By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Arthur Miller (1915-2005) was one of the major American playwrights of the twentieth century. Along with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, he may be regarded as one of the most important and influential writers for the US stage during the 1940s and 1950s. Miller’s plays contain a strong social message, and the message was usually rooted in his working-class left-wing politics which was formed during his youth.
Miller was a prolific playwright, and choosing his best plays is a difficult task. Some of his best-known plays need to be included on the list; but what about the rest? There’s some underrated Arthur Miller among his oeuvre, which deserves to be more widely read (and staged).
So in what follows, we select and introduce not only Miller’s best-known plays, but some of his other writings for the stage, which we consider worthy of a revival.
Death of a Salesman.
One of Miller’s most famous and most widely studied plays, Death of a Salesman (1949) helped to confirm him as a force to be reckoned with in US theatre. Miller said that the play was ‘written from the sidewalk instead of from the skyscraper’, and we witness an intimate and sympathetic portrayal of one man’s desperation in the face of ‘the American dream’. (Indeed, the play’s working title was The Inside of His Head.)
Willy Loman is a struggling and exhausted travelling salesman. Things have got so bad that he is having to borrow money to make ends meet; one of his sons is a ‘success’ (he has a steady job), but the other is unemployed. Willy’s older brother, Ben, has recently died, and Ben’s colourful life – a life well lived, by all accounts – only helps to cast a shadow of failure over Willy’s own.
The play is a remarkable piece of theatre, in that it manages to do that rarest thing: it combines gritty realism with a quality that is almost mythic in its proportions. It is also a modern tragedy, and Miller wrote an essay, ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, to show that an ordinary modern American man was a fitting subject for a tragic drama.
All My Sons.
This play was Miller’s first big success on the stage, and its timing is interesting in light of the play’s subject. It premiered in 1947, just two years after the end of the Second World War, and its principal topic – war-profiteering – is explored through the character of Joe Keller, who was involved in the sale of engine parts to the air force during the war. These engine parts were faulty and led to the deaths of a number of pilots.
When Keller’s son discovers his father’s guilty secret (spoiler alert: Keller’s partner has been falsely convicted for the crime), and also learns that his older brother knew about the secret. We won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot, but this is a tightly structure (if conventional) early success for Miller, and deserves to be on any list of his greatest plays.
A View from the Bridge.
This two-act play from 1956 had its origins in an earlier, shorter one-act drama which Miller wrote. The play is set in America in the 1950s, and specifically in an Italian-American neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York; the ‘bridge’ in the play’s title is Brooklyn Bridge. The character of Alfieri, an Italian immigrant to the United States, provides the play’s chorus.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, is obsessed with his wife’s orphaned niece Catherine, and when she begins courting Rodolpho, his wife’s cousin who has recently arrived in the country, he objects to the idea, with tragic consequences for the family.
Let’s turn to one of the hidden gems in Miller’s oeuvre. The Price (1968) has a loaded title which turns on both financial value and the cost of one’s decisions: the play is about two estranged brothers, Victor and Walter Franz, who meet after a gap of sixteen years in order to sort out the sale of the furniture from their dead father’s apartment.
This play has a remarkably simple structure: just two acts and four characters (the other two are the furniture dealer, an elderly Jewish man named Gregory Solomon; and Esther, Victor’s semi-depressive wife). Despite the family story which is at the heart of the play, Miller hinted that this was in fact an allegory for the Vietnam War, so ‘the price’ of America’s involvement in Vietnam is also found among the thematic ‘furniture’ of the play.
After the Fall.
This 1964 play is well-known for being based rather closely (perhaps too closely) on Miller’s own divorce from Marilyn Monroe, but it’s worthy of inclusion on this list for its artistic merits as well as the personal light it sheds on Miller himself. It is one of Miller’s more challenging plays, and difficult to follow at times, but the emotional and psychological depth of Miller’s analysis of human nature is as strong here as it is in any of his other plays.
This 1994 play is a late work by Arthur Miller, and focuses on a Jewish couple in New York City in 1938, the same time the Kristallnacht occurred in Europe (the Kristallnacht, literally ‘crystal-night’, is sometimes known as the ‘night of broken glass’, hence the play’s title).
Phillip and Sylvia Gellburg’s marriage faces a challenge when Sylvia is suddenly paralysed from the waist down while she is reading about the Kristallnacht in the newspaper. As Sylvia begins undergoing psychological treatment to uncover the root cause of her (psychosomatic) condition, more details about the couple’s marriage come to light.
Where else to conclude our pick of Arthur Miller’s finest plays than with the one that is his most widely studied – and one of his most frequently performed? The Crucible, as is well-known, was inspired by the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ of the early 1950s when left-wing intellectuals in America were blacklisted and interrogated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC (‘House Un-American Committee’).
But instead of addressing this fraught political topic directly, Miller employs allegory to draw suggestive parallels between early Puritan America and modern capitalist America with its fear of Soviet Communism during the Cold War. Drawing on the real-life events surrounding the notorious Salem ‘witch’ trials of 1692, Miller offers one of the most compelling accounts of collective mania and the human capacity for baseless intolerance which the theatre has ever seen.