Arthur Miller died February 10 of congestive heart failure. He was 89, and he was the last of the great 20th century American playwrights. If Eugene O’Neill invented modern American drama and Tennessee Williams gave it a kind of loft and reach that were unimaginable until he did it, Miller made it purely American. While O’Neill and Williams danced on the fringes of American life where the lightning is, Miller occupied himself with the uneasy soul of this vastly uneasy nation. The Associated Press (AP) reported that “playwright Edward Albee, recalling how Miller once paid him a compliment by saying that Albee’s plays were ‘necessary,’ said, ‘I will go one step further and say that Arthur’s plays were `essential.’” Miller’s name and reputation were made in 1949 when Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway. Its protagonist, Willy Loman, instantly became synonymous with the failed American dreamer, who is not only alienated from society, but from himself. Miller’s other plays, including The Crucible, All My Sons and After the Fall, were celebrated, and are regularly performed here and abroad, but Death of a Salesman was, and is, his masterwork, and an American masterpiece. No other work, in any media, illuminates the destructive side of the dream more tellingly. The playwright’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe was certainly the noisiest chapter in his life, and inspired his best-known screenplay, The Misfits, which starred Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter, was a variation on the alienation theme. His most impressive personal performance took place during the infamous witch hunts of the McCarthy era when his refusal to name names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee won him a contempt of Congress citation (later dropped). The sorry episode was, of course, the genesis of The Crucible, which is set during the actual witch hunts in Colonial New England. Though Miller’s reputation in this country waned occasionally, his work was held in high and constant esteem in Europe, especially England, which commemorated his 75th birthday with four major poductions of his plays. “We have felt more comfortable with the uncompromising morality of his world view than his compatriots,” Nicholas Hytner, who directed the 1996 film adaptation of The Crucible, told AP. “America felt rebuked by him. Over here, we relish the ferocity of his arguments with the way things are.”That was perhaps Miller’s true vocation: arguing with the way things are.
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