Rise to Fame

In recounting the final twenty-four hours of Willy Loman’s frustrated life in Death of a Salesman, Miller strove to create a new form of theater that would convey the simultaneity in the way the memories of past events collide in one’s mind with current occurrences. Seeing tension as the very stuff of drama, Miller wanted to re-create in a play what he saw as the contradictory forces that operate on people—past against present, society against individual, greed against ethics. His first title had been Inside of His Head, but that was quickly replaced, along with Miller’s original concept of having the scenes play out inside a stage representation of a giant head. Again directing, Kazan brought along the stage and lighting designer Jo Mielziner—with whom he had successfully worked on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—to help visualize what would become one of the American stage’s most iconic set designs.

As Brenda Murphy explains, Mielziner’s designs “combined translucent scenery, expert lighting effect, and sets that went, as the eye travelled upward, from drab realistic interiors to light, delicate frameworks that were mere suggestions of buildings,” which she terms “subjective realism.”2 Miller wanted a set that would convey aspects of both the claustrophobic present and the idealized past within the same space, and Mielziner obliged with an inventive use of scrims and lighting in a design that allowed all the scenes to be played out with minimal stage management. The forestage was essential to allow for breakout space to play the scenes beyond the Lomans’ house. Through this format, Miller, Kazan, and Mielziner suggested a whole new way of presenting a play on stage, and it would become increasingly influential.

The play’s tremendous impact was also due to the authenticity of its depictions. This is perhaps the reason why Miller—despite the expressionistic elements of the play—was wrongly dubbed a realist for many years. Miller had grown up around salesman and knew the pressures they faced, especially in a changing society that no longer did business in the ways it once had. By the 1940s, planned obsolescence was affecting people as much as innovative appliances, and Miller’s rendition of an everyday family trying to find its way to success in a society unsupportive and unsympathetic toward failure hit a distinctive cultural nerve in an America increasingly materialistic and intolerant of “failure.” The problems faced by the Loman family have since proven timeless and transcultural, representative of all people struggling to navigate their lives in societies inherently hostile to their dreams. As the playwright Marsha Norman suggests, “In writing about Willy Loman, Arthur Miller wrote about all of us, about our indestructible will to achieve our humanity, about our fear of being torn away from what and who we are in this world, about our fear of being displaced and forgotten.” 

Miller recognized the social and historical forces operating against the Loman family. From the wagon-laden peddlers who often made their own wares, such as Willy’s father, through the early drummers like David Singleman, traveling by rail, down to the car-driving Willy, whose traveling days are clearly coming to a close when business is no longer done with a smile and a handshake, the play neatly depicts a history of American business practices. Willy is being replaced by a new kind of corporate salesman. This is modeled by Happy, who toils as assistant to an assistant buyer, stuck in a store. Willy’s boss, Howard, seduced by technology and time-management studies, is fast moving toward a pared-down workforce and automation, illustrating the dehumanization of the worker with scientific and engineering advances. At times comic, yet also poetic and tragic, with a realistic veneer that made it easy to involve any audience, Salesman was a new type of serious drama that merged the forms of realism and expressionism to suggest new directions and possibilities for all of American drama, as well as offering a challenge to previous definitions of tragedy.

Against much opposition, Miller argued for Willy Loman’s status as a modern tragic hero. Not a highborn or even intelligent figure, Willy’s nobility lay in his willingness to lay down his life rather than accept the erasure of his dignity. Miller pled his case in two controversial articles in the New York Times, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” and “On Tragedy,” which redefined the way American dramatists, in particular, would view the genre. For Miller, “In the tragic view the need of man to wholly realize himself is the only fixed star.”Thus, tragedy could be drawn from the travails of anyone who refuses to give up what he deems his “rightful position” in society. Miller’s tragedies ask audiences to examine and perhaps even fix the social flaws that create such circumstances. Miller produced many essays over his career in which he expounded his opinions on theater, politics, history and social theory, thus indicating a desire to be not just a playwright, but someone who might shape the direction of American drama, if not America itself.

In its effectiveness as a human story, a cultural commentary, an engaging theatrical experience, and a tremendously successful stage experiment, Death of a Salesman is perhaps Miller’s most important play; however, the play that followed, The Crucible—a reaction to Miller’s concern regarding what he saw as the bullying behavior of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the morality of informing on others—has become his most produced one. Like Death of a SalesmanThe Crucible, although written to address a specific historical climate—1950s McCarthyism through the lens of the 1692 Salem witch hunts—has remained powerfully relevant, in part because The Crucible is a study of the nature of society itself. It effectively conveys striking lessons on the responsible role of authority and the rights and needs of the individual which speak to people who have never heard of Salem or Senator McCarthy. As Matthew Roudané suggests, “The Crucible remains a powerful theatrical experience precisely because it continues to define key political and religious issues of a nation as such issues are reflected within the private anxieties of the individual.”5

Another modern tragic hero, the play’s central protagonist John Proctor, must confront his own culpability through his past affair with Abigail, the girl whose accusations have initiated the witch trials. Mapping the typical progression of so many of Miller’s characters, from betrayal and/or guilt through to the embrace of active responsibility, Proctor comes to an existential self-awareness that gives his self-sacrifice—to preserve his own name and the names of others—a timeless relevance. A person’s name, for Miller, is the trope by which his characters convey a sense of their own moral and personal essence, and the loss of a name can only be devastating.

Miller spent much of 1952 researching witch trials at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. Thus he ensured that the play would have an accurate historical basis that could guard him against accusations of creating a flimsy social satire. He also avoided trying to create a one-to-one analogy, which he felt would be reductive. Although The Crucible is more historically accurate than many of Shakespeare’s plays, it was accused by some of being untruthful, and by others of making an unfair analogy. In hindsight, these seem like strategies to discredit its authority, but at the time it made it a highly controversial play to applaud for fear of being viewed as a “red” sympathizer.

Combining what Brecht called “historification”—by which the playwright would comment on current events through historical analogy—with a more complex linguistic style of the agitprop plays of the 1930s that he admired, in The Crucible Miller produced a drama that addresses key social, moral, and political issues, yet also remains great theater that tugs at its audience’s emotions. The Crucible has something for everyone: sympathies can be drawn to the disenfranchised black slave, the suppressed group of young women, the tortured souls of the unhappy and unlucky Proctors, or the self-important Reverend Hale who gets his certitude stripped away; audience distaste is fired up against the self-righteously pompous, the jealous and cold-heartedly venal, or the blind, rigid enforcement of painfully ridiculous reasoning and rules. Thus the play’s impact and longevity are understandable.

Miller himself was called to appear before HUAC after his marriage to Marilyn Monroe brought him into the spotlight. He refused to name names, telling the committee, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.”With this clear echo of the words he had put in the mouth of John Proctor three years earlier, Miller was cited for contempt and given a $500 fine and a thirty-day suspended jail sentence. Two years later, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that the questions he had been asked to answer served no legislative purpose. Elia Kazan, however, driven by his disgust at what communism had become under Stalin, and his need to work in Hollywood and abroad, had named names in 1952, and Miller swiftly terminated his close friendship with Kazan as a result.

How close Miller had been to the Communist Party during the 1930s and 1940s remains a matter of critical contention, and HUAC produced little firm evidence during his hearing. Miller’s resistance was more moral than political, as he felt the HUAC hearings to be socially and psychologically harmful. It is certain that Miller, like Kazan and many others during that period, had seen hope for America in the socialist aspects of communism, but it is also clear that he held Stalin in contempt. In a recent study, Alan Wald explores Miller’s initial alignment and later disillusionment with Soviet socialism, and posits that Miller may have written for New Masses in the 1940s under the pseudonym Matt Wayne.