Arthur Miller: Amer­i­can Witness

  • Review
By – October 31, 2022

Arthur Miller looks out at the world with a some­what quizzi­cal expres­sion on the cov­er of this per­cep­tive biog­ra­phy by John Lahr. A dis­tin­guished crit­ic and author, Lahr sees Miller as a keen observ­er of post­war Amer­i­ca who brought to the Broad­way stage plays that con­front­ed the social and moral issues of his day.

Lahr con­cen­trates on the first forty years of Miller’s life, dur­ing which he was a pro­duc­tive and prize-win­ning play­wright. His expe­ri­ences in these years — the dynam­ics of his fam­i­ly and its fall from upper-mid­dle-class lux­u­ry to near-pover­ty dur­ing the Depres­sion; his aim­less ado­les­cence and intel­lec­tu­al awak­en­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan; his stum­ble into play­writ­ing at Michi­gan and suc­cess as a scriptwriter for radio plays; his polit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism; and his dys­func­tion­al mar­riage to Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe — are all fea­tured in his work. Between 1947 and 1955, Miller wrote the high­ly suc­cess­ful All My Sons, Death of a Sales­man, The Cru­cible, and View from the Bridge, explor­ing fas­cism, anti­semitism, and the polit­i­cal unrest of the McCarthy years and House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties.

Although his plays deal with chal­leng­ing issues of per­son­al and social moral­i­ty, Miller him­self was a social­ly and moral­ly con­flict­ed man. Arthur Miller focus­es on Miller’s pro­fes­sion­al life as a play­wright and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al — a fit­ting deci­sion, since it could be argued that, for Miller, work life was life. Lahr has noth­ing to say about Miller’s rela­tion­ships with his four chil­dren, except for his son Daniel, who was born with Down Syn­drome and sub­se­quent­ly insti­tu­tion­al­ized; Miller nev­er vis­it­ed or men­tioned him. He was divorced by his two wives and estranged from his old­er broth­er. As Lahr recounts, Miller reversed his deci­sion to attend his nephew’s bar mitz­vah by explain­ing, in a let­ter, that if he did not devote him­self entire­ly to his work, there would be few­er results.”

The last twen­ty-five pages of the book fol­low Miller’s mar­riage to the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Inge Morath and their forty years of hap­pi­ness togeth­er. His two major plays dur­ing these years, After the Fall and The Price, were not well received by the crit­ics, though The Price had a good run on Broad­way. Despite falling out of style and almost dis­ap­pear­ing from the pub­lic eye, Miller con­tin­ued to write both plays and essays until he died, and his ear­li­er plays were often revived, most suc­cess­ful­ly in London.

How many good plays does a writer have in him?” asks Elia Kazan, Miller’s fre­quent direc­tor and col­league. In the 1940s and 1950s, Miller set out to answer this ques­tion, writ­ing plays that remain land­marks of Amer­i­can the­ater — an achieve­ment that John Lahr thought­ful­ly illus­trates in this read­able biography.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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