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Acknowledged as a leading figure in postwar American theater, playwright Arthur Miller had long been acclaimed as a writer who mixed naturalistic drama with timeless moral and political issues, with much of his work centered on the ethical responsibility of the individual in conflict with his community. His landmark play, "Death of a Salesman" (1949), won both a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, while building a reputation as one of the greatest plays written in the 20th century. Four years later, he wrote "The Crucible" (1953), a thinly-guised examination of McCarthyism and the Red Scare that was a worthy addition to his already impressive canon, which included the working-class triumph of "A View from the Bridge" (1955). After himself enduring public suspicion for ties to Communism, which led to a conviction - and later appeal - for contempt of Congress, he made further headlines for his high-profile, but stormy marriage to sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, which ended right after the completion of "The Misfits" (1961), a film written by Miller for Monroe which ultimately proved to be her last. Miller went on to find success on television and in film with his Emmy-winning "Playing for Time" (CBS, 1980)...
Acknowledged as a leading figure in postwar American theater, playwright Arthur Miller had long been acclaimed as a writer who mixed naturalistic drama with timeless moral and political issues, with much of his work centered on the ethical responsibility of the individual in conflict with his community. His landmark play, "Death of a Salesman" (1949), won both a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, while building a reputation as one of the greatest plays written in the 20th century. Four years later, he wrote "The Crucible" (1953), a thinly-guised examination of McCarthyism and the Red Scare that was a worthy addition to his already impressive canon, which included the working-class triumph of "A View from the Bridge" (1955). After himself enduring public suspicion for ties to Communism, which led to a conviction - and later appeal - for contempt of Congress, he made further headlines for his high-profile, but stormy marriage to sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, which ended right after the completion of "The Misfits" (1961), a film written by Miller for Monroe which ultimately proved to be her last. Miller went on to find success on television and in film with his Emmy-winning "Playing for Time" (CBS, 1980) and the critically acclaimed adaptation of his own work, "The Crucible" (1996), all the while enjoying his reputation as one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.
Born on Oct. 17, 1915 in Harlem, NY, Miller was raised by his father, Isadore, a Jewish women's clothing store owner, and his mother, Augusta. For most of his childhood, right up until his adolescence, Miller lived comfortably due to his father's business. But the Wall Street crash in 1929 wiped out most everything they had and forced the family to take up residence in Brooklyn, where he came of age during the Great Depression. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1932, Miller labored in an automobile parts warehouse and fed mice slated for medical experimentation in order to pay his tuition for the University of Michigan. Though originally a journalism major, Miller began writing plays, starting with "No Villain" (1936), which earned him a $250 Avery Hopwood Award. He switched majors to English and graduated from the university in 1938. Following graduation, Miller married his college sweetheart, Mary Grace Slattery, and worked the night shift at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II while continuing to write plays. His first produced work, "The Man Who Had All the Luck" (1940), lasted a scant four performances amidst scathing reviews.
Meanwhile, Miller wrote radio show scripts for the Federal Theatre Project and was hired in 1943 to pen a screenplay based on famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle called "Here Is Your War," only to have his draft rejected. Turning to novels, he published Focus in 1945, before finally having success in the theater with the acclaimed drama, "All My Sons" (1947), a powerful drama about a son who learns his father cheated on the manufacturing of war material, that earned him the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. The following year, the play was adapted into a well-received film starring Edward G. Robinson as the father and Burt Lancaster as the son. Just two years after his first successful stage production, Miller wrote what many considered his masterwork, "Death of a Salesman" (1949). A stream-of consciousness character study of Willy Loman, a failed traveling salesman who blindly believes in the redemptive power of material success despite his rapidly decaying mind and livelihood, the play was a smash Broadway hit that won the award trifecta: a New York Drama Critics' Award, a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Having created arguably one of the most well-known characters in the history of theater with Willy Loman, Miller was now affixed in theater history as a true giant, even though "Death of a Salesman" marked only his third produced play, leading some critics to withhold protestations of greatness and instead levy the newcomer with scorn.
Miller's career thereafter was marred by controversy, despite adding several plays to his canon that went on to become classics of the theater. Following a feature adaptation of "Death of a Salesman" (1951), starring Fredric March as Willy Loman, his 1953 award-winning play "The Crucible" - which dramatized the Salem witch hunts at the end of the 17th century - was widely perceived to be a sly response to McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Though attacked by some conservative critics, Miller's play went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play, while in 1956 the playwright was called to testify before HUAC. When he refused to name names, Miller was cited for contempt of Congress, a conviction overturned on appeal two years later. Long after the controversy and its initial tepid reception, the play became required reading in schools across America for decades, and ultimately emerged as his most performed work. Miller continued to produce popular successes like "A View from the Bridge" (1955), a drama that mimicked Greek tragedy about a working-class Italian-American family coping with two illegal immigrants who have come to live in their Brooklyn home. Originally a one-act play, the initial version failed to catch on with audiences. In 1956, he introduced a two-act version that became the source for adaptations and numerous revivals.
Not one to shy away from the spotlight, Miller made headlines with his 1956 marriage to sex siren Marilyn Monroe - earning the couple the nickname "The Egghead and the Hourglass" by a transfixed public and press. He had left his first wife, college sweetheart Mary Slattery, that same year, even though Miller and Monroe had engaged in a brief affair five years earlier. During her marriage to Miller, the former foster child grew close to Miller's parents who considered their famous daughter-in-law as much their child as their own offspring. The couple's honeymoon phase that initial year proved to be one of the happiest times in their lives; certainly for Monroe, who believed an intelligent man like Miller validated her as something more than a dumb blonde. However, Miller would eventually end up as nurse maid to his emotionally troubled and prescription pill-addicted wife. To cheer her up, Miller hoped to create a vehicle that would demonstrate not just his devotion to her, but provide her with a serious dramatic showcase. This undertaking led to his first produced screenplay, "The Misfits" (1961). Directed by John Huston and starring Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable, the film - a contemporary Western about an aging traveling cowboy (Gable) who falls for a reformed stripper (Monroe) - was mired with behind-the-scenes problems, most notably Monroe's erratic behavior brought about by increasing drug and alcohol abuse that threatened to shut down production. Making matters worse for all involved was the rapidly dissolving marriage between Miller and Monroe, which was turbulent enough even before making "The Misfits." Having to inhabit such a pathetic, messed-up onscreen character - how she now believed Miller actually viewed her in real-life - was the final nail in the domestic coffin for Monroe. The two were divorced in 1961 shortly after filming ended. Nineteen months later, Monroe was dead from a drug overdose that some believed may have been murder despite the official report stating "probable suicide." Though Miller did not attend her funeral, he later reflected on the reasons for the breakup, saying that he found himself devoting nearly all of his time to helping the troubled actress cope with a wealth of emotional and personal problems with very little success, but that he had, indeed, genuinely loved her.
Miller went on to marry his third and final wife, Austrian photographer, Ingeborg Morath, with whom he had a daughter, Rebecca Miller. While director Sidney Lumet adapted "A View from the Bridge" (1962) for the big screen, Miller worked on his next play, "After the Fall" (1964), a thinly-veiled portrait of his struggles with Monroe that angered quite a number of people, in light of her perceived suicide two years prior. Critics also harshly assessed the play, which remained one of Miller's least popular works. He met with mixed audience and critical acceptance with "Incident at Vichy" (1964), which focused on a group of Jewish detainees waiting for inspection by the Nazis, all in the name of trying to answer the uncomfortable question of why there was so little Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Privately, Miller and Morath had a second child, Daniel, in 1966. But their son was diagnosed with Down's syndrome, which prompted Miller to have him institutionalized and cut off from their family for the remainder of his life. Morath and their daughter, Rebecca, visited Daniel often. But Miller saw very little of the child over the ensuing decades and never publicly acknowledged him. So secret was his birth and subsequent institutionalization that news of his existence broke only after Miller's 2005 death when reporters sought out his heirs.
Despite the harsh criticism and even hostility toward much of his work at this time, Miller's reputation was enhanced with "The Price" (1968), a three-character drama that co-starred his sister, actress Joan Copeland. Though not one of his better remembered works, "The Price" was nominated for Best Play at the Tony Awards. Meanwhile, his reworking of the Book of Genesis, "The Creation of the World and Other Business" (1972), was a failure and marked one of the last new Miller plays to appear on Broadway for over two decades. Though he wrote little-known works like "The Archbishop's Ceiling" (1977) and "The American Clock" (1980), Miller spent the rest of his life taking every opportunity to chide Broadway for failing to initiate more serious dramatic works. Miller returned to writing for the screen when he adapted Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" (1978), with Steve McQueen - who considered it a pet project - in the lead. The retelling received largely unfavorable reviews and was essentially ignored by audiences. Meanwhile, his adaptation of "Playing for Time" (CBS, 1980), based on the memoirs of Fania Fenelon, a French Jew who became a member of a woman's orchestra inside the Auschwitz concentration camp, earned Miller an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series or Special.
After overseeing a Chinese production of "Death of a Salesman" at the Beijing Peoples' Art Theatre in 1983, Miller wrote his autobiography, Timebends: A Life (1987), which he structured in a memory-fueled stream-of-consciousness, not unlike "Death of a Salesman." Miller next made a return to screenwriting with the muddled neo-noir mystery, "Everybody Wins" (1990), which starred Nick Nolte as a reluctant private investigator who falls for a client (Debra Winger), only to learn that her disturbed psychological condition leads him down a precarious path. He followed with the London premiere of a new play, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" (1991), which received its New York debut seven years later and eventually made its way to Broadway in 2000, where it earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. But he made his return to the Great White Way long before with "Broken Glass" (1994), a drama that examined a troubled marriage and the wife's identification with Jewish oppression under the Nazis. After receiving the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, "Broken Glass" was graced with a nomination for Best Play at the Tony Awards.
While many of his plays were filmed through the years, only "The Crucible" (1996) had a screenplay credited to Miller. Starring son-in-law Daniel Day-Lewis, who married daughter Rebecca Miller that same year, and Winona Ryder, the film was one of the few critically well-received adaptations of his works he saw in his lifetime. In 1999, 50 years after it won a Tony for Best Play, "Death of a Salesman" won the Tony Award for Best Revival of the Broadway season, with a show featuring a sterling Brian Dennehy, who also won the top Broadway prize for his portrayal of Willie Loman. At the same ceremony, Miller received the form of a Lifetime Achievement Award. A prolific essayist, Miller wrote highly regarded cultural criticism throughout the years, appraising politics, literature and the theater in magazines such as Harper's and The Nation, many of which were compiled in Echoes Down the Corridor (2000). Meanwhile, refusing to rest on his considerable laurels, he continued to deliver new stage material well into his twilight years. "Resurrection Blues" had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN in the summer of 2002 when Miller was 86 years old. Set in an unnamed banana republic, the satire dealt with the possible televised execution of a capture revolutionary who may or may not be the second coming of Christ.
In 2004, Miller's new play, "Finishing the Picture," premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, IL, which was a thinly-guised look at the trouble between Miller and Monroe during the making of "The Misfits." The play ultimately proved to be his last offering for the stage. Meanwhile, Miller never stopped trying to find new audiences and venues for his art. He was preparing to mount a revival of "Death of a Salesman" in London, where theatergoers were especially appreciative of his works as commentary on the American condition, when he died on Feb. 10, 2005 at his home in Roxbury, CT, from heart failure after battling cancer and congestive heart disease. He was 89. Also at the time, his play "The Ride Down to Mt. Morgan" was being developed into a feature film starring Michael Douglas. Long hailed as America's greatest living playwright, Miller's most famous works had enduring power well into the 21st century, with revivals and adaptations occurring the world over. Their appeal, with a strong emphasis on family, morality and personal responsibility, spoke to the increasing fragmentation of American society, a cruel irony given his abandonment of his Down's syndrome son, Daniel, to an institution, never again to speak of him in public or in private.
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