Arthur Miller: His Life and Work

Arthur Miller: His Life and Work

by Martin Gottfried


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Arthur Miller has been delivering powerful drama to the stage for decades with such masterpieces as Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge. But, remarkably, no one has yet told the full story of Miller's own extraordinary life-a rich life, much of it shrouded from public view. To achieve this groundbreaking portrait of the artist and the man, the award-winning drama critic and biographer Martin Gottfried masterfully draws on his interviews, on Miller's voluminous lifelong correspondence, and on the annotated scripts and notebooks that reveal Miller's creative process in stunning detail. From Miller's childhood and adolescence in Depression-era New York City to the 1947 play All My Sons that established him as a voice to be reckoned with...from his heroic defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy years to his most unlikely pairing with Marilyn Monroe: Here is a highly acclaimed book that is "compulsively readable" (Booklist, starred review).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780306813771
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication date: 08/18/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 504
Product dimensions: 1.15(w) x 6.00(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Martin Gottfried, winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism, is the author of Sondheim and All His Jazz, among other books. He lives in New York City, and Amagansett, NY.

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His Life and Work


ISBN: 0-306-81214-2

Chapter One

Early one morning in May 1940 a tall, skinny, bespectacled, nearly twenty-five-year-old Arthur Miller sat down at his typewriter, much as he did every morning in the cellar of his parents' house. But instead of working on a play he wrote a nine-page, single-spaced letter of despair to Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, who had taught his college playwriting class. The letter was a taking of stock, a looking back over what the young man had accomplished in the two years since his graduation.

He had, he wrote, accomplished nothing and had nothing to show for his efforts. While a few Broadway producers were interested in his plays, there were no takers. The most important of these producers, the Theatre Guild, at least offered what was intended as constructive criticism: Miller's plays were too challenging, not merely in the way they were written, but in what they were saying. The guild's chief play reader, an academic intellectual-indeed, a man to whom Miller had been referred by Professor Rowe, who might be expected to have certain ideals-suggested that the young man broaden his work and make it more positive. He warned Miller not to question an audience's values or discourage its hopes; rather the plays ought to be optimistic and inspiring. The point was to "try to understand the audience. What do they want to see in the theatre? That must temper your work. You must not be too hard with them, Arthur."

Ironically, as Miller pointed out to Rowe, the first play he'd submitted to the Theatre Guild, The Grass Still Grows, had hardly been the sort that could be described as too hard on an audience. On the contrary, the play was a family comedy, "Jewish, not bizarre or strikingly novel," and still it was rejected. As far as that play was concerned, it was, Miller said, "dead as a dog."

Next, his summary continued, he'd spent more than a year working on The Children of the Sun, an epic play about Montezuma and the Aztec Indians, Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors. Miller considered it not only "a big classical tragedy" but a theatrical one, and he was still "confident that on the stage it would cause a stir." He'd enjoyed writing that play, had even enjoyed rewriting it. "Once it began to draw on my heart," he confessed, "I could not stop until it sucked me dry." Yet producers and even his agent had responded with a spectacularly unanimous lack of enthusiasm and he finally and bitterly had to admit, "I am dry now." Miller thus was writing this letter in hope of "drawing a moral" from his experiences so that he might "grasp your hand and search" for that moral.

At the same time he felt shameful, even unmanly about being unable to support himself. In the preceding two years the only steady income he had earned from his writing had come in the form of artistic charity: six months on the dole with the government-subsidized Federal Theatre and Writers Project that was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some of the other playwrights in the program could hardly, he thought, be called playwrights, and such wages were unrewarding, unearned by work and paid regardless of quality. Other than that, he continued, "I have been a ward of my brother and father ... the former is a fine man but I never meant him to support me."

And so he had to face the fact that "I am 25, a grown man as they used to say. Whither away? Have I justified my self-announced and self-appointed existence as a writer?" This was a question gnawing at him, "growing like a weed."

Arthur Miller had come away from college a praised, prized and confidently budding playwright, protected by the conviction that failing to get a drama produced did not mean that it was worthless, nor did having a play produced mean that it was valuable. While such a conviction was fine in theory, his letter resumed, it was of little consolation after he had put so much time, mind and heart into his work. He had begun to question his ability, and not only as a writer of plays. His failure had extended beyond playwriting. Since leaving school, he confided to Rowe, he had also written several radio scripts and a few short stories. Of these a grand total of one radio script had been bought. He couldn't even anticipate selling another, since two subsequent scripts had been rejected. So he drew up the balance sheet: For two years of work, "Net receipts, $200 less ten per cent commission." His only other income for the period had been the $22.77 a week that the government theater paid for his six-month stint.

The disgrace of failure was making him consider "the ways out." One possibility, he mused, was to take the advice of the man at the Theatre Guild and emasculate his plays, soothing the audience with assurances that all is well with their world. He characterized this to be advice from

the Paraclete, the comforter.... He means balm. And while I am with him I hate him for what he means, but when I am alone I know he is helpless. And for moments I say all right, I'll comfort them. I'll keep away from the conflicts, the important and wonderful crises in our lives. I'll warp what I see into comforting fancy.

His letter paused, as if to regain its composure. The past two years since 1938, he reasoned, had not been wasted. He had learned much about "the writing game." In The Children of the Sun Miller had written an epic in the classical style, a big play that was ambitious, literary and artistic. If he had taken a job instead of depending on his family, he would have had neither the time nor energy to write such a play; but his anger could not be assuaged and the black mood returned as he vowed never again to attempt such a piece. No more history, no more agonizing work to recreate period speech, no more verse to put off potential producers. He would write in the conventional, realistic style, about "contemporary people and subjects"-that is, if he could only find a job that didn't mentally exhaust him; it might even be beneficial. Perhaps, the despairing young man wrote to his professor, an honest job might help him to "overcome or at least better meet the obstacle I see so sharp before me." Perhaps too, he rationalized, a writer might benefit from experience at a real job with real people in the real world instead of working in a social vacuum, alone in a room with only a table, a chair and a typewriter. Indeed that is where and how he would forever feel most comfortable.

The letter could have been shorter, but discursive self-examination would become a way of life for Arthur Miller. So would earnestness, idealism and his enthusiasm for wonderful crises.

Arthur Asher Miller was born in New York City on October 17, 1915, the second child of Isadore and Gittel Miller, thirty and twenty-two years old at the time, respectively. His brother Kermit was already three, and they lived in a splendid apartment in comfort and security high above Central Park.

Isadore Miller was a prosperous man. His Miltex Coat and Suit Company boasted a factory, showroom, front office and more than 800 employees, and its lucrative business of manufacturing women's clothing allowed him to keep his family in fair luxury. They lived on the top floor of a handsome six-story building at a very respectable address, 45 West 110th Street, facing the north end of Central Park just off Fifth Avenue. The apartment was spacious and sprawling, with a formal dining room, a signal of particular prestige in middle-class Jewish circles, and this dining room was a luxury in the purest sense, as it was never used for dining. To have one's children use such a table for homework made the formal dining room not only prestigious but also practical and finally commendable in its contribution to the sacred mission of education. According to Miller family lore, a striking exception to this mission occurred one New Year's Eve, which happened to be Izzy and Gussie (as Gittel preferred to be called) Miller's wedding anniversary. Gussie actually danced on top of that table, a story supporting the notion that she was a vivacious woman despite her weight and occasional moods of darkness.

Impressive too was the apartment's view of Central Park from the windows of the living room that featured two more symbols of middle-class achievement: an oriental rug and baby grand piano. This was a specially built Knabe, with sides not rounded but straight lined and corners squared like a harpsichord's. Only a handful of these pianos had been made and Gussie, the family tastemaker, owned one of them. She sometimes sat at this piano playing and singing popular songs of the day, and such images of dancing and music-making lent the culture-conscious woman a certain glamour in the eyes of five-year-old Arthur, or so he would recall ("diamonds on her fingers ... she trails a silver fox across the floor"). Indeed he thought his mother was beautiful and admired everything about her, from her lipstick to her velvet shoes-and his admiration was reciprocated. Perhaps the firstborn Kermit was the boy scout of the family, but Arthur was his mother's favorite and remained so, even after the birth of a sister, Joan Maxine ("Joanie") in 1922. Her father doted on her. "After waiting so long for a girl," she remembered, "there I was, this pretty angel ... I was like a doll."

Arthur, though, continued to enjoy his mother's favor, basking in the intimacy of the family gossip she shared with him, such as her low opinion of the women her brothers had married. One sister-in-law was "fat and stupid," while another was a disreputable ex-chorus girl who-as if it served her right-had given birth to a child with Down Syndrome. Nevertheless some relatives he did appreciate, notably, slick Uncle Hymie, who taught him how to whistle with two fingers in his mouth ("one of the greatest gifts anyone ever handed me") and Hymie's wife, Stella, who was too flashy for Gussie's taste but earthy in a way that the youngster found irresistible.

Jewish families tended to be big and all over each other. The extended family of Millers was big enough-Gussie had even more siblings than Izzy, four brothers and three sisters-but that didn't make for an overflow of warmth. Relatives were kept at a distance and even within the immediate family there was a reluctance to be intimate. "It's not like most Jewish families," Joan Miller would later say. "We didn't celebrate birthdays, not even with birthday cards. Nobody would presume to break in on the other person's privacy." This emotional isolation would come to characterize her brother Arthur in profound and sometimes disturbing ways.

In most other cultural respects the Millers were quite usual, certainly in the matter of Jewishness, and although Arthur would later minimize it, Jewishness seemed to pervade his early life. Whatever happened in the world was viewed in terms of how it affected Jews. His friends and classmates were Jewish, as was everyone in the neighborhood or so it seemed. Arthur's parents perhaps were not observant, but Gussie's father, Grandpa Barnett, always wore a yarmulke and both he and Grandpa Miller-both of whom spoke Yiddish most of the time-were at the synagogue for services every Sabbath. Such observance was not a requisite of Judaism for Isadore, Gussie and the children. Their Jewishness was more a matter of identification, of heritage, and there was a thoroughgoing ethnicity about this household, an atmosphere of Jewish values, style, taste, humor and of course Jewish food. Gussie considered herself just as good at making brisket of beef, gefilte fish and tsimmes as she was at interior decorating. Around the Miller family too was a pervasive Jewish manner of speaking, with colorful argot and Yiddishisms. Arthur ("Arty" almost from the start) already had a sensitive ear for these locutions and would soon be able to draw on a fine store of ethnic expressions and colloquialisms.

All, however, was not Jewishness. Each summer the family indulged in a generally middle-class ritual, the exodus from the city to a resort. A good man was supposed to provide such things for his family and if nothing else, Izzy was a good provider. At the end of each school year his wife would lead her troop of children and their grandparents away from the steamy streets of upper Manhattan to a rented bungalow near the oceanic splendors of Rockaway Beach. That escape, along with the apartment, rings, piano and oriental rug, signified the level to which Isadore Miller had taken his family. He even had a uniformed chauffeur take him downtown each morning in an expensive automobile, drive him to work in the Seventh Avenue garment center of Manhattan and wait to drive him home at the end of the day. This did not unduly impress young Arty. Apparently all the men in his building went to work this way, for there was a lineup of chauffeured limousines waiting at the front entrance every morning.

Gussie was well accustomed to this style of living and proud of her husband's success in achieving it. When among his family (a group she held in general contempt and who were rarely seen), she would boast of her Izzy's success. In private Gussie was not quite so respectful, as she regularly demonstrated for the children. Her superiority was expressed in terms of higher cultural refinement and proven by her origins as a first-generation American, whereas Izzy and his family were immigrants from a shtetl in the old country-in this case Austria or Poland or Hungary. At various times he gave one or the other as his birthplace. The borders of Eastern Europe had changed so frequently that many immigrants truly didn't know where they came from. What Isadore Miller did know about his origins-and this he told his children on many occasions-was that he had arrived in America at the age of six still displaying the hand-lettered cardboard sign that had been hung around his neck (and that of many an immigrant child) at the start of the journey. His sign read Please put this boy on the SS Clearwater, and at the other end of the Atlantic Ocean, awaiting him on the dock in New York, were the three brothers and three sisters who had been sent ahead to join their father, Shmuel (Samuel). As in so many immigrant families, the provider went first to establish himself, preparing a home for the others, who were sent over in descending order and put to work immediately on arrival.


Excerpted from ARTHUR MILLER by MARTIN GOTTFRIED Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Genesis of a Master
Prime of Life
11.The Little Red227
12.A Bridge249
Middle Age and Crisis
13.The Committee273
14.Movie Star299
Endurance, Survival
16.The Fall351
List of Works447
Chronology of Premiere Productions449

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