The many stages in an American playwright's career

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"Restaurants are to the Eighties what theatre was to the Sixties," wisecracked Carrie Fisher in the Nora Ephron-scripted When Harry Met Sally. If that's true, the past 20 years of Arthur Miller-related table-talk will probably have been devoted to discussing how he's the brainy guy who was Marilyn Monroe's third husband and who is now Daniel Day-Lewis's father-in-law, a case of relative values almost as titillating as the fact that Margaret Rutherford was a cousin of the Labour politician, Tony Benn.

"Restaurants are to the Eighties what theatre was to the Sixties," wisecracked Carrie Fisher in the Nora Ephron-scripted When Harry Met Sally. If that's true, the past 20 years of Arthur Miller-related table-talk will probably have been devoted to discussing how he's the brainy guy who was Marilyn Monroe's third husband and who is now Daniel Day-Lewis's father-in-law, a case of relative values almost as titillating as the fact that Margaret Rutherford was a cousin of the Labour politician, Tony Benn.

Miller's restaurant stock-rating doubtless climbed higher in 1996 when Nicholas Hytner and Twentieth Century Fox took the plunge and filmed his stage masterpiece The Crucible. A long list of American film-makers had spent three years turning down Miller's own screenplay, possibly because they were among the (very) few who saw his previous effort, Everybody Wins - starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger - which was more a case of "everybody loses".

His previous screen work was considerably more illustrious. The Misfits (1961) is flawed but fascinating, not least because it was the last film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe who turned in extremely atypical performances thanks to the poetic demands of Miller's script. Then, in 1980, he adapted Fania Fenelon's extraordinary autobiographical story of her life as a player in the Auschwitz's women's orchestra. It eschewed all the pitfalls of the real-life, made-for-TV genre and deservedly won a clutch of Emmy awards, including one for Miller and another for Vanessa Redgrave's superb performance in the leading role. (Interestingly, Miller then adapted it for the stage with a premiere production in San Francisco in 1985). Born in 1915, Miller's theatre credentials were established in 1949 when he won everything in sight from the Tony award to the Pulitzer prize for his signature work Death of a Salesman. But a few voices raised serious objections to Miller as the epitome of American dramatists, notably the influential Mary McCarthy, writing her introduction to her collected reviews in 1956.

Not only did she complain of being "troubled by the fact that most American plays are so badly written... as though for stage, words did not matter and it was only the action that counted", she also worried about the sentimental, non-specific inarticulacy of so many central characters. "A disturbing aspect of Death of a Salesman is that Willy Loman seemed to be Jewish, to judge by his speech cadences, but there was no mention of this on stage. He could not be Jewish because he had to be 'America', while containing no particular, individualised persons of the kind that are found in the plays of other nations and in novels. The absence of any specific information seems to guarantee profundity."

The decline of serious American theatre from the Seventies onwards meant that for almost three decades London was the place to see the strongest, most successful productions of his plays. Warren Mitchell expunged all memory of his Alf Garnett persona in the National Theatre's 1979 revival of Salesman. Michael Blakemore revived All My Sons in the West End with a cast headed by the late, great Colin Blakely and Rosemary Harris, while Michael Gambon brought terrifying, shambling danger to his portrayal of immigrant longshoreman, Eddie Carbone, in the National's 1987 revival of A View From the Bridge directed by Alan Ayckbourn.

Meantime, at the Young Vic, the director, David Thacker, made his name staging every other Miller play he could lay his hands on - and there are at least 21 of them.

Thacker's close association with Miller meant that it was he who was entrusted with Broken Glass at the National in 1994. The play's subject matter, a study of the pressures and dangers of Jewish assimilation, earned it high praise, but there was no escaping the fact that,despite Henry Goodman's riveting performance, the writing was schematic and the production was the wrong side of earnest. Two years later, Thacker was back with a shaky, over-symbolic revival of Death of a Salesman.

The tide finally turned at the end of the Nineties, with hit Broadway revivals of The Price and Salesman, the latter winning four Tony awards and overwhelmingly re-establishing Miller in his homeland as the country's most revered living dramatist - the only other contenders being Edward Albee and David Mamet. Interest in Miller's back catalogue was reignited, culminating in the current off-Broadway production of The Ride Down Mount Morgan, starring Patrick Stewart.

Not to be outdone, the National Theatre is staging a production of All My Sons and next February there is the rare chance to see Miller's first play when rising talent David Hunt stages The Man Who Had All the Luck at the Crucible, Sheffield.

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