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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Death of a Salesman opened on February 10, 1949, to reviews that acclaimed it a major new play. Within months Arthur Miller became world renowned as his play received the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and the Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award, among others. When Arthur Miller became famous, his grade school and high school teachers were puzzled. They couldn't remember him. Checking their records they found that as a student he had been most outstanding for his failures.
The issues with which Arthur Miller would later become preoccupied have clear beginnings in his family background. The second of three children of a middle-class Jewish couple, he was born in 1915 in New York City. His Austrian father was a manufacturer of women's coats, and his mother, the daughter of a manufacturer, had been a teacher. Miller knew from childhood the precarious hopes and disappointments of the business world, as well as its false dreams of extraordinary riches. This is the theme of Death of a Salesman.
It wasn't just his family background that influenced Miller. He grew up in the "roaring twenties," the decade we still think of as the giddiest in the history of our country. The world of business was prospering as never before. It was an age of distorted values-the pleasure of the moment, material richness, making money and showing it off. Miller's father hired more salesmen to sell his coats.
Miller played football and baseball, swam, skated, and read adventure stories. "I passed through the public school system unscathed," he said later. While passing through, he failed many subjects, including algebra three times. You will recognize this athlete who doesn't apply himself in the character of Biff in Death of a Salesman.
When Miller was thirteen his family reached a crisis. Miller's father fell on hard times and had to move the family from Manhattan out to a small frame house in Brooklyn similar to the one in Death of a Salesman. Miller's sister recalls that he became "very handy with tools. He built the back porch on our house, and some of the roses he planted in the back yard are still blooming." Just as Arthur Miller loved working with his hands, Willy Loman loves to build things and tend a garden.
On graduation from high school Miller knew that his parents could not afford to send him to college. He wanted to go to the University of Michigan, but his grades were so poor that he could not qualify for admission. For a short while he worked for his father, but he couldn't stand the contemptuous way buyers treated his father and the salesmen. Self-respect became an important issue for him, as you'll see when you read Death of a Salesman. He got himself a job in a Manhattan auto parts warehouse. Miller was determined to make something of himself, and the fact that he achieved this goal gave him proof of any man's ability to perfect himself.
Meanwhile, he stumbled by chance on the Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov, which he had picked up thinking it was a detective story. (If you want to know what turned Arthur Miller into a playwright, read Dostoevsky's "great book of wonder" as he later called it. Have you ever been inspired by a book you read?) He read it on the long subway rides to work, and said later, "All at once [I] believed I was born to be a writer."
Miller saved nearly all of his fifteen-dollar-a-week salary, and after two and a half years he had enough for a year of college. He wrote the president of the University of Michigan an eloquent letter asking for one year to prove himself. He promised that if he did not do well, he would leave the university after his first year. The university accepted him in journalism, and he left the warehouse where he had built up the great affection for his co-workers documented in his play A Memory of Two Mondays. In the warehouse he had found a little community of people who cared about each other, in contrast to his father's business world. Among the questions always hovering over all his plays, including Death of a Salesman, are "Does anyone care?" and "How does a man make a home for himself in the world?"
At college Miller learned about a $500 award that was available for a play. He wrote one in six days, and won the prize. He felt he had begun what he had been born to do. At the University of Michigan he met many people who had strong political beliefs, ideas about how the world should be run. Listening to the debates heightened his concern about morality. Having won several more awards before graduating, Miller returned to New York in 1938 to write plays, but "in two months was on relief."
Odd jobs kept him going while he began to write for radio. Many of these jobs were manual labor, which gave him the background for his plays about working-class people.
In time, Miller wrote regularly for the best drama programs on radio. In spite of his impatience with radio's restrictions, he learned how to handle quick time shifts and how to blend reality and fantasy, a central strategy in Death of a Salesman.
Miller's first Broadway play was a failure, and he told himself that if the next one didn't succeed he would go into another line of work. In 1947 All My Sons put him on the map. Like Death of a Salesman, it deals with families and moral issues. While Death of a Salesman is about what society owes to individuals, All My Sons is about what individuals owe to society. It ran all that season and won many awards.
With the confidence of that success, Miller began Death of a Salesman, a more ambitious play. It immediately won extraordinary praise in this country, and also became one of the most frequently produced American plays abroad. A bestseller, unusual for a play, it has been read by millions of people who have never seen it on a stage.
Miller has been a public figure whose actions show what he stands for. During Joseph McCarthy's "witch-hunt" he refused to reveal the names of those at a meeting he had attended who might have been Communists. He was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1956, but two years later the Supreme Court reversed the conviction. He later actively campaigned for worldwide freedom of expression as an official of P.E.N., the international society of writers.
In addition to Death of a Salesman, Miller's plays include The Crucible (1953), A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), A View from the Bridge (one act, 1955; full length, 1957), After the Fall (1964), Incident at Vichy (1965), The Price (1968), and American Clock (1980).
Several of Miller's plays have been adapted into movies. In 1960 he wrote his first original screenplay, The Misfits, which starred his second wife, Marilyn Monroe. Miller has also produced four books of reportage in collaboration with his third wife, the photographer Inge Morath: In Russia, In the Country, Chinese Encounters, and Salesman in Beijing.
The popularity of Death of a Salesman is timeless. Audiences around the world have been drawn to it, moved by its story of a longing for fulfillment. A notable revival was staged on Broadway in New York City in 1984.