Master Playwright. Political Activist. Tabloid Sensation: Arthur Miller

Counted among the major cultural and historical touchstones of 1950s America are the rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Marilyn Monroe’s ill-fated stardom and the premiere of ground-breaking new plays like The Crucible and A View From the Bridge. Remarkably, all of these events were affected, to one degree or another, by Arthur Miller—a multi dimensional public figure who straddled the disparate social avenues of politics, theater and Hollywood. Critics and theatergoers appreciated his body of work for the stage—including his breakout play All My Sons (1947) and the iconic masterwork Death of a Salesman (1949), in addition to the aforementioned plays—while the general public came to know him as Monroe’s tall, bespectacled husband. And the content of The Crucible, which draws comparisons between the 17th century Salem witch trials and the 20th century U.S. government’s pursuit of communists, found Miller testifying before the HUAC. His playwriting alone would have been sufficient to secure him a place in history, but these triumphs, travails and more made Miller an indelible figure in a complex era.

Born in 1915 to the owner of a women’s coat company, Miller lived with his family in a spacious Manhattan apartment; they employed a chauffeur and invested any surplus money into the surging stock market. In 1929, this charmed childhood gave way to a financially difficult adolescence; the family moved to unglamorous quarters in Brooklyn when the elder Miller’s stocks and business simultaneously plummeted. Miller went on to attend the University of Michigan, where he befriended radicals over fraternity boys; as Miller biographer Martin Gottfried notes, “the Wall Street crash had turned Arthur Miller into a have-not… Miller was already angry with what America’s economic system had done to his family. Extending these convictions to include an admiration for the Soviet Union probably seemed natural.”

Student writing competitions—in particular, the annual $250 Hopwood Prize for undergraduate playwrights—turned Miller’s career aspirations from journalism to playwriting. Because $250 in 1936 equates to about $4,500 today, playwriting must have seemed a more appealing moneymaking opportunity than his campus jobs washing dishes and cleaning laboratory rats’ cages. Miller set to work on a play called No Villain, a barely fictionalized piece about his own family. Though his play technically earned second place, both he and the winner were awarded $250. Miller changed his major to English. Following this and other college successes, Miller continued to develop his writing after graduation—but at first found little success. At the same time, he worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, married his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, and had two children. In 1947, at age 32, Miller’s breakthrough came: All My Sons, which depicted a family whose patriarch knowingly sold defective military equipment to the military during World War II. The idea for the play was based on a real event brought to Miller’s attention when his mother-in-law showed him a newspaper article. All My Sons triumphed on Broadway and established Miller’s reputation as a skilled writer deeply concerned with American culture and family life.

Two years later, Miller proved himself a seminal playwright of the American theater when Death of a Salesman—the story of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman whose lifelong pursuit of the American dream leaves him vacant and still searching—became the first play to earn the 1949 Tony Award and New York Drama Critics Circle Award, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on their wedding day in 1956.
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on their wedding day in 1956.

Death of a Salesman’s director, Elia Kazan, was summoned a few years later to appear before the HUAC, where he outed several colleague as communists. Miller, spurred by both Kazan’s experiences and by the ideals he had embraced since his college days, traveled to Salem, Massachusetts, to research the witch trials. This research led to The Crucible, which premiered in 1953. Miller’s comparison of the witch trials to the actions of the HUAC clearly caught the committee’s attention, as Miller was subsequently denied a passport when he wished to attend The Crucible’s London premiere. In 1955, a one-act version of A View From the Bridge premiered on Broadway alongside A Memory of Two Mondays. A View From the Bridge tells the story of Eddie Carbone, a Brooklyn longshoreman who harbors an inappropriate obsession with his wife’s teenage niece, Catherine; as she reaches adulthood and meets a boyfriend, Eddie’s desperation spirals. Inspired by ancient Greek drama, the play places quintessentially American characters into classical tragic situations. The initial production was a success, and Miller revised and lengthened A View From the Bridge in the following year, creating his definitive two-act version. Meanwhile, his affair with Marilyn Monroe, whom he had met in 1951 and remained in contact with, had grown increasingly public. Mary threw him out of the house, and when Miller applied for a routine passport renewal, he was summoned to appear before the HUAC. Miller’s refusal to name names during this meeting resulted in a judge finding him guilty of contempt of congress, a conviction which was later overturned in a court of appeals. Nine days following his appearance before the HUAC, Miller married Monroe on June 29, 1956. Four months later, on October 11, the two-act A View From the Bridge premiered in London and sold an unprecedented number of tickets—in part, due to the duo’s status as a power couple.

Arthur Miller in rehearsal for Finishing the Picture at the Goodman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Arthur Miller in rehearsal for Finishing the Picture at the Goodman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Miller and Monroe’s marriage lasted five star-studded but challenging years; by the end, her drug addictions, infidelity and mental illness rendered a healthy relationship impossible, and these problems led to Monroe’s probable suicide shortly thereafter. Miller married a third time, had two more children and continued to write until shortly before his death in 2005. His last play, Finishing the Picture, premiered at Goodman Theatre in 2004, directed by Artistic Director Robert Falls. The play is a slightly fictionalized telling of the time he and Monroe spent on the set of The Misfits in 1960, as their marriage deteriorated and their time in the spotlight waned. Like Miller’s other work, including A View From the Bridge, it examined American life: what we idolize, what we long for and what we don’t always get.


Buy tickets and learn more about A View From the Bridge here. Onstage seating available. Tickets start at just $25!