Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915 to wealthy Polish-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a very successful coat manufacturer. The stock market crash of 1929, however, caused the father’s business to collapse and forced the family to move to a much less affluent neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where the teenage Arthur found work as a bakery delivery boy. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1932, he took a $15-per-week job in auto-parts warehouse, which helped him save money to pay for college.
In 1934 Miller enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he studied journalism and drama. He would later state that he had been “deeply influenced … by a Marxist approach to society” during his college years.
Miller wrote a number of plays during his time in college, all of which were rejected by producers except The Man Who Had All the Luck, which had a brief run of four performances on Broadway in 1944.
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 best known for producing plays called “Living Newspapers,” in which newspaper articles, infused with left-wing politics, were dramatized and presented as theater.
Dr. Alan M. Wald, professor emeritus of English at the University of Michigan, writes that Miller was “a struggling Marxist playwright” starting in “the late 1930s.”
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 that he developed ties to 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 center; one or two were Communist party members, some were fellow-travelers, 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 anti-communism during the Joseph McCarthy era with the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, opened on Broadway in January 1953. Many years later, 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.”
In his autobiography, Miller recalled that as the leading character, John Proctor, was being executed during one performance of The Crucible in June 1953, people in the audience “stood up and remained silent for a couple of minutes, with heads bowed” because “the Rosenbergs were at that moment being electrocuted in Sing Sing.”
A number of historians and observers — including such notables as Ron Radosh, Robert Warshow, and Ron Capshaw— have speculated that Miller had the Rosenbergs in mind when he wrote The Crucible. “In later years, Miller admitted that the inspiration for the play was his belief in the innocence of the Rosenbergs,” writes Capshaw.
But the central message of The Crucible was highly misleading to its audience. As John J. Miller has written in National Review:
“Arthur Miller … was one of the country’s most dedicated anti-anti-Communists. In The Crucible, after all, the Salem witch trials are meant to serve as a metaphor for McCarthyism. Get it? Just as there were no witches in the Salem of 1692, there were no Communists in the America of the 1950s–but in both places and times there were delusional right-wing witch hunters. [But] it turns out that there really were Commies among us, so the political point Miller had intended to make was fundamentally wrong, and even downright harmful.”
Miller’s 1955 play A View from the Bridge, which mythologized the lives of longshoremen and other working-class characters, gave further voice to his deep dissatisfaction with America — casting “informers” as embodiments of the nation’s inherently evil core.
In 1956 Miller and his wife, Mary, 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.”
On June 22, 1956, The New York Times published the following synopsis of Miller’s testimony to HUAC:
“[Committee counsel Richard] Arens asked Mr. Miller a series of questions concerning Communist-front activities.
“These included sponsorship of a world youth festival in Prague in 1947; a signature on a 1947 statement against the outlawing of the Communist party; a signature on a statement against the outlawing of the Communist party; a signature on a statement defending Gerhart Eisler before he fled this country to become a top Communist official in East Germany; statements attacking the Committee on Un-American Activities; statements supporting relief work in Red China, and statements opposing the Smith Act [which] forbids teaching or advocating the overthrow of the United States Government by force and violence.
“Mr. Miller said he had no memory of most of these things, but that he would not deny them. He said he was opposed to the Smith Act because he feared it might involve placing limitations on ‘advocacy.’ He said this would get ‘smack in the middle of literature.’ Artists, he said, must have the right to express themselves freely.
“Mr. Arens asked Mr. Miller whether he signed an application to join the Communist party in 1939 or 1940. The playwright said he had signed an application for what he thought was ‘a study course’ on Marxism, but did not know the exact nature of the application.
“He also testified that he had attended Communist party writers’ meetings four or five times. He refused to name persons he had seen there.”
Scholar Paul Kengor has closely examined Miller’s ties to communism and the Communist Party. Following are some of Kengor’s most noteworthy findings, as he articulated them in a 2015 article titled “Arthur Miller — Communist“:
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.
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 essentially indistinguishable from that of Death of a Salesman: Clark Gable, as the cowboy Gaylord Langland, and Eli Wallach, playing his sidekick Guido, have been beaten down and exploited by the alleged heartlessness of America’s capitalist economic system. Refusing to “work for wages,” they instead hunt stray horses which they can, in turn, sell to manufacturers of pet food for slaughter and resale at a profit.
In January 1961, Miller and Marilyn Monroe divorced. A year later, Miller 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 1964, Miller’s play After the Fall was produced on Broadway. As author Stephen Schwartz describes it:
“After the Fall exposes a tortured intimacy between a lawyer, Quentin, and his second wife, the beautiful and highly sexual but dumb, corrupt, and drugged-out Maggie, a television star. Maggie is portrayed as the ultimate harridan, demanding that Quentin fulfill demeaning orders, enraged and jealous, and even accusing him of homosexuality. In a terrible scene, the couple fight over a bottle of pills and Quentin is tempted to kill Maggie.
“Miller claimed, disingenuously, not to have imagined that the public would perceive this portrait as a vicious caricature of Marilyn Monroe. But they did, and little but condemnation would come to Miller for After the Fall. Robert Brustein, in a much-quoted review in the New Republic, called the play “a three and one half hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness . . . there is a misogynistic strain in the play which the author does not seem to recognize. . . . He has created a shameless piece of tabloid gossip, an act of exhibitionism which makes us all voyeurs, . . . a wretched piece of dramatic writing.” Those who understand the milieu from which Miller sprang will recognize something else in After the Fall: a classic Stalinist hatchet job, turned against a most unlikely target.”
In 1965 Miller spoke out against the Vietnam War at the first teach-ins on the subject at the University of Michigan. He was also active in Connecticut local politics and was elected to serve as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
Miller wrote a total of 17 plays over the course of his career. The Price, which was produced on Broadway during the 1967-68 season, was his last major critical and commercial success.
Miller also experienced success as a writer in venues other than the theater. As noted above, for instance, he wrote the screenplay for the 1961 movie The Misfits. Moreover, he wrote essays, short stories, and a 1987 autobiography titled Timebends: A Life. In that book, Miller stated that in his youth, he had “imagined that with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do.” He also noted that he saw plays as vehicles that could help transform America into a better place by “grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck.”
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.
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…”
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.
Further Reading: “Arthur Miller — Communist” (by Paul Kengor, 10-16-2015); “The Moral of Arthur Miller” (by Stephen Schwartz, 2-28-2005); “Arthur Miller, Moral Voice of American Stage, Dies at 89” (NY Times, 2-11-2005).