Arthur Miller, 1915-2005: Giant of American theater had giftedness and guts

Arthur Miller, the man who wrote “Death of a Salesman,” died Feb. 10. And as Linda Loman told the sons of Willy Loman, that sad and epic American dreamer: “Attention must be paid.”

Miller, 89, died in his home in Roxbury, Conn. The cause was heart failure.

For nearly nine decades, that same heart served America’s pre-eminent playwright valiantly, in an active, prolific career as playwright, essayist and activist.

In dramas as formidable and stylistically diverse as “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” Miller transformed post-World War II Broadway into a public arena for moral combat, engaging audiences with questions of personal responsibility and political life.

In Miller’s first Broadway success, “All My Sons” (1947), the son of a middle-American industrialist and war profiteer reminds his mother “there’s a universe of people outside, and you’re responsible to it.” This became Miller’s refrain throughout his career.

“No one occupied a role in American culture comparable to his,” said “Angels in America” author Tony Kushner, his own generation’s pre-eminent left-wing playwright.

Broadway marquees dimmed their lights Feb. 11.

Arthur Asher Miller was one of three children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants in New York City. His father, Isadore, owned a prosperous women’s clothing company. His mother, Gittel (“Gussie”) Miller, taught school.

In 1929, the stock market crash wiped out the company. A shaken Miller clan moved to Brooklyn. The impact of the Depression informed all of Miller’s writing.

To earn money for college, Miller worked as a warehouse loader and shipping clerk. In 1934, he traveled to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, where he worked on the school paper and began writing plays.

Success didn’t come easily or quickly to Miller. His first Broadway venture, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” was a six-performance flop.

“I was lucky,” Miller once said. “I didn’t get too famous too quick.”

The Broadway success of “All My Sons,” a drama about a grimly compromised middle-American airplane parts manufacturer and his family, established Miller as a strong theatrical voice working in the well-made-play mode of Ibsen, one of his idols.

With that first flush of success, however, Miller drew a literary lion’s share of criticism. American anti-Communist groups successfully pressured the U.S. Army not to allow productions of “All My Sons,” a harsh indictment of war-profiteering Americans, to be toured in postwar Europe.

His Pulitzer winning “Death of a Salesman,” and its unforgettable Willy Loman (based on Miller’s salesman uncle, Manny), became the emblem of an economic system based on what Miller memorably called “a smile and a shoeshine.” The play ran for hundreds of performances and was translated into dozens of languages. It made Miller an instant millionaire, although the growing voices of political persecution called it anti-American.

It was Miller’s stance against McCarthyism that made him larger than life. With “The Crucible” (1953), Miller drew an implicit parallel between the 17th century Salem witch trials and the anti-Communist witch hunts of his own time.

In 1956, Miller was asked to name names of Communist Party members or sympathizers by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unlike his colleague Elia Kazan, who gave the committee names, Miller refused to bow to the political torrents of the times and told the committee: “My conscience will not permit me to use the name of another person.” He was cited with contempt of Congress. The charges were dismissed two years later, but it took a toll.

Miller involved himself in many progressive and democratic causes. Elected president of International PEN in 1965, he presided over the 1966 PEN Congress in New York, which according to a PEN statement “brought literary figures long barred from visiting the United States, including Pablo Neruda.”

Miller was part of a delegation to Cuba in 2000. While critical of Cuban President Fidel Castro, Miller maintained that the U.S. should end its embargo against the island nation.

In his final years, decrying the Bush administration and what he perceived as its bullying foreign policy, Miller remained a citizen and a playwright of the world.

Miller married three times, most recently to the photographer Inge Morath, who died in 2002. But his most famous marriage was to actress Marilyn Monroe from 1958-61. Miller had two children, Jane Ellen and Robert, by his first wife. He and Morath had a son, Daniel, and one daughter, Rebecca.

An old friend and fellow progressive, Studs Terkel, told the press Feb. 11, “He was a gifted man of the theater, but something else. He always spoke out. He spoke out for what he believed in, not only when it was unfashionable to speak out, but unsafe. Giftedness, and guts: Those are the words for this man.”