Review from Socialist View, No.14, Spring 2005

Obituary- Arthur Miller: Death of a Legend
17/10/1915 - 10/2/2005

On 10 February 2005, Arthur Miller, one of the greatest playwrights of the last century died at the age of 89 after a lifetime of struggle against the political establishment.

By David Convery

Arthur Miller was born in 1915, the son of a prosperous clothing manufacturer in New York. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing "Great Depression" hit the family hard with Arthur becoming a low-paid shipping clerk in an automobile warehouse after graduating from high school in order to raise enough money to attend the University of Michigan. He once did an interview for The Times in which he said "Until 1929 I thought things were pretty solid and somebody was in charge, probably a businessman and a realistic, no-nonsense fellow. In 1929 he jumped out of the window. It was bewildering".

After that, Miller would never have any illusions in the capitalist system, his avid reading and his experiences drove him to question the system and moved him politically to the left. Miller moved to New York again at the outbreak of World War II with his first successful play, All My Sons, hitting Broadway in 1947. It dealt with the corruption of an arms manufacturer who knowingly sold defective equipment to the US air force causing many pilots to lose their lives. His big break however came in 1949 when the now classic Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway to critical acclaim. The play exposes the reality of so-called "American Dream". The protagonist Willy Loman has spent his whole life working hard and trying to get ahead but ends up losing his job. It is at this point, while thinking about his life insurance, he realises that it's "Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive". Miller defined his aim with this play as being "to set forth what happens when a man does not have a grip on the forces of life." The play went on to win the distinguished Pulitzer Prize.

Despite this, Miller's success was greeted by some with open hostility. 1950s America was a hotbed of reaction, fuelled by fear over the "communist" threat. The US was in the grips of a witch-hunt for "reds under the beds." Hundreds of activists and radicals were pulled off the streets.

The scare however, did not just stop with street activists, but reached into the lives of artists, actors and playwrights who were called before the now infamous House Of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led by right-wing Republican Senator Joe McCarthy. Those accused were asked the question, "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" The only way to clear one's name and save one's career was by naming others. If you refused, it would mean almost certain exile from your own industry and possibly even jail. Miller, appalled by this blatant violation of human rights, wrote a damning indictment of it in the form of The Crucible, based upon the worst witch-trials in American history in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. People were accused of being witches on the basis of flimsy evidence and the testimonies of children who were being used by religious zealots. If they refused to confess and to name others, they were hung.

On the back of this, Miller was accused of writing plays that were un-American and was hauled before the committee in 1956. Unlike some, including Elia Kazan, the director of several of Miller's plays, he took a principled position even at the risk of his career and refused to name names.

Arthur Miller's name became a household name when he married Marilyn Monroe and was found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name names the HUAC. He describes his revulsion at the morals of the HUAC when its then chair, right-wing senator Francis Walter, offered to drop the charge if he could persuade Monroe to be photographed shaking his hand. Miller and Monroe both refused.

Almost fifty years later, Miller was still active and condemned the Bush administration's domestic and foreign policy. At a time when so many former left-wing artists and writers have become cynical Miller was an heroic exception. To the end, he fought on against Bush, against the turn towards downsizing and privatisation in the theatre and against the inability of capitalism to solve the world's problems.

His works remain timeless in exposing the reality of life under capitalism, a life of poverty, exploitation and persecution under the iron heel of big business and the political establishment. His work snatched people from their political slumbers and forced them to look critically at the world. But they also remain an inspiration to the new generation of activists and socialists, by constantly highlighting ordinary people's solidarity and hope for a better world and the potential to build a new society.

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This article is from the 2005 Spring edition of Socialist View (it was printed in March '05).

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