Death of a playwright Arthur Miller 1915 - 2005

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ARTHUR MILLER, perhaps the greatest American playwright of the 20th century, died yesterday at the age of 89. He never won the Nobel Prize for literature, but few writers in any country at any time have so captured the universal themes of family, of the transience of success - how ordinary, decent people can be overwhelmed by the great tides of events.

Miller's family were at his bedside when he died of heart failure on Thursday night, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. It was an old farmhouse he bought in 1958 during his marriage to the actress Marilyn Monroe, in the period of his greatest celebrity.

But he will be remembered above all for his plays, several of which have entered the pantheon of world literature. There was The Crucible, written in 1953, part of the curriculum of every American school student, based on the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, but an allegory for the hysteria and unjust persecutions of the MacCarthyite hunt for Communists of the period.

In his 1967 play The Price, Miller told the desperately painful story of a fortune lost and roads not taken, as two estranged brothers must dispose of the sorry remnants of their father's estate. Earlier, there was A View from the Bridge, a tale of intrigue and betrayal in an immigrant family in Brooklyn, which drew heavily on Greek tragedy.

Above all of course, there is Death of a Salesman, Miller's most famous work, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949

at the age of 33. It captures the central strand of his drama - how ordinary families can be swept up and destroyed by social changes they are powerless to combat. "Dislocation, maybe, is part of our uneasiness. It implants the feeling that nothing is really permanent," Miller once said of his work.

The sentiment is caught exactly in a line from the play's protagonist. "I'm still feeling kind of temporary about myself," remarks Willy Loman, the eponymous salesman, victim of the capitalist system he so admired and trusted.

"I couldn't have predicted a play like Death of a Salesman would have taken on the proportions that it has," Miller once said. It had begun life as "a literal play about a literal salesman, but it has become a myth, not only here but in many other parts of the world."

Indeed, Miller's reputation if anything was even more exalted abroad, especially in Britain, where last night the theatrical world paid tribute to him. David Hare, the playwright, said: "Arthur was the last of the three great theatrical voices of the American century - [Eugene] O'Neill, [Tennessee] Williams, Miller.

"His special achievement was to make political and social plays which belonged on Broadway and yet were also powered to reach out into America and way beyond."

Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre who worked with Miller on the film version of The Crucible, said: "Arthur Miller was the last of the great titans of the American stage. With Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams he brought to the English speaking theatre a poetic urgency and tragic sweep that had been absent since the Elizabethan era.

"His models were the great classical tragedians and, more recently, Ibsen; and I have no doubt plays like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge will always stand with the masterpieces of Ibsen, Shakespeare and Sophocles."

At the end of his life, Miller was still writing. Only four months ago, another new play, Finishing the Picture, opened in Chicago, inspired by an incident during his time with Monroe. They married in 1956. Five turbulent years later they divorced and in 1962 she was dead.

Willy Loman killed himself believing that his only remaining value to his family lay in a life insurance policy. "After all ... the years," he said, "you end up worth more dead than alive." The same fate, for very different reasons, may befall Miller. His life's output is already priceless. His death can only enhance its value.

Obituary, pages 44-45