Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose most famous fictional creation, Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” came to symbolize the American Dream gone awry, has died. He was 89.
Miller, who had been hailed as America’s greatest living playwright, died Thursday night at his home in Roxbury of heart failure, his assistant, Julia Bolus, said Friday. His family was at his bedside, she said.
His plays, with their strong emphasis on family, morality and personal responsibility, spoke to the growing fragmentation of American society.
“A lot of my work goes to the center of where we belong — if there is any root to life — because nowadays the family is broken up, and people don’t live in the same place for very long,” Miller said in a 1988 interview.
“Dislocation, maybe, is part of our uneasiness. It implants the feeling that nothing is really permanent.”
Playwright Edward Albee said Miller had paid him a compliment, saying “that my plays were ‘necessary.’ I will go one step further and say that Arthur’s plays are ‘essential.”’
Miller’s career was marked by early success. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Death of a Salesman” in 1949, when he was just 33 years old.
Unwanted publicityHis marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1956 further catapulted the playwright to fame, though that was publicity he said he never pursued.
In a 1992 interview with a French newspaper, he called her “highly self-destructive” and said that during their marriage, “all my energy and attention were devoted to trying to help her solve her problems. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much success.”
“Death of a Salesman,” which took Miller only six weeks to write, earned rave reviews when it opened on Broadway in February 1949, directed by Elia Kazan.
The story of Willy Loman, a man destroyed by his own stubborn belief in the glory of American capitalism and the redemptive power of success, was made into a movie and staged all over the world.
“I couldn’t have predicted that a work like ‘Death of a Salesman’ would take on the proportions it has,” Miller said in 1988. “Originally, it was a literal play about a literal salesman, but it has become a bit of a myth, not only here but in many other parts of the world.”
In 1999, 50 years after it won the Tony Award as best play, “Death of a Salesman” won the Tony for best revival of the Broadway season. The show also won the top acting prize for Brian Dennehy, who played Loman.
Miller, then 83, received a lifetime achievement award.
“Just being around to receive it is a pleasure,” he joked to the audience during the awards ceremony.
From 'All My Sons' to 'The Crucible'
Miller won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle’s best play award twice in the 1940s, for “All My Sons” in 1947 and for “Death of a Salesman.” In 1953, he received a Tony Award for “The Crucible,” a play about mass hysteria during the Salem witch trials that was inspired by the repressive political environment of McCarthyism.
That play, still read by thousands of American high-school students each year, is Miller’s most frequently performed work.
Miller and Monroe divorced after five years and in 1962 he married his third wife, photographer Inge Morath. That same year, Monroe committed suicide. Miller wrote the screenplay for the Monroe film “The Misfits,” which came out in 1960, and reflected on their relationship in his 1963 play “After the Fall.”
Reminiscing about Monroe in his 1987 autobiography, “Timebends: A Life,” Miller lamented that she was rarely taken seriously as anything but a sex symbol.
“To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was,” he wrote. “Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”
Miller’s success, so overwhelming in the 1940s and ’50s, seemed to be on the wane during the next two decades. But the 1980s brought a renewal of interest, beginning with a Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” starring Dustin Hoffman in 1984.
Enthusiasm for Miller’s work was particularly strong in England, which marked his 75th birthday in 1990 with four major productions of his plays.
'Salesman' goes to China
Miller also directed a Chinese production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Beijing Peoples’ Art Theatre in 1983.
Those who saw the Beijing production may not have identified with Loman’s career, Miller wrote, but they shared his desire, “which was to excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved, and above all, perhaps, to count.”
In his later years, Miller became increasingly disillusioned with Broadway, and in 1991 he premiered a new play, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” in London — the first time he had opened a play outside of the United States.
Miller said at the time he opted for the London opening to avoid the “dark defeatism” of the New York theater scene.
“There is an open terror of the critics (in New York) and of losing fortunes of money,” Miller said in an interview that year. “I have always hated that myself. All in all, it seemed like we ought to do the play in London.”
He returned to Broadway in 1994 with “Broken Glass,” a drama about a dysfunctional family that won respectful reviews and a Tony nomination, but no big audiences. In London, it won an Olivier award as best play.
Even in his later years, Miller continued to write.
“It is what I do,” he said in a 1996 interview with The Associated Press.
“It is my art. I am better at it than I ever was. And I will do it as long as I can. When you reach a certain age you can slough off what is unnecessary and concentrate on what is. And why not?”
“Resurrection Blues” had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the summer of 2002 when Miller was 86. Set in an unnamed banana republic, the satire dealt with the possible televised execution of a revolutionary.
In recent years New York even rediscovered Miller’s first Broadway play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” which was a four-performance flop in 1944, but had a successful revival, starring Chris O’Donnell, nearly six decades later.
Last October, another new play, “Finishing the Picture,” premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It was based on an episode of his marriage to Monroe.
In recent years New York even rediscovered Miller’s first Broadway play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck.” It was a four-performance flop in 1944 but had a successful revival, starring Chris O’Donnell, nearly six decades later.
Miller’s producer, David Reichenthal, said as recently as this week, he and Miller were working on a London revival of “Death of a Salesman.” It will go on as planned in May, he said.
“His loss is a little like the Manhattan skyline,” Reichenthal said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
In accepting his lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Tony awards ceremony, Miller lamented that Broadway had become too narrow.
“I hope that a new dimension and fresh resolve will inspire the powers that be to welcome fiercely ambitious playwrights,” Miller said. “And that the time will come again when they will find a welcome for their big, world-challenging plays, somewhere west of London and somewhere east of the Hudson River.”
He was born Oct. 17, 1915, Miller was one of three children in a middle-class Jewish family. His father, a manufacturer of women’s coats, was hard hit by the Depression in the 1930s, and could not afford to send Miller to college when the time came.
Miller worked as a loader and shipping clerk at a New York warehouse to earn tuition money and eventually attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938.
He wrote his first plays in college, where they were awarded numerous prizes. He also published several novels and collections of short stories.
He wrote several screenplays, including “The Misfits” (1961), which became Monroe’s last movie, and “Playing for Time,” (1981) a controversial television movie about the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz.
He also wrote a number of books with Morath, mainly about their travels in Russia and China.
Miller had two children, Jane Ellen and Robert, by his first wife, Mary Slattery, and he and Morath, who died in 2002, had one daughter, Rebecca.