Christopher Bigsby

Arthur Miller

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Arthur Miller Summary

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Arthur Miller (1995) is a non-fiction biography by British author Christopher Bigsby. Best known for writing Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Arthur Miller is widely considered one of the finest playwrights of the twentieth century. As a close friend and student of Miller’s, Bigsby is uniquely well-suited to crafting the definitive biography of his former teacher.

Born on October 17, 1905, in New York City, Miller was the third child of a wealthy family of Polish Jewish descent. Though his father owned a successful women’s clothing business, the family lost much of its fortune after the 1929 Wall Street crash. After moving to a smaller house in Brooklyn following the crash, Miller worked every day delivering bread in the morning before school to help keep his family from financial ruin. According to Bigsby, this experience—along with his friendship with a Marxist-leaning fellow student—helped shape the political views that would influence Miller’s life and work for decades to come. Bigsby writes, “Having been raised to feel that it was better to be a boss than a worker, Miller now met someone who suggested it was quite the other way round.”

Miller continued to work a number of menial jobs through high school so he could eventually afford to pay his tuition at the University of Michigan. There, he majored in journalism and later English before deciding he wanted to be a successful playwright. Upon graduating, Miller turned down a lucrative scriptwriting job at 20th Century Fox to join the Federal Theatre Project, an agency established by the New Deal. Unfortunately, Congress shuttered the endeavor, fearing that it would subsidize Communist ideas.

After relocating to New York, Miller made a living writing radio plays. In 1940, he married his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery, and began writing his first play ever produced, The Man Who Had All the Luck, which debuted on Broadway in 1944. Despite winning the Theatre Guild’s National Award, the play was panned by critics and closed after just four performances. It would be three years before Miller produced another play, All My Sons, which was a huge success, winning him a Tony Award for Best Author and establishing him as a major American playwright.

The next year, Miller wrote his signature work, Death of a Salesman, over the course of just six weeks. According to Bigsby, Death of a Salesman was inspired by the commercial failures of Miller’s own father. Through his story of hapless salesman Willy Loman, Miller sought to capture a generation that had been cheated by the promises of capitalism. Both a critical and commercial success, Death of a Salesman became the first play ever to win the Tony Award for Best Author, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the New York Drama Circle Critics Award in the same year. The play also marked the beginning of Miller’s tumultuous personal and professional relationship with the legendary film and theater director Elia Kazan, who directed the play’s initial Broadway run.

Miller’s next play would be one of his most aesthetically and historically significant works. Though Miller had long been exposed to anti-Communist paranoia, these suspicions had reached a fever pitch in the creative community during the early 1950s, in large part due to the aggressive fearmongering of US Senator Joseph McCarthy. Seeing a connection between witch trials and McCarthyism, Miller decided to write a play about the anti-witch hysteria that gripped Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, resulting in the murder of nineteen men and women and two dogs.

Around this time, an agency led by McCarthy known as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) engaged in pressuring Miller and other prominent artists to accuse their peers in the creative community of Communism or other “anti-American” activities. Bigsby writes that when Miller saw Kazan’s wife’s reaction upon hearing the subject of Miller’s new play, Miller knew that Kazan intended to “name names” to McCarthy’s committee. Indeed, in 1952, Kazan testified to HUAC that eight of his fellow members of the Group Theatre collective had belonged to the Communist Party. Kazan’s testimony ruined most of their careers. Disappointed and disgusted by what he viewed as a lack of integrity, Miller ended his friendship with Kazan.

The next year, Miller’s Salem witch-hunt play, The Crucible, was released. Miller made no secret of the connections between Salem and McCarthyism, and as a result, he was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC in 1956. Forthcoming about his own political activities, Miller refused to “name names” as Kazan did. In response, a judge found Miller guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced him to prison. Though the conviction was overturned, Miller’s career never recovered.

Bigsby also explores Miller’s much-publicized second marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe, whom he married in 1956, the same year as his HUAC testimony. Monroe accompanied Miller to the hearing, despite the risk this posed to her own career. Over the next four years, the two led a comparatively quiet and domestic life. The marriage fell apart in 1960, however, when Monroe returned to Hollywood to star in a movie written by Miller called The Misfits. Amid the stress of a Hollywood movie shoot, Monroe abused barbiturates and amphetamines. In 1962, nineteen months after divorcing Miller, Monroe died of a likely barbiturate overdose. According to Bigsby, Miller said he refused to go to Monroe’s funeral because “she won’t be there.”

Due to his close personal connection with Miller and his access to boxes of unpublished manuscripts, Bigsby was able to write a definitive biography of a twentieth-century icon.