September 22, 2023

Arthur Miller: American Witness
By John Lahr
(Yale University Press, 264 pages, $26)

Art imitates life, and that is certainly true in the case of the playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005), whose personal and professional life defined and added verisimilitude to his vast body of work. Such is the central argument of John Lahr, a longtime theater critic for the New Yorker, in his latest book, Arthur Miller: American Witness. Lahr, who is also known for his biographies of the playwright Tennessee Williams and of his father, the actor Bert Lahr, approaches Miller with the same relish and attention to detail.

American Witness is a fascinating exploration of Miller, his childhood and adolescent influences, Jewish identity, political philosophy, approach to writing, and creative inspiration for Death of a Salesman (1949) and his other famous plays. The author also dissects Miller’s three marriages, especially his second marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Lahr presents his subject, who lived until nearly 90, as a witness to America’s evolution.

It is often said that writers are more devoted to their work than to their personal lives, and Miller was certainly no exception to this stereotype. Once Miller decided to become a writer, his work became his primary focus, and American Witness is peppered with many examples of his marriage to his craft. For instance, in 1959, Miller, already an established playwright at the time, argued with his brother Kermit after the former canceled on his plans to attend the bar mitzvah of Kermit’s son Ross. Miller explained his reasons in a letter to Kermit:

Since the beginning, my work has enforced on me a regime and a viewpoint which are the price of a way of life that is in many ways unnatural and perhaps incomprehensible to others…. So that when others find a lack of social response in me they ought, at the same time, to ask themselves if perhaps Arthur has other things he must do … not “more important things” necessarily, but things which inevitably accompany the work he has bound himself to perform.

Lahr paints a vivid picture of Miller’s early years. He was the second child of Augusta (“Gussie”) and Isidore Miller, who were both from “first-generation émigré families from Poland.” Isidore was the proprietor of Isidore’s Miltex Coat and Suit, a position that enabled Miller to be raised in relative affluence, with “maids, oriental rugs, mahogany furniture, and a Knabe baby grand piano” in a “high-ceilinged sixth-floor apartment” with a view of Central Park, before the crash of 1929 destroyed the family’s wealth and forced them to relocate to a more modest dwelling in Brooklyn. Although Isidore was a successful businessman whose company at its apex employed 800 people, he was completely illiterate. By contrast, Gussie was an avid reader who paid Columbia University graduate students to keep her abreast of the latest literature. Isidore’s illiteracy proved to be a constant source of tension between the two, especially since it reduced their social circle to relatives and garment-center professionals.

Lahr writes that Miller was internally conflicted about his father’s illiteracy. Miller claims that he unconsciously underperformed in school before finding his stride at the University of Michigan because he was afraid of diminishing his father: “To become a reader meant to surpass him, and to claim the status of a writer was a bloody triumph.” Not surprisingly, the weak father character would resurface in Miller’s plays. 

The author emphasizes the pivotal role that Death of a Salesman played in Miller’s career and legacy. Garnering myriad accolades following its 1949 Broadway debut, including a Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle for Best Play, and Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Author of a Play, Death of a Salesman positioned Miller as one of the contemporary standard-bearers for realism in American theater. Lahr includes the anecdote that Miller has described as his inspiration for penning his chef-d’oeuvre, a 1947 encounter with his uncle Manny Newman in the lobby of the Colonial Theater following a matinee of Miller’s play All My Sons (1947). Miller claimed that he was surprised when Manny, who had a habit of always comparing him unfavorably to his two sons Abby and Buddy, did not compliment him on the play and his success as a playwright. Instead, Manny proceeded to praise his sons. This exchange with Manny, a career salesman who would commit suicide later that year, gave Miller the raw material to create Willy Loman, the main character of Death of a Salesman.

Lahr skillfully juxtaposes Miller’s critical triumph with Death of a Salesman against his abysmal failure with The Crucible (1953). Miller was motivated by a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, to write a play about the Salem witch trials of 1692, after which 19 people were put to death by hanging for supposedly cavorting with the devil. As has been noted for decades, Miller was also drawing a parallel between the Salem witch trials and the efforts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee to conduct a witch hunt for communist sympathizers in the early 1950s. Although The Crucible won the 1953 Tony Award for Best Play, individual critics were unforgiving of the subject matter and the assumed allegorical references to McCarthyism, and the play closed after 197 performances. Ironically, today The Crucible is one of Miller’s most popular plays. It continues to find a place in high school and university curricula and the professional and amateur stages. 

Lahr spares no details when discussing Miller’s turbulent marriage to Monroe and the influence that this relationship had on his future work. When Miller and Monroe were first married, they both idealized each other. He was a father figure to her; she called him “Papa.” She also thought that he would help her to become a serious actress. Miller was somewhat enamored with Monroe’s fame, but he also recognized her talent and was devoted to helping her to find suitable material to showcase her gifts. But he became increasingly frustrated by her insecurity, unprofessionalism, and addiction to pills. And Monroe’s need for attention and companionship interfered with the quiet time that Miller’s writing required. “I’d say out of five we had two good years,” Miller said. After the marriage ended, Miller continued to ruminate about its unraveling in his lightly veiled semi-autographical play After the Fall (1964).

John Lahr’s Arthur Miller: American Witness provides a front-row view of the professional life, personal experiences, and creative process of Arthur Miller, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and talented American playwrights. Although American Witness does not unearth any new information about the playwright, its thoughtful insights, engaging language, and poignant commentary from Miller make it well worth the read.

Image: This file has been cropped and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.