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Arthur Miller: 1915-2005: One of the Greatest American Playwrights of the 20th Century


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I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.

Today we tell about Arthur Miller. Many theater critics believe he was one of the greatest American playwrights of the twentieth century.

Several plays by Arthur Miller will probably be performed for many years to come. That is because critics say Miller was able to dramatize the emotional pain that average people suffer in their daily lives.

A critic once described Miller as an activist for the common man. He demonstrates this well in one of his most famous plays, "Death of a Salesman." The main character is a man whose dreams of success in business have died.

But Miller's interest in the average man did not stop him from exploring major problems of society. In "The Crucible", for example, he shows what happens when unreasonable dislike and fear cause people to accuse innocent people of horrible crimes.

Some other of his best-known plays include "All My Sons", "A View from the Bridge" and "After the Fall."

Arthur Miller was born in New York City in nineteen fifteen. He died in two thousand five at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. For sixty years, he created one dramatic work after another. Miller won many awards for his plays. Among them were a Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics' Circle prizes and Tony awards. In nineteen eighty-four, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. honored him for his lifetime work in drama.

Miller also created stories for movies. For example, he wrote "The Misfits" for actress Marilyn Monroe. Miller's television drama, "Playing for Time", told of an orchestra of prisoners at the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz, during World War Two. Miller was also a political activist for human rights. But it was drama performed in the theater that Miller loved most.

Arthur Miller grew up in New York. His father, Isidore Miller, manufactured clothing and operated a store. But the father lost his money in the great economic Depression in the nineteen thirties. The family had to move from a costly apartment in Manhattan to a small house in Brooklyn.

During the Depression, Arthur worked at many jobs to earn money for college. In nineteen thirty-four, he began studying English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Miller won an award for writing plays while at school.

Miller returned home to New York after completing his studies. He married his college girlfriend, Mary Slattery. They had two children before later ending their marriage.

In nineteen forty-four, Arthur Miller's first major play was performed on Broadway. It was called "The Man Who Had All the Luck." However, the play did not bring him good luck. It had only four performances. But his second Broadway play, "All My Sons", was a major success It won several awards in nineteen forty-seven.

"All My Sons" tells of a manufacturer who produces faulty parts for airplanes used in World War Two. One of his sons dies as the result of the father's crime. In the play, Miller examines the relationship between the pressure to succeed and personal responsibility.

Miller's great play, "Death of a Salesman", opened on Broadway in nineteen forty-nine. He was thirty-three years old when he wrote it. "Death of a Salesman" questions the pressures in American society for people to gain financial success. The play also continues his exploration of the relationships between fathers and sons.

The central character in "Death of a Salesman" is sixty-year-old Willy Loman. The action opens on the last day of Willy's life. He has been dismissed from his job as a traveling salesman. He also recognizes that he has failed as a father. Willy thinks about killing himself.

Willy's wife Linda understands that he is deeply and dangerously sad. But their son Biff criticizes his father's strange actions. She answers with some of the most famous words in the American theater:

LINDA: "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the papers. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person. You called him crazy…"

BIFF:"I didn't mean…"

LINDA:"No, a lot of people think he's lost his – balance. But you don't have to be very smart to know what his trouble is. The man is exhausted."

Linda knows that Willy is extremely tired. He is tired of living. He kills himself before the play is over. Linda talks to Willy at his burial place:

"I search and search and I search, and I can't understand it. Willy, I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home…"

"Death of a Salesman" had a big influence on the American public. Many people saw their own lives in Willy Loman, the victim of broken dreams. Americans discussed the financial worries of businessmen who were getting old. But Americans were not the only ones who identified with the ideas in the play. It has been translated into about thirty languages and performed around the world.

Arthur Miller's criticisms of modern American life influenced another of his most important works. "The Crucible" was first produced in nineteen fifty-three. The nineteen fifties were a time of extreme fear of Communism in the United States. Sometimes this fear was unreasonable.

Miller examined this difficult period in American history by setting his play at another difficult time. "The Crucible" takes place in the seventeenth century. He based his play on trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Young women in the play accuse people they dislike of being evil witches. The innocent victims are put on trial and executed. The story shows the tragic results of uncontrolled suspicion and fear. "The Crucible" has been produced more than any of Miller's plays, both in America and around the world.

Like the victims in "The Crucible," the playwright himself became the object of suspicion. In nineteen fifty-six, a committee of the United States Congress ordered him to give evidence. In the nineteen forties, he had attended several meetings for writers organized by the Communist Party. The Congressional committee wanted the names of other people who attended Communist meetings.

Arthur Miller said he was not a Communist. But he would not give the committee any names. He was found guilty of disobeying Congress. Later, however, a court canceled that judgment. Miller was lucky. Some people who would not answer questions before Congress served time in prison.

Something else lucky happened to the playwright in nineteen fifty-six. Miller married the beautiful Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe. But their marriage was troubled. Monroe had emotional problems. They had little privacy because the media followed the famous couple everywhere.

Miller wrote the nineteen sixty-one movie "The Misfits" for his wife. The movie explored the modern Wild West through the lives of three troubled people. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe ended their marriage soon after the movie was completed. A year later, Monroe died of a drug overdose.

Miller wrote another play, "After the Fall," in nineteen sixty-four. Critics said it was the play most about his own life. They criticized him for portraying the wife of the main character as a woman who is dependent on drugs and kills herself. They said the character was based on Marilyn Monroe. But Miller denied this.

Miller married for a third time in nineteen sixty-two. He and his wife Inge Morath, a well-known photographer, had one daughter. Morath died in two thousand two. Miller once said that even after he and Inge had been married almost forty years, people still asked him about Marilyn Monroe.

Arthur Miller also wrote short stories and a book about his life called "Timebends: A Life." He once wrote that when he was young he imagined that with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, "writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do." Theater owners on Broadway agreed. On the day after he died, the lights of Broadway theaters darkened for a minute in honor of Arthur Miller.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Lawan Davis. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Sarah Long and Rich Kleinfeldt were the characters from "Death of a Salesman." Join us again for next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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