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Miller, Arthur

Early life

The son of a virtually illiterate Polish-Jewish immigrant, Arthur Miller was born on 17th October 1915, in the New York district of Harlem. At the time, Harlem was an elegant and prosperous neighbourhood, a lively, culturally diverse environment, enlivened by a mix of Italian, German, Jewish and black residents. His father, Isidore Miller, who had travelled to America alone at the age of seven, had developed a thriving business in coat manufacturing and had, at one time, employed nearly a thousand workers.

The Depression years

The Wall Street Crash, which economic historians cite as the catalyst for the so-called Great Depression, led to the collapse of the family business. For the first time in his young life, Arthur Miller was faced with the consequences of financial distress. One of the most immediate effects was that the family had to move to a smaller house in the much shabbier environment of Brooklyn. Then, when he finished high school, his father could not afford to send him to university. He tried a series of different jobs in the industrial sector, working alongside the men who made their living in the pressurised, hard-pressed world of buying and selling, the sort of men he would come to represent again and again in his literary career and who would have their theatrical embodiments in Death of a Salesman in Willy Loman, Charley and Howard Wagner. In this period of his life, Miller experienced, first-hand, the impact of the depression on the everyday lives of working-class men and women.

Success as a playwright

Two years after leaving high school, Miller applied to and was accepted in the University of Michigan, paying for his tuition and supporting himself by working part-time at the local newspaper, The Michigan Daily. While at university he began writing plays; his first play, Honors at Dawn, presented a searing indictment of American society and an account of the social tensions produced by the American depression. After graduating, Miller found further work in industry while continuing to write plays. In 1940, he married his first wife, Mary Slattery, who helped to support him while he attempted to make a career for himself in literature. This period of his life was to culminate in the Broadway success of All My Sons. This play was to propel Miller to the forefront of the literary scene and to precipitate a long and successful career as playwright, short story writer and essayist. Miller also produced film scripts and plays for radio.

Miller was 34 when Death of a Salesman was published in 1949, and it was to win him unprecedented acclaim; the play ran for a remarkable 742 performances on Broadway and won Miller several important literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony award for best play. He went on to be thought of as perhaps the most important American playwright of his age. Arthur Miller’s most famous plays include The Crucible (1953), A View from the Bridge (1955), After the Fall (1964), The Price (1968) and Broken Glass (1994). He published an autobiography, Timebends, in 1987.

Marriages and death

On his death a Times columnist wrote of him, ‘Right into his seventies, Miller was a remarkably energetic, outgoing, good-humoured man, a tireless crusader for human rights as well as an active playwright’ (The Times, 12th February 2005). He was married three times, to Mary Slattery, Marilyn Monroe (the American film star, for whom he wrote the film The Misfits) and the Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath.
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Arthur Miller born on 17th October in New York City

His parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants, and Arthur was the second of their three children.

The stock market crash

The family lived comfortably until the Great Depression ruined Isidore Miller’s business.

Went to study at the University of Michigan

He began by studying economics and history, and then moved towards journalism.

His first play, No Villain, won the Avery Hopwood award for drama

As a result, Miller switched the focus of his studies to English. This was the beginning of his illustrious career as a writer.

Won the award again with Honors at Dawn

He came in second place the following year with The Great Disobedience.

Graduated with a BA in English

After graduating, Miller turned down a high-paying job as a scriptwriter for 20th Century Fox to work for the Federal Theater Project.

Federal Theater Project shut down by Congress

The project was ended due to fears over Communist influence. After this, Miller worked in a Navy Yard while continuing to write plays.

Wrote Death of a Salesman

The play went on to win him a Tony Award for Best Author and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and became one of the most celebrated plays in American history, being performed over 700 times.

The Crucible first performed

In The Crucible the Salem witch trials of 1692 became an allegory for the Communist witch hunts in America at the time.

Miller convicted of contempt of court

He was convicted for refusing to name colleagues who participated in Communist activities.

Conviction overturned

The conviction was overturned on appeal.
1970s and 1980s

Travelled and wrote several books with his wife

Several of the new plays he wrote, such as The Creation of the World and Other Business, were critical and commercial failures.

Death of a Salesman premiered on American television

It was also still enjoying great critical appreciation on the stage overseas in China.

Continued to write more plays

These met with varying critical responses.

Received the National Medal of Arts

In the latter years of his life Miller was honoured frequently for his lifelong contribution to the arts.

Returned to the cinema

Miller adapted The Crucible for the big screen and wrote the screenplay himself.

Was awarded Spain’s Principe de Asturias Prize for Literature

In the same year, Inge Morath, his wife of 40 years, passed away.

Was awarded the Jerusalem Prize

The prize recognises writing on the theme of ‘the Freedom of the Individual in Society’.


Miller died at the age of 89.