The life of a writer is not one to measure on a count of years. While the 17th October 2015 marked the hundredth year anniversary since the birth of Arthur Miller, the eminent playwright has earned a literary status that far surpasses the last century. His four most legendary works – All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953) and A View from the Bridge (1955) – have gained a cherished place in the canon of American theatre, and earned Miller a reputation as one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century, if of all time.
Born to a Jewish family in New York, he demonstrated an early passion for writing, scripting his first plays while still a student at the University of Michigan. He reminisced in his autobiography about his feeling that ‘with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do.’ In 1940, his first produced play, The Man Who Had All The Luck, closed to scathing reviews after four performances; in 1947, after seven years perfecting his ‘final shot’ at success, All My Sons was a Broadway triumph, gaining him a Tony Award for Best Author and establishing his reputation as a serious playwright.
Commended for the perfectness of their dramatic construction, the plays have drawn much comparison with the early forms of Greek tragedy. But Miller just as equally subverted some of the key traditions of this genre. He demoted the tragic hero to the level of the common man, so that the problems he dramatised could apply to any member of the audience. He also refined the notion of the tragic flaw by making each of his heroes the product of their environment, rather than a personal weakness, thus creating more fully-fledged, sympathetic characters.
It is significant that Miller has, first and foremost, always been considered an American playwright.
His plays probe the moral consciousness of America, deconstructing ideas surrounding the American Dream, class and race. All My Sons explores the guilt of a father who sold defective equipment to plane manufacturers with fatal consequences, a corrupt metaphor for the financial gains America made during WWII. Death of a Salesman is a powerful attack on Capitalist society. The Crucible uses the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the communist fears that hit America during the Red Scare of the McCarthy era.
Against these loaded political backdrops, however, the tragedies are consistently grounded in the personal family dramas at the centre of the play. Willy Loman is consumed with self-delusion at the unfulfilled paths of his family’s lives. John Proctor of The Crucible has his fate sealed by his wife’s inability to publicly acknowledge his adultery. Eddie Carbone of A View from the Bridge, struggling to suppress the incestuous desires he harbours for his niece, reports her fiancé to the illegal immigration authority, a fatal betrayal to his community.
Years on, it is this recognition of small human tragedies within the scope of wider social commentary which makes Miller such a powerful playwright. It’s no coincidence that two plays were Olivier-nominated in categories of both Best Actor and Revival, and to have won on both counts. His exploration of the relationship between the individual and his society, the psychological and social factors affecting our choices and destinies, is what keeps the plays so urgently relevant.
I think it is Anthony Sher who best pinpoints the magic behind Miller’s artistry. The actor, who gained critical acclaim in his portrayal of Willy Loman in the RSC’s revival of Death of a Salesman, observed: ‘Miller writes about the experience of being human in a very raw but very compassionate way. We recognise ourselves in his characters, and that’s a timeless thing. In this respect, Miller is like Shakespeare. You don’t need an excuse to do Hamlet or Lear; contemporary circumstances don’t need to be right to make those plays relevant. I feel the same about Miller’s work.’
‘Do you ever think about what your legacy would be?’ one interviewer asked Miller. ‘Some good parts for actors,’ came his modest reply – for his legacy reaches far deeper than this. Ever provocative, ever questioning and ever enlightening, the influence of his drama will continue to light up worldwide stages for a long time to come, and is boundless in its future potential.