Arthur Miller: A Timeless Playwright

By Eleanor Dye, Second year English Literature student.

In 2005, the year of Arthur Miller’s death, the Wall Street Journal Obituary discussed ‘The Great Pretender: Arthur Miller wasn’t well-liked- and with good reason’. In 2011, Charlotte Higgins wrote an article for the Guardian titled ‘Arthur Miller: Why America Lowered the Curtain on his Reputation’. Certainly, Miller was a controversial figure. With political leanings to the left that led to accusations of communism by McCarthy and controversy over his son, Miller did not necessarily portray an America that the country wanted to see. Yet in 2019, with a sensational series of four Arthur Miller plays due on the London stage this year – and the consistent presence of Miller works in educational syllabuses and curriculum – there seems to have been an overwhelming resurge of Miller’s popularity: more so, his status as the writer of American classics.

So, the question is: what changed? And why does Miller still enjoy such popularity in the twenty-first century?

“We recognise ourselves in his characters and that’s a timeless thing”

Sir Anthony Sher

Where Miller’s controversies once cast a shadow over his reputation, the very reasons for his ill-reputation have brought him repeatedly back into the spotlight of theatre. His high profile as a target of McCarthy in post-World War Two America, his fateful marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his political activism in opposition to the war in Vietnam all positioned Miller as a prominent figure even without his success as a playwright. The 2015 centennial celebrations of Miller’s life raised his profile and refocused the view of his plays as out of fashion to ones that focus on the deeper psychological motivations behind his characters and that still have an urgent message to tell their audiences.

The plays themselves are very much of their time and reflect Miller’s political beliefs, portraying big questions and contemporary themes. The American Clock, due to be performed at the Old Vic, powerfully explores the Great Depression and capitalism in the US. Meanwhile, The Crucible, Miller’s most produced play, reacted against the House of Un-American Activities Committee and its excessive accusations of communism through the lens of Salem witch hunts and persecutions set in 1692. Miller himself was cited for contempt and given a $500 fine, but the controversy underlying this play was in fact what sparked its prominence.

Actor Sir Antony Sher, who played Willy Loman in the RSC’s 2015 production of Death of a Salesman, said of Miller that ‘we recognise ourselves in his characters and that’s a timeless thing’ (Quoted in John McKie’s article ‘Arthur Miller: a Hundred Years Young’). Indeed, the intensity and relevance of Death of a Salesman especially seems to have a recurring resonance in the overworked society of the twenty-first century too, and it is due to be performed at the Young Vic this year. Resonant and memorable lines such as ‘Attention, attention must finally be paid’, ‘a man is not a bird, to come and go with the springtime’ and ‘a salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory’ show the impact of the changing times after the war on the individual and his invisibility in the American Dream. The play’s final lines of ‘we’re free, we’re free, we’re free’ seem to take on a haunting quality that remains with an audience long after the play’s end. Willy, described from the outset in terms of his job ‘the salesman’, who believes the root of success is to be ‘well-liked’, is at odds and subjected to the opportunism of Capitalist America and his wife’s knowledge that ‘life is a casting off’.

The notion of the focus on the individual, epitomised through Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman allowed Miller to make significant contributions to drama and to tragedy as a whole. Whereas before tragedy had been characterised by a focus on a man of high status, firstly in classical times with Aristotle’s Poetics and later in the Renaissance with de casibus ideas of tragedy, Miller’s focus on the economic and mental struggles brought a new focus to tragedy. His essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” argued that ‘the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as kings were’, presenting Loman as a new and modern tragic hero. Miller also experimented with and contributed to a new form of theatre. As opposed to the realist tradition of lifelike scene changes and a logical chronological order to plays, Miller used expressionism to blend the fictive imaginings of Willy with reality and to blend the present with consistent flashbacks. The stage directions of Death of a Salesman state that ‘in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken’, exploring a large time scale despite the main action of the play only taking place in a single day.

Miller was not just a playwright permanently wrapped up in controversy. A focus on the individual, experimental theatre and showing an alternative side to the American Dream success story made his plays stand out among other playwrights in the twentieth century.

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