depression occured, the family lost nearly everything and moved to Brooklyn. As a teenager, Arthur would wake up at four in the morning to deliver bread to help his family financially and later worked several jobs to save for his tuition at the University of Michigan. He traveled by bus to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend college with $500 to his name to cover tuition and expenses.
While attending college, Miller wrote for The Michigan Daily, the school's student newspaper, and he quickly developed a greater interest in political matters. After initially majoring in journalism, Miller changed his mind and became an English major. In 1936, during spring break of his sophomore year, he wrote his first play No Villain in less than a week and won the Avery Hopwood award in Drama, along with $250.
It was a remarkable achievement for someone who had never written a play before, earning him recognition and encouraging him to pursue a career as a playwright. Years later Miller remarked, "For a 19-year-old who knew he wanted to write, even though I didn't know what I'd write, the fact that the University gave a dollar prize meant they took writing seriously here."
The following year, Miller attended playwriting classes taught by influential drama professor Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, learning how to properly create a play so that it achieves its intended effect or what Miller later referred to as "the dynamics of play construction." Miller received valuable feedback and encouragement from Rowe and the two remained lifelong friends. Miller graduated in 1938, earning a Bachelor's degree in Language and Literature and later looked back on his time in college saying it was the "testing ground for all my prejudices, my beliefs and my ignorance, and it helped lay the boundaries of my life." (Gottfried, pg. 48).
After graduating, Miller accepted a job with the Federal Theatre Project, a program established as part of the New Deal to fund live artistic performances and entertainment programs. He was paid $23 a week to write radio plays and scripts and turned down a lucrative job as a scriptwriter with Twentieth Century Fox where he would have earned $250 a week.
Refusing such a major career opportunity was largely due to Miller's perceived artistic purity as a young writer, later writing in his autobiography Timebends: A Life:
Miller's time with the Theatre Project was short lived as the House Committee on Un-American Activities claimed the program was perpetuating a communist agenda and congressional funding was cut, effectively ending it in 1939. The following year, Miller married Mary Grace Slattery who he had met in college; they would have two children, Jane and Robert.
Miller's next major play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1940), centers on David Beeves, a young, self-taught auto mechanic from a small Midwestern town who discovers he possesses unbelievably good luck while he watches others around him fail. Over the course of the story, David realizes that his hard work and kind heart is what made him successful rather than luck. Miller later said the play "wrestled with the unanswerable — the question of the justice of fate, how it was that one man failed and another, no more or less capable, achieved some glory in life. Perhaps I was refracting my own feelings of a mysterious power gathering within me, contrasting it with its absence in others." (pg. 90).
It took four years for the The Man Who Had All the Luck to reach New York City and was Miller's first work to appear on Broadway. Despite receiving the Theater Guild National Award, the play was poorly received and ran for only four performances. The negative reviews and the play's failure nearly ruined Miller's career, but he continued writing novels and radio plays throughout the '40s.
Commercial Success And Awards
Miller found success in 1947 with All My Sons, a three-act play that ran for 328 performances on Broadway and earned Miller a Tony Award for Best Author. It was Miller's final attempt to write a commercially successful play and if it failed, he vowed to pursue a different career. The play was a critical success and was later adapted into a film in 1948, starring Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster.
The play is based upon a true story, which Miller's mother-in-law read in an Ohio newspaper, about an aeronautical corporation in the state that conspired with army inspection officers between 1941 and 1943 to approve defective aircraft engines made for military use. All My Sons explored the lingering effects of war, family turmoil, and expressed a critical view of the American Dream as its main character literally profits from war.
Miller recounted in Collected Plays how he felt watching the audience react to All My Sons:
Miller's success continued with the 1949 play Death of a Salesman, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several Tony Awards, including one for Best Play. It's largely considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century and focuses on Willy Loman, a struggling, insecure, and self-deluded salesman who feels popularity and wealth are needed to be happy. Death of a Salesman explores Willy's fragmented memories, recollections, and re-creations of the past, becoming more irrational as the play progresses as he's unable to merge his grand illusions with his depressing reality.
Marilyn Monroe And The Crucible
In 1950, Miller met actress Marilyn Monroe at a Hollywood party and they instantly developed a connection. Miller was unhappy with his current marriage and Monroe appreciated how Miller made her feel safe and treated her with respect. However, it would be four years before they would see each other again though they exchanged letters in the interim. Shortly after divorcing her second husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, Monroe began an affair with Miller, with the pair becoming more serious after Miller separated from his wife. They were an unlikely couple as Miller was a renowned, award-winning playwright and Monroe was viewed as a Hollywod sex symbol, lauded more for her attractiveness despite being a talented actress.
It was during this time that Miller began writing The Crucible (1953), a dramatized and semi-fictionalized story about the Salem witch trials that took place between 1692-93 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The play is an allegory for McCarthyism, a political attitude and era when the United States government was prosecuting those accused of being communists during the Second Red Scare. The Crucible provides a critical look at mob mentality and the dangers associated with witch hunts, with its protagonists upholding their moral principles even when faced with death, refusing to falsely confess or implicate other innocent people to save themselves. The play served as a thinly veiled social commentary that expressed Miller's disdain for the communist witch hunts and it quickly attracted Congress' attention.
Shortly after the The Crucible opened, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) became interested in Miller's activities and denied him a passport renewal in 1956 to accompany Monroe to England where she was acting in a film. While attempting to renew his passport, Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC to testify about his alleged communist ties. Though he wasn't a member of the Communist Party, Miller had attended a handful of meetings during the late '40s but lost interest. Miller appeared before the HUAC on June 21, 1956, accompanied by his soon-to-be wife Marilyn Monroe. It was a daring choice for Monroe and she was warned that it could jeopardize her career, but she ignored the advice and remained devoted to Miller.
Before his appearance, Miller requested that the committee not ask him to name specific individuals, to which the HUAC chairman agreed. However, the committee abandoned that promise and demanded Miller give names of friends or associates who engaged in similar political activities. When asked who was at the parties Miller attended, he refused to give up names, saying, "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him. These were writers, poets, as far as I could see, and the life of a writer, despite what it sometimes seems, is pretty tough. I wouldn't make it any tougher for anybody. I ask you not to ask me that question."
The following year, a judge found Miller guilty of contempt of Congress for obstructing the work of the committee and he faced fines, prison time, and being blacklisted from the entertainment industry. The ruling was later overturned by a court of appeals, deciding that Miller had been misled by the committee's chairman prior to giving his testimony.
In the midst of the HUAC controversy Miller married Monroe, who had just turned 30 and questioned if she still wanted to be an actress. She once told Miller, "I hate Hollywood. I don't want it anymore. I want to live quietly in the country and just be there when you need me. I can't fight for myself anymore." (Meyers, 2009). Things started off great for the newlyweds; Miller's kids adored Monroe, she got along with her in-laws, and her life became more normal.
Monroe expressed her love for Miller in one of her diary entries, writing, "I am so concerned about protecting Arthur. I love him — and he is the only person — human being I have ever known that I could love not only as a man to which I am attracted to practically out of my senses — but he is the only person — as another human being that I trust as much as myself."
The couple would encounter several hardships during their marriage, including experiencing two miscarriages and Monroe's worsening dependence on barbiturates to help her sleep. In 1960, Miller was hired to write the screenplay for John Huston's film The Misfits, starring Monroe and Clark Gable. During the filming of the movie, Miller and Monroe's marriage was rapidly deteriorating. Monroe's addiction to pills became more severe as she would show up late to set and struggled to remember her lines. Miller had written the screenplay to help Monroe be seen as a serious actress, but she disliked the script and reportedly declared, "Arthur said it's his movie. I don't think he even wants me in it. It's all over. We have to stay with each other because it would be bad for the film if we split up now." (Kettler, 2020).
The couple separated shortly after the movie was completed and divorced the following year. Monroe looked back on her marriage with Miller, writing, "When the monster showed, Arthur couldn't believe it. I disappointed him when that happened. But I felt he knew and loved all of me. I wasn't sweet all through. He should love the monster too. But maybe I'm too demanding. I put Arthur through a lot, I know. But he also put me through a lot."
Monroe passed away in 1962 from an overdose at the age of 36 with the coroner's office classifying her death as a probable suicide. It was a tragic end for the talented, yet troubled actress and greatly impacted Miller despite the difficult years they experienced while married.
Miller reflected on Monroe's death in his autobiography:
Miller went on to explain his reasoning for not attending Monroe's funeral:
Family And Later Works
On the set of The Misfits Miller met his future wife, Inge Morath, who was working as a photographer for the film. The couple wed in early 1962 and later that year their daughter Rebecca was born. Rebecca would go on to become a successful filmmaker and marry renowned actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who starred as John Proctor in the 1996 film adaptation of The Crucible.
Miller and Morath also had a son, Daniel, who was born in 1966 with Down Syndrome, which Miller couldn't come to terms with and sent the baby to live in an institution. This is perhaps the darkest part of Miller's life and his most mysterious as few people are even aware he had a fourth child. It's also likely that Miller was influenced to institutionalize his son by medical professionals, who at the time encouraged parents to put their children away if they required tremendous care.
In Miller's biography, author Martin Gottfried noted: "Arthur Miller would never recognize or mention this son in any public fashion. His sister Joan said, 'Daniel was a very difficult subject for Arthur.' None of his official or professional chronologies includes the birth and Daniel does not exist in his father's autobiography."
A 2007 article in Vanity Fair titled "Arthur Miller's Missing Act" explored the complex, troubling history of Miller and his son:
Miller's play After the Fall is perhaps his most personal, incorporating elements from his marriage to Monroe. Several reviews criticized Miller for creating the character Maggie as she seemed to be directly inspired by Monroe, both sharing a similar background and exhibiting self-destructive tendencies. The Price debuted in 1968 and was Miller's most successful play since Death of a Salesman. The Price focuses on family secrets and the power of the past, written by Miller in response to the Vietnam War.
Miller wrote several successful plays in the following decades, won many notable awards, and remained married to Morath until her death in 2002. Shortly after his wife's passing, Miller met minimalist painter Agnes Barley and they began dating, eventually living together on his Connecticut farm. Miller passed away on February 10, 2005 from congenital heart failure, surrounded by his family and close friends on the 56th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman. Somewhat surprising is that six weeks before his death, Miller made his son Daniel a full and direct heir to his estate, equal to Miller's three other children.
Miller And Pipes
Along with being an accomplished playwright, Miller was also a pipe smoker and developed an interest in the hobby early in life. In a 1975 New York Times article titled "Smokers Are Like Their Pipes — Varied but With Some Similarities," Miller mentioned, "I've been smoking a pipe since I was a young man." He goes on to say, "Choosing a pipe for the day is one of the great mysteries of life."
"One suddenly looks good and promising and you pick it and it stays good for days," he continued. "Then, it can become bitter and you lay it aside for three months." (Whitman, 1975). Miller also mentions as you smoke pipes over time, you gradually find your favorite, and that he prefers to let a pipe rest for a few days before smoking it again. It's a brief but rare glimpse into Miller's thoughts on pipes, expressing views likely shared by other pipe smokers.
Photographs show that Miller enjoyed Dunhill's My Mixture blends, though it's unclear which ones, but the paint can style tins indicate they were likely blended at American Dunhill stores. It's also possible that Miller may have had his own personal, numbered blend recorded in the tobacconist's book.
The late Joseph Lentine, the long time manager and master tobacconist of New Haven's historic Owl Shop, recalled in an interview years ago how Arthur Miller would sit and smoke Dunhill pipe tobacco during the production of his plays across the street. (Harrington, 2008). For pipe shapes, Miller appears to have preferred classic designs in both straight and bent configurations, He primarily smoked Dunhill pipes and can be seen in one photograph smoking a Dunhill bent Billiard next to Marilyn Monroe. In another photograph, he appears to be smoking a Dunhill Bulldog while sorting through papers on his desk.
Arthur Miller was a brilliant playwright but also a flawed, complicated man. His life was filled with tragedies and hardships, but Miller drew from them to create plays that are relatable, memorable, and timeless. One of the most prestigious awards Miller received during his lifetime was The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, an annual award given to someone who has "made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life." Arthur Miller certainly did just that, leaving behind a body of work that continues to remain relevant and thought provoking.