Pulitzer-winning writer called foremost American playwright

Arthur Miller : 1915-2005

February 12, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck and Mary Carole McCauley | J. Wynn Rousuck and Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

Arthur Miller, widely regarded as America's foremost living playwright, died Thursday night at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 89. The cause was congestive heart failure, said Julia Bolus, his assistant.

The legendary writer's 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Death of a Salesman - in which he used the relationship between a disillusioned salesman named Willy Loman and his sons to illuminate fallacies underlying the American dream - is among this country's best-known plays. In its most famous line, the salesman's wife exhorts: "Attention must be paid."

It was. Although Mr. Miller's first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, closed in 1944 after only four performances, his subsequent works came to be viewed as quintessential American drama, not only in this country but worldwide.

FOR THE RECORD - A quotation from the play Death of A Salesman that appeared in yesterday's editions of The Sun accompanying an article on the death of Arthur Miller omitted the word "fair." The quotation should have read, "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way."
The Sun regrets the error.

Not all of Mr. Miller's fame stemmed from his plays. His marriage in 1956 to Marilyn Monroe, described by author Norman Mailer as the union of "the Great American Brain" and "the Great American Body," threw him into the glare of Hollywood celebrity, as did his 1954 run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

These events, directly or indirectly, found their way into his plays, which often used familial relationships to explore broader political and moral themes. A play should be "a well-defined expression of profound social needs," Mr. Miller believed.

"I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world," he wrote in his 1987 autobiography, Timebends.

Mr. Miller created characters that struck chords with theatergoers as far away as Beijing, where he directed a production of Death of a Salesman in 1983.

`End of an era'

"His death truly marks the end of an era: Along with Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, he was one of the giants who literally created the Broadway drama, bringing the American theater to its maturity," Robert Falls, director of the Tony Award-winning revival of Death of A Salesman as well as the 2004 premiere of Mr. Miller's latest play, Finishing the Picture, said in a statement yesterday.

"His legacy is his body of work, a series of plays, essays and screenplays that are among the most insightful and provocative studies of the human condition ever created."

Mr. Miller was towering in stature as well as genius. Michael Mayer, director of the recent Broadway revivals of A View from the Bridge (1997) and After the Fall (2004), recalled meeting him, "It was like Abraham Lincoln without the beard stepping out of the Lincoln Memorial."

Yet, once rehearsals started, "he was like a kid sitting on the edge of his seat with a big grin on his face. He would literally clap [his] hands together when something delighted him."

Edward Albee, Mr. Miller's likeliest successor at the top of the American playwriting pantheon, said Mr. Miller once complimented him by saying his plays were "necessary." Mr. Albee returned the compliment: "I will go one step further and say that Arthur's plays are `essential.'"

Whatever he wrote - plays, memoirs, essays or screenplays - Mr. Miller was always searching for self-knowledge.

"You never stop looking. You know [a play] has an endless number of rooms and you open up one door and there's a whole corridor full of other doors. I don't think that ever ends," he said in a 1994 Sun interview.

Some of his plays - After the Fall, his 1964 fictionalized account of his rocky marriage to Ms. Monroe, and Finishing the Picture, about the making of the 1961 movie, The Misfits, which he wrote for Ms. Monroe - were more autobiographical than others. But almost all of his writing focused on the individual's responsibility to the people and world around him.

"I believe a person lives in society and can't separate what he draws from himself from what he draws from society," Mr. Miller told The Sun in 1980, when his play, The American Clock, played a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre.

Written at a time when Mr. Miller's work had largely fallen from favor in this country, An American Clock, from its title to its Depression setting, exemplified the deeply American strain that ran through Mr. Miller's work. Many of his best plays - All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge, The Price - were about the struggles of ordinary people to get ahead, struggles often viewed through the microcosm of the relationship between a father and son or between brothers.

Background

The playwright's background was an example of the successful route traveled by the son of an immigrant. Arthur Miller was born Oct. 17, 1915, in Manhattan to Isidore and Augusta Miller. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, had built up a coat business, and the Millers were wealthy enough to own a beach house as well as a limousine.

But the business collapsed during the Great Depression, and the family moved to a small house in Brooklyn.

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