The Holy Grail for 20th-century American writers was something called “The Great American Novel,” a quest that remained unfulfilled. In the late 1960s a critical consensus began to emerge that F. Scott Fitzgerald had come close with his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, a story about the dehumanization of Americans by materialism. Close, but no cigar. The critical rap on Fitzgerald by his contemporaries was that he had a marvelous talent, but that he was philosophically ignorant.
This lack of consciousness, and his pandering to the upscale markets that bought his short fiction, were considered severe shortfalls that prevented him from achieving true greatness, other than his greatness of that peculiar American type, the failure who was once a young genius. By the 1960s, when different standards became the criteria by which “greatness” was adjudged, a controlling consciousness was no longer considered de rigueur for greatness. The Great Gatsby was close to the Great American Novel, but The Quest for the Grail continued.
Perhaps American critics and other cultural arbiters were looking for the “Great American Novel” in the wrong place. Amending it to “The Great American Work of Fiction,” that distinction likely would fall upon Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. While Miller was nowhere near as acclaimed a master as Eugene O’Neill, who had virtually ceased being produced on Broadway by the time Miller made his ascent up through the ranks of American playwrights, nor as popular as his contemporary Tennessee Williams, no play had the impact on an audience or on American culture as Salesman did. That it continues to be revived successfully a half-century after its debut on Broadway is testimony to its greatness, and that of its author.
Death of a Salesman is not the finest American play ever written. Indeed, when reading it one is often struck by the crudeness of its writing and the feebleness of its rhetorical strategies. Plays aren’t meant to be read, however; they are meant to be performed, and watching Death of a Salesman is the most harrowing experience offered by the American theater. There were tales in 1949 of grown men, hardened by the Depression and WWII, breaking down in tears at the climax of the play. In terms of its power to move an audience, Miller had created the greatest work of American fictive writing; his career would be overshadowed by that one work, which ensured his greatness, for the rest of his life. Ironically, he would die on the 56th anniversary of the play’s premiere.
The American Dream Becomes a Nightmare
The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City. His father manufactured women’s coats, but his business was devastated by the Depression, seeding his son’s disillusionment with the American Dream and those blue-sky-seeking Americans who pursued it with both eyes focused on the Grail of Materialism. Due to his father’s strained financial circumstances, Miller had to work for tuition money to attend the University of Michigan. It was at Michigan that he wrote his first plays. They were successes, earning him numerous student awards, including the Avery Hopwood Award in Drama for No Villain in 1937. The award was named after one of the most successful playwrights of the 1920s, who simultaneously had five hits on Broadway, the Neil Simon of his day. Now almost forgotten except for his contribution to Gold Diggers of 1933, Hopwood achieved a material success that the older Miller could not match, but he failed to capture the immortality that would be Miller’s. Hopwood’s suicide, on the beach of the Cote d’Azur, inspired Norman Maine’s march into the SoCal surf in A Star is Born (1937). It seemed to encapsulate the American dilemma: the achievement of success was no panacea for an America soul-sick from its pursuit.
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Miller tasted success at a tender age. In 1938, upon graduating from Michigan, he received a Theatre Guild National Award and returned to New York, joining the Federal Theatre Project. He married his college girlfriend, Mary Grace Slattery, in 1940; they would have two children, Joan and Robert. In 1944, he made his Broadway debut with The Man Who Had All the Luck, a flop that lasted only four performances. He went on to publish two books, Situation Normal in ’44, and Focus in 1945, but it was in 1947 that his star became ascendant. His play All My Sons, directed by Elia Kazan, became a hit on Broadway, running for 328 performances. Both Miller and Kazan received Tony Awards, and Miller won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It was a taste of what was to come.
Death of a Salesman
Staged by Elia Kazan, Death of a Salesman opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, and closed 742 performances later on Nov 18, 1950. The play was the sensation of the season, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Play and Best Author for Miller. Miller also was awarded the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play made lead actor Lee J. Cobb, as Willy Loman, an icon of the stage comparable to the Stanley Kowalski of Marlon Brando: a synthesis of actor and role that created a legend that survives through the bends of time.
A contemporary classic was recognized, though some critics complained that the play wasn’t truly a tragedy, as Willy Loman was such a pathetic soul. The fall of such a small person as Loman could not qualify as tragedy, as there was so little height from which to fall. Miller, a dedicated progressive and a man of integrity, never accepted the criticism. As Willy’s wife Linda said at his funeral, “Attention must be paid,” even to the little people who were crucified alongside the capitalist gods in the pursuit of the American Dream.
In 1983, Arthur Miller himself directed a staging of Death of a Salesman in Chinese at the Beijing Peoples’ Art Theatre. He said that while the Chinese, then largely ignorant of capitalism, might not have understood Loman’s career choice, they did have empathy for his desire to drink from the Grail of the American Dream. They understood this dream, which Miller characterizes as the desire “to excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved, and above all, perhaps, to count.” It is this desire to sup at the table of the great American Capitalists, even if one is just scrounging for crumbs, in a country of which President Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business,” this desire to be recognized, to be somebody, that so moves Death of a Salesman audiences, whether in New York, London or Beijing.
Arthur Miller never again attained the critical heights nor smash Broadway success of Death of a Salesman, though he continued to write fine plays that were appreciated by critics and audiences alike for another two decades. Disenchanted with Kazan over his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the two parted company when Kazan refused to direct The Crucible, Miller’s parable of the witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Defending her husband, Kazan’s wife Molly told Miller that the play was disingenuous, as there were no real witches in Puritan Salem. It was a point Miller disagreed with, as it was a matter of perspective–the witches in Salem were real to those who believed in them. Directed by another Broadway legend, Jed Harris, the play ran for 197 performances and won Miller the 1953 Tony Award for Best Play. Miller had another success with “A View from the Bridge,” a play about an incest-minded longshoreman written with overtones of classical Greek tragedy, which ran for 149 performances in the 1955-56 season.
Marriage to Marilyn
It was in 1956 that Miller made his most fateful personal decision, when he divorced his wife Mary and married movie siren-cum-legend Marilyn Monroe. With this marriage Miller achieved a different type of fame, a pop culture status he abhorred. It was a marriage doomed to fail, as Monroe was, in Miller’s words, “highly self-destructive.” In his beautifully written 1989 autobiography Timebends, Miller wrote that a marriage was a conspiracy to keep out the light. When one or more of the partners could no longer prevent the light from coming in and illuminating the other’s faults, the marriage was doomed.
In his own autobiography, A Life, Elia Kazan said that he could not understand the marriage. Monroe, who had slept with Kazan on a casual basis, as she did with many other Hollywood players, was the type of woman someone took as a mistress, not as a wife. Miller, however, was a man of principle. He was in love. “