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Who is Arthur Miller?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Arthur Miller was an American playwright, best known for his plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, and his high-profile private life. He was born in 1915, in New York City, and died in 2005 at the age of 89. Over the course of his long career he won numerous awards, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest playwrights in American history.

Arthur Miller was born to upper-middle class Jewish parents before the outbreak of the first World War. On the advent of the Great Depression, when he was only fourteen years old, his family’s business failed, and the family was forced to reduce the cost of their lifestyle drastically, settling into a more comfortably middle-class life. With these limited means, Miller was forced to work a number of simple jobs to earn money to pay college tuition, and at that time he read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which inspired him to become a writer. Eventually he saved enough to pay tuition, and was able to attend the University of Michigan, where he wrote No Villain, which won the Avery Hopwood Award.

Out of college, Miller immediately began working professionally as a writer. He joined the Federal Theater Project, until it was shut down over fears of Communist ties, after which he wrote screenplays. During this time he also continued to hone his playwriting abilities, and in 1944 he had The Man Who Had All the Luck produced, and it subsequently won the National Award of the Theater Guild.

By 1944, at the age of 29, Arthur Miller had his first play produced on Broadway, The Man Who Had All the Luck. Although a resounding flop, closing after four shows, he continued to work at his craft, and in 1947 he had All My Sons produced, which won two Tony Awards and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, ensuring Miller’s place in Broadway theatre. His next play, Death of a Salesman, produced in 1949, cemented his reputation as a giant of a playwright, and propelled Arthur Miller to the forefront of American theatre.

Death of a Salesman is a seminal piece of the modern American stage, following a salesman, Willy Loman, through his past and present as he struggles with the failure of the American dream. Ultimately, Willy sacrifices his own life to give his son, Biff, a chance to realize the dream through the insurance money. The play has remained popular, with productions regularly produced both in community theatres and on main stages throughout the country. At the time of its release, Death of a Salesman won the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Tony Award for best play, making Arthur Miller the first playwright to win all three of these awards for one play.

The next chapter in his life was much less positive, as Arthur Miller came under investigation by the House of Un-American Activities for purported connections between his work and Communism. Miller was subpoenaed not long after his high-profile marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and Monroe accompanied him to his hearing. Miller gave detailed information about all of his own movements and activities, but when pressed to name names, he refused, resulting in a conviction of Contempt of Congress, which was eventually overturned.

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Discussion Comments

By lightninguy — On May 02, 2014

It would be interesting to hear more about Miller's later career and plays.

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