At this moment, somewhere in the world, someone is saying one of Arthur Miller’s lines. One of his plays is being performed, in French or Cantonese or labored high-school-Drama-Club English, before an audience of people who are being profoundly or subtly transformed by the experience. This is not hyperbole. With the passing of Arthur Miller on 11 February goes the last of the great dramatists—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Miller—of the American Century.
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.
—Death of a Salesman, Act 1, Part 8
While it’s true that in his day he ran in the ritziest circles, snagged the trophy wife of all time, Marilyn Monroe, and was, in his personal life, often cold to friends and family, in his work Miller was that rare thing, a true populist. His characters were the most ordinary of people, his recurring theme the ever-elusive American Dream. He had the ability to grant the simple struggle for happiness epic proportions because he understood intimately that the Dream is ultimately a paradox. It dangles seductively and whispers sweet nothings of rewards for hard work and honesty, then bestows its favors on the undeserving. Written in 1949, Death of a Salesman‘s protagonist, poor doomed Willy Loman, devotes the better part of his life to the credo, “Be liked and you will never want,” only to find himself liked but useless, passed over by a culture that replies, in the words of Willy’s neighbor, “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.”
Miller’s play marked a turning point in what might be termed democratic idealism. It showed that a handshake no longer sealed a deal, that the Puritan work ethic had become quaint, that the Horatio Alger myth was done. Ironically, Miller himself was the classic self-made man. The son of a Polish garment manufacturer whose business went belly up in the Great Depression, Miller worked menial jobs to put himself through college, all the while writing and winning awards for his work. For Death of a Salesman, he drew upon memories of the road warriors who’d show up at his father’s office, and the play catapulted him to success beyond their wildest dreams, winning the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and cementing the artist’s reputation.
[A] person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.
—The Crucible, Act 3, Scene 1
Miller’s allegory of the Joseph McCarthy “witch hunts” of the 1950s, The Crucible (1953), remains a potent condemnation of U.S. past, present, and future easy embraces of demagoguery and institutional terror. Set during the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1600s, the play damned the forces that brought down Miller’s own friends and did its best to crucify him as a liberal intellectual (in 1957 he was found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee; the charge was overturned on appeal).
And The Crucible continues to resonate today, as we hear variations of the line above issued by the President and the Attorney General of the United States. Miller knew firsthand the petty cruelties of the powerful, and opposed them all his life with his angry eloquence and fierce humanity. Vietnam, the Gulf War, whatever the hell the current morass we’re in now is called—Miller stood against them all with the righteous outrage of the individual with both eyes open: “The apple cannot be stuck back on the Tree of Knowledge; once we begin to see, we are doomed and challenged to seek the strength to see more, not less.”
That confluence of clarity, populism, indignation, and erudition, the ability to capture lives of quiet desperation moment by moment, runs through the whole of Miller’s output—Salesman, Crucible, All My Sons (1947), The View from the Bridge (1955), just to name four—and transcends the American experience even as it captures it. It has been reported that when Death of a Salesman was first performed in Communist China in the 1980s, audiences in Beijing believed it had been written specifically about their lives. And so it was. Arthur Miller was one of our greatest ambassadors to ourselves, his work a constant and candid reminder of what is best and worst about the human condition, no matter where or when it manifests itself.