All My Sons: Biography: Arthur Miller

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Arthur Miller is one of the major American playwrights of the twentieth century. Miller was born Arthur Asher Miller on 17 October 1915 in Manhattan, the second son of Isidore and Augusta Barnett Miller. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland and his mother was the daughter of Manhattan-based Polish Jewish immigrants. Miller’s older brother, Kermit, later became a businessman, and his younger sister became an actress under the name Joan Copeland.

The family was wealthy from the coat and suit factory that Isidore Miller had built up, and they lived in a large apartment overlooking Central Park. However, in 1928, when Miller was thirteen, his father’s business collapsed in the economic downturn known as the Great Depression (though most commentators date the onset of the Depression with the Wall Street Crash of the following year, in October 1929). The family moved to a modest house in Brooklyn. Miller gave no sign of being an intellectual, and spent his boyhood playing football and baseball and reading adventure stories.

Miller attended James Madison and Abraham Lincoln High Schools in Brooklyn, graduating in 1932. He read the novel, The Brothers Karamazov, by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, and was inspired to become a writer. He took a succession of jobs to earn money for college, and entered the University of Michigan in 1934 to study English. During his university years he began his playwriting career. Major influences on his work included classical Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and the American socialist activist and playwright Clifford Odets. Miller twice won the university’s annual Avery Hopwood Award, in 1936 for the play Honors at Dawn and in 1937 for the play No Villain.

After graduating in 1938, Miller moved to New York. He joined the Federal Theater Project, which employed young playwrights at a wage of $23 per week. He wrote a play, The Golden Years, about Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador (conqueror) who led the expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec empire and resulted in Mexico’s becoming part of the Spanish Empire in the early sixteenth century. This play was written in response to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and marked the beginning of Miller's lifelong interest in the social relevance of drama. It was not produced until a 1987 British radio and television version.

Because of a football injury, Miller was exempt from the military draft for World War II. In 1940 he married Mary Slattery, his college sweetheart and a Catholic, with whom he had two children.

Miller's first play to appear on Broadway was The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944). It was panned by critics and closed after four performances. Convinced that he should never write another play, in 1945 Miller wrote and published a novel, Focus, about anti-Semitism. The novel was a popular success. Miller returned to drama and wrote a play, All My Sons, about a factory owner who is forced to confront his moral crime of selling defective airplane parts during World War II. Miller formed the idea for the play from a story he heard about a family that had been destroyed when the daughter discovered her father had been selling faulty machine parts to the army and informed on him to the authorities. Miller changed the daughter into a son, and wrote his play. Though Miller began writing the play during World War II, in 1945, he finished it in peacetime. All My Sons was first produced on Broadway in 1947. It was directed by the stage and film director Elia Kazan. The play was a critical and popular success, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle award and two Tony Awards. Universal Pictures made a movie version in 1948. Miller, now financially secure, was able to buy a house in Brooklyn Heights and a country home in Connecticut.

Miller’s next play, Death of a Salesman, is widely viewed as his masterpiece. When it opened on Broadway in 1949, it established Miller as a giant of the theater at the relatively young age of thirty-three. Leaving behind the realism of All My Sons, Miller created a new form of drama in Death of a Salesman, breaking down linear time to bring together the real time of the play with the internal workings of the protagonist’s mind. Indeed, Miller’s original working title for the play was The Inside of His Head. Miller describes the result in his Introduction to the Collected Plays (Viking Press, 1957) as “a mobile concurrency of past and present.” The play is often interpreted as a critique of the American Dream (the idea that an American, whatever his background, can achieve success through hard work and drive).

Miller witnessed the rise of the anti-communist suspicion in the United States that started in the late 1940s and lasted until the late 1950s. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was the most active government committee involved in anti-Communist investigations. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy became the public face of the so-called “Red Scare.” McCarthy was convinced that there were large numbers of Communist sympathizers and spies inside the United States government and elsewhere in the nation. The anti-Communist phenomenon was named McCarthyism after the Senator.

Artists, writers, film directors and intellectuals were among those subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC and Senator McCarthy’s hearings (McCarthy was not formally part of the HUAC) and account for their allegedly Communist beliefs and activities. In the early 1950s Miller’s friends and colleagues were summoned to appear before the HUAC. In April 1952 Miller decided to write a play about the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts because he saw a "living connection between myself and Salem, and between Salem and Washington" (cited by Stephen A. Marino in “Arthur Miller,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 266: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Fourth Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, Gale Group, 2003, pp. 185–209). The result was The Crucible, an obvious allegory of McCarthyism, with the seventeenth-century witch hunts standing for the twentieth-century “red” hunts.

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