Over the years, critics have considered a great variety of possible influences on Miller’s work, from Shakespeare or Chekhov to Sinclair Lewis, but the clearest influences are those whom Miller himself acknowledged: classical Greek playwrights, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, and Clifford Odets.
Since studying at the University of Michigan, Miller had been attracted to the sense of form and symmetry of events in classical Greek drama, and he followed their lead in believing that the best drama is social drama. By that he did not mean socialist drama, but rather plays concerned with more than the life of the individual—plays that consider the whole society and the bonds between individuals and society. Miller noted a disturbing tendency in American drama to separate the individual and society and to write about the separation rather than the connection, which he saw as ultimately dehumanizing. A fierce desire to help others evolve into better people and the belief that such evolution is possible made the Greeks humanists. Miller, too, is a humanist—concerned with examining human nature, with an aim to improving it.
Even before attending Michigan, Miller had been interested in the great Russian novelists, reading them on his way to and from work while saving the money for university. While Miller might not have had the same religious convictions as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, he was as deeply concerned as they with the issue of morality and the consequences of its lack. Miller’s morality, however, seems more deeply rooted in his Judaic roots, springing from the Old Testament (or Torah) rather than the New Testament of Christianity. At Michigan Miller studied the plays of Ibsen; one of the first Broadway plays that deeply affected him had been a 1937 revival of A Doll’s House (adapted by Thornton Wilder). Ibsen taught him the importance of creating believable, psychologically complex characters, as well as the ways in which the past might affect the present and the difficulties of finding happiness in a hostile environment.
While influenced by theatrical trends from the Greeks through to Ibsen, Miller is also closely connected to seminal American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, and he can be viewed as a major pioneer in the development of a distinctly American theater. He took the serious social intent of O’Neill’s earlier plays and added something of the poetic lyricism of Williams and the inventive stage design of Thornton Wilder. While O’Neill played with genre, Miller tried to invent a new one. He took the earthy common people he had met in the early work of Clifford Odets and mingled their colorful colloquial speech with the more refined Southern poetics of Williams to create a poetic dialogue of his own. Indeed, frequently he began by writing his plays in verse form, only later converting this to prose. His language may not have Williams’s flowery, imagistic heft, but it contains hundreds of evocative, resonant, and memorable lines carefully crafted for maximum effect: “Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons”; “Attention, attention must be finally paid,” and “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory”; “I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another”; “The majority is never right until it does right”; “A whole life. Gave it away like a couple of pennies—I took better care of my shoes”; “God is precisely what is not there when you need him.” And many more.
For Miller, art has only ever been of use when it tries to change society for the better, and all his plays have this aim at their heart. This directive leads to a deeper bond between play and audience as his dramas challenge us to be better. As the quiet voice of Bessie at the heart of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan reminds us, “There are other people.” It is hard to leave a performance of a Miller play without being changed, and that is what makes for effective drama.
All My Sons teaches us about our responsibility to others, just as Death of a Salesman teaches us about our responsibility to ourselves. A View from the Bridge, through the stage directions alone, creates a graphic depiction of obsession, and After the Fall truly takes us inside a person’s head to understand the complexities of human guilt and desire—something to which Miller returns, only from an older man’s perspective, in Mr. Peter’s Connections.
Nothing is ever simple in a Miller play. The Price and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan determinedly balance conflicting ideologies to the point where one cannot comfortably take sides. In one, he presents us with two brothers with opposite drives and beliefs; the other portrays a man who has two wives competing over him; in neither case are we allowed to be sure whose side to take. Broken Glass sets a failed marriage against the American response to news of the Holocaust, and offers a chilling tale of sympathy and the dangers in its lack. Plays like Incident at Vichy, The Archbishop’s Ceiling, or Resurrection Blues, while taking place on foreign shores, nevertheless still speak to universal concerns regarding racism, government surveillance, and the overblown power of the media. Miller left us with a wonderful legacy from which to explore the intricacies of what it means to be human and humane.
There have been many plays that echo or build on Miller’s work, but his presence in American theater is most firmly evident in the rekindling of a serious attitude toward drama that developed in his wake. Dan Sullivan, a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, once described Miller as a “father figure” for American theater artists, most notable for his “integrity” and pursuit of truth. Chris Bigsby’s collection of commentaries, Arthur Miller and Company, is a telling summary of what contemporary writers feel about Miller: what they owe him, why they admire him, and what they have learned from him. Throughout the book, writers, along with directors and actors who have been involved with his work, offer opinions and assessments of Miller. Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, and William Styron speak of Miller’s importance and contribution to American art; playwrights David Rabe and Edward Albee praise his writing and social commitment. Kurt Vonnegut sums up their admiration when he describes how Miller’s plays “speak movingly about America to almost all Americans, while telling the truth about America. Most of the rest of us who write here can’t find any way to do that while being truthful.”