- American playwright
- Wrote classics such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible
- Was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 on suspicion of having attended Communist Party meetings
- Was found guilty of contempt of Congress in 1957 -- a conviction that was reversed the following year by the U.S. Court of Appeals
Arthur Miller was a heralded American playwright and a member of the Communist Party USA. He was born on October 17, 1915 to moderately wealthy Polish-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1934 Miller enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he studied journalism and drama. He would later state that he was “deeply influenced … by a Marxist approach to society” during his college years.
After graduating with a degree in English in 1938, Miller became involved with the Federal Theater Project, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative to fund the arts during the Great Depression. The Project was largely known for producing plays called “Living Newspapers,” in which newspaper articles, infused with left-wing politics, were dramatized and presented as theatre. The Project was canceled in 1939.
In 1940 Miller married his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, who was a secretary to Philip J. Jaffe, the founder and editor of AMERASIA magazine, the focus of the first successful bust of Soviet spies in the United States.
By the mid-1940s, Miller already had authored a number of stage and radio plays. It was also at this time when he became a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), a Marxist-Leninist political party working within in the United States and controlled entirely by Moscow. Miller would later recall, “Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Communist party members, some were fellow-travellers, and most had had a brush with Marxist ideas or organizations.”
Miller’s writings invariably found American society itself to blame for any flaw in the human condition, for any discontent in human life. His classic 1949 play Death of a Salesman won the Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, thus becoming the first play ever to win all three honors. The story centers around an aging salesman, Willie Loman, who battles the loneliness and despair that are portrayed as the handmaidens of capitalism's elusive and ultimately dehumanizing promise.
Miller's next play, The Crucible, which was written as a metaphor equating American anticommunism during the Joseph McCarthy era with the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, opened on Broadway in January 1953. In a June 2000 piece published in London’s newspaper The Guardian, Miller stated:
"It would probably never have occurred to me to write a play about the Salem witch trials of 1692 had I not seen some astonishing correspondences with that calamity in the America of the late 40s and early 50s.... I refer to the anti-communist rage that threatened to reach hysterical proportions and sometimes did…. In 1956, the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] subpoenaed me -- I was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers I had met at one of the two communist writers’ meetings I had attended many years before…. My fictional view of the period, my sense of its unreality had been, like any impotence, a psychologically painful experience. A similar paralysis descended on Salem.
Miller's 1955 play A View from the Bridge mythologized the lives of longshoremen and other working-class characters. But even in this attempt to find some ordinary Americans whom he could treat as objects of empathy, Miller made clear his overwhelming dissatisfaction with America -- presenting "informers" as embodiments of the nation's great evil.
In 1956 Miller and his wife divorced. In June of that year, he was called before HUAC, having been identified by film director Elia Kazan as someone who had attended Communist Party meetings. That same month, Miller married the film legend Marilyn Monroe.
During his testimony before HUAC, Miller vowed that he would never divulge the names of other Communists, but also stated that he would be “perfectly frank with you [Committee members] in anything relating to my activities.” Notwithstanding this pledge, Miller endeavored not to implicate himself. For example, when asked if he had signed a 1947 statement absolving the CPUSA from seditious activity, he stammered over whether or not he was a signatory. When he was presented with proof -- a 1947 issue of the Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, noting his endorsement -- Miller admitted, “I see my name here,” so “I will not deny I signed it.”
In 1957 Miller, for refusing to reveal the names of members of a literary circle who were suspected Communists, was found guilty of contempt of Congress -- a conviction that was reversed the following year by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
In his 2007 book in his book Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade, author Alan Wald reports that Miller, using the pseudonym Matt Wayne, had written several articles for the CPUSA newspaper in which he advocated artistic freedom rather than the Stalinist line of political correctness.
The year 1961 saw the release of The Misfits, Miller's film about an uprooted cowboy, his friends, and a divorcée. The story's real theme was the same as that of Death of a Salesman: Gable, as the cowboy Gaylord Langland, and Eli Wallach, playing his sidekick Guido, have been shortchanged by American enterprise. Refusing to "work for wages," they instead hunt stray horses which they can, in turn, sell to manufacturers of pet food. Miller's America was invariably a bleak, unrewarding land of despair.
In January 1961, Miller and Marilyn Monroe divorced. A year later, he married his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, with whom he would have two children, Daniel and Rebecca. The boy was born with Down’s Syndrome in 1962. According to biographer Martin Gottfried, Miller immediately placed the baby in a Connecticut institution and never again visited him, though Miller's wife did.
In his later years, Miller continued to mingle artistic expression with political activism. In 1998 he made a political contribution to the People for the American Way Voters Alliance, a Political Action Committee (PAC) whose raison d'etre is to “fight the right” by giving financial support to leftist political candidates and representatives. Fully 99 percent of its money goes to Democrats.
In 1999 Miller joined such luminaries as Norman Mailer, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Susan Sontag in signing a letter criticizing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s effort to suspend funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, after the museum had exhibited the artist Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung and surrounded by pornographic images.
In 2001 Miller was a signatory to a letter condemning Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2000, legislation that designated the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization. (In 1984 the Marxist-Leninist PKK had launched an armed independence campaign in southeast Turkey -- complete with suicide bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations -- which, by 2001, had killed tens of thousands of people.) The letter stated:
“We the undersigned believe that not only does the new Terrorism Act represent a serious threat to civil liberties in this country and tarnishes [sic] Britain’s tradition of providing a haven for those seeking refuge from repressive regimes overseas, it gives succour to those states who are carrying out major human rights violations against their own people.... For the British government to proscribe the PKK at this present time can only indicate a wilful [sic] blindness as to the nature of the party, which has long been pursuing a peaceful policy…”
Other signers of the foregoing letter included Noam Chomsky, Ralph Fertig, Harold Pinter, and the Socialist Alliance.
In January 2002, Miller's wife Inge Morath died. In December 2004, the 89-year-old Miller announced that he planned to wed a 34-year-old artist named Agnes Barley, with whom he secretly had been living at his Connecticut home for two years. But before the marriage could take place, Miller died of congestive heart failure on February 10, 2005.
Portions of this profile are adapted, with permission, from the article "The Moral of Arthur Miller," written by Stephen Schwartz and published by The Weekly Standard on February 28, 2005.