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Miller changed landscape of American theater

Playwright brought self responsibility, morality to stage
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was an extraordinary six decades in the American theater.

From his first Broadway production, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” in 1944, to his last major new work, “Finishing the Picture,” done in 2004 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre when he turned 89, Arthur Miller never stopped writing.

The themes found in both — family, friendship, love, duty and honor — were themes that were examined and re-examined in many of Miller’s best plays — “All My Sons,” “The Crucible” and the iconic “Death of a Salesman.”

Running through all was a sense of morality and social responsibility. Miller was a moralist, who often was compared to the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, one of his heroes. He even did his own adaptation of one of Ibsen’s most famous plays, “An Enemy of the People.” Miller’s characters took stands — and usually paid the price.

John Proctor, the Puritan farmer in “The Crucible,” Miller’s allegory about the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, refused to name names and dies for his convictions. Joe Keller, the corrupt businessman in “All My Sons,” commits suicide after it is revealed he sold defective airplane parts.

And then there is Willy Loman, whose name has become synonymous with everything that went wrong with the American dream. Willy was a beaten-down true believer who fell victim to his own beliefs. For actors, it was a role that made new reputations and cemented old ones — from Lee J. Cobb, Willy in the 1949 original, to the two very different Broadway Lomans of the last 20 years — the diminutive Dustin Hoffman in the superb 1984 revival to a strapping Brian Dennehy 15 years later.

Miller was fortunate much of his best work was done during Broadway’s golden age, the years after World War II, when theatergoing was more of a popular habit and a hit play could land you on the covers of national magazines and on that fledgling new mass medium, television. He also was able to work with some of the best directors of his day, from Elia Kazan to Jed Harris to Harold Clurman.

Miller attained a celebrity few American playwrights achieve, in part because of his marriage to film star Marilyn Monroe. He first dealt with their relationship in “After the Fall,” his most autobiographical play. In it, everything is seen through the eyes of its tortured, driven protagonist, Quentin, who is involved with a tempestuous singer who bore a strong resemblance to Monroe.

Forty years later, Miller returned to a Monroe-like character in the under-appreciated “Finishing the Picture,” a tale of the shenanigans on a film set not unlike “The Misfits,” for which the playwright wrote the screenplay and his wife starred.

Only in the final year of his life was Miller in a more forgiving mood. “Finishing the Picture” was Miller’s most elegiac play, the rueful remembrances of a man who has seen all human frailties and is willing to accept them as part of the human condition.

In person, Miller was uniquely American, direct and down-to-earth, especially in the way he talked — in a distinct Brooklyn growl — during interviews.

During one such conversation with The Associated Press, he talked about “Broken Glass,” one of his little-known plays that had a short life on Broadway. “There’s no dancing girls, no orchestra, no fireworks gong off. It’s just people on a stage talking to each other. But that’s what theater is all about,” he said.

Broadway became increasingly resistant to Miller’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, a fact he accepted philosophically. “When I was coming up in the 1940s, Eugene O’Neill was ignored and his language considered outdated,” the playwright said in a conversation with the AP a decade ago. “‘Nobody spoke that way anymore,’ people said. He was gone for a decade and a half before he became popular again.”

Miller’s later works may have not reached the stature of “Death of a Salesman,” but his major plays never went out of fashion.