According to Arthur Miller in his autobiography Timebends, he had written a screenplay dealing with corruption on the New York waterfront called The Hook. Elia Kazan had agreed to direct it, and in 1951 they went to see Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures about making the picture. Cohn agreed in principle to make The Hook, but his minions were troubled by the portrayal of corrupt union officials. When Cohn asked that the antagonists of the script be changed to Communists, Miller refused. Cohn sent Miller a letter telling him it was interesting that he had resisted Columbia’s desire to make the movie pro-American.
Elia Kazan later made a movie about corruption on the waterfront that did include corrupt union officials, based on articles by Malcolm Johnson. He asked Arthur Miller to write the script, but Miller declined due to his disenchantment with Kazan’s friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Budd Schulberg, a fellow HUAC informer, developed the story and wrote the script. The movie was produced by Sam Spiegel and distributed through Columbia. On the Waterfront (1954), which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, is considered a classic and was one of the first films named to the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry in 1989.
House Un-American Activities Committee
In 1956, Arthur Miller was forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1956, after he had sought a passport to accompany his wife, Marilyn Monroe, to England for the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). In 1954 the US State Department had refused to renew his passport (first issued in 1947) on the grounds that he was a “fellow traveler”. Subsequent to his 1956 request, HUAC subpoenaed Miller to testify about the unauthorized use of American passports. The justification of the subpoena was that the State Department was withholding approval of his latest request due to derogatory information about Miller’s past.
In his HUAC testimony, Miller admitted to involvement with many Communist-front organizations and having had sponsored many Communist-backed causes in the 1940s. When Miller was asked whether he had signed an application to join the Communist Party in 1939 or ’40, he explained that he believed he had signed an application for a course on Marxism. The date was significant for it was the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939 (thus enabling the launching of World War II by allying the USSR with Germany, partitioning Poland between the two countries, and allowing Adolf Hitler to concentrate his war machine on the West), that led many American Communist Party members, like friendly witness Elia Kazan, to repudiate the Party. To have stuck with the Party or to have joined after the Pact would tar one as a Stalinist.
Claiming he could not remember, Miller refused to deny that he had signed statements attacking H.U.A.C. and the Smith Act, and signing a statement against outlawing the Communist party. The Alien Registration Act of 1940, a.k.a. the Smith Act, had been used to destroy the Communist Party. It banned knowingly or willfully advocating, abetting, advising, or teaching the necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing the government of the U.S. or any of its subdivisions by force or violence, or by assassination of its officials. It also outlawed the printing, publishing, editing and distribution of materials advocating violent revolution, and made it a crime to organize, help or make attempts to organize any group advocating the same. The U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the Smith Act in 1951. Upholding the conspiracy convictions of 11 Communist Party leaders, the Court, applying a clear and present danger test, held that free speech could be curbed in order to suppress a serious evil.
Arthur Miller told H.U.A.C. that he opposed the Smith Act because it might limit “advocacy,” which was essential to literature. The right to free expression for artists had to be preserved. Miller’s culpability hanged upon his helping a group, i.e., the Communist Party, which advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Miller testified that he had attended Communist party writers’ meetings four or five times. When he was asked to confirm the identity of the chairman of a 1947 “meeting of Communist party writers” that he had attended, Miller refused to name names. He stated that though he “would not support now a cause dominated by Communists . . . my conscience will not permit me to use the name of another person and bring trouble to him.”
Section 6 of The Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 made it illegal for any member of a registered Communist or Communist-front organization, or an organization under order to be filed as Communist or Communist-front, to apply for or use a passport if they had knowledge of the actual or impending registration. The provision was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 as violating the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. The Court held that the law infringed on the right to travel, and limited “freedom of association.”
Faulting Section 6 for being too broad in its application, the Court held it to be unconstitutional as it penalized organization members regardless of their knowledge of its illegal aims, whether they were active or not, and whether they intended to further the organization’s illegal aims or not. The law was too broad as it effected “Communist-action” and “Communist-front” organizations whether or not a member believed or knew that they were associated with such an organization, or whether they knew that the organization sought to further the aims of world Communism. (However, the next year, the Court upheld State Department area restrictions on passports, finding that its passport policies did not violate the First Amendment as they inhibited action rather than expression. This distinction was again upheld in 1981.)
In 1956, however, Section 6 of The Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 was still the law of the land, and it was the law with which H.U.A.C. went after Miller. H.U.A.C. gave Miller an additional ten days to return and answer questions, with the implication that he would be cited for contempt if he did no do so. Miller’s lawyers counseled that since the committee’s line of questioning had nothing to do with passports, he was not in contempt of Congress for choosing not to answer a question about an unrelated subject. He refused to participate in any further questioning.
The State Department issued Miller a six-month temporary passport to accompany Monroe to England, but upon his return, he was indicted by a federal grand jury after the U.S. House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite him for contempt. He was convicted of contempt in federal court, fined $500 and given a thirty-day suspended prison sentence. In 1958, his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Citing a 1955 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that H.U.A.C had not sufficiently warned Miller of the penalty for refusing to answer a congressional committee’s questions.
Arthur Miller won the respect of the left and libertarians for doing what many others in his position did not: Stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, regardless of the personal cost. His moral courage, which was on display in his life as well as his literature, made him a true American hero.
After the Fall
In 1967 Miller became President of P.E.N., an international literacy organization that campaigned for the rights of suppressed writers. He published a collection of short stories entitled I Don’t Need You Any More the same year. Returning to the Morosco Theatre, the site of his greatest triumph, The Price was Miller’s last unqualified hit in America, running for 429 performances between February 7, 1968 and February 15, 1969. Though Miller won a 1968 Tony Award for Best Play, the bulk of his success as an original playwright was over. A 1971 TV production of The Price was nominated for six Emmy awards, including Outstanding Single Program-Drama or Comedy, and won three, including Best Actor for George C. Scott, who would later win a 1976 Tony playing Willy Loman in a 1975 Broadway revival.
Arthur Miller never again achieved success on Broadway with an original play. In the 1980s, when he was hailed as the greatest living American playwright after the death of Tennessee Williams, he even had trouble getting full-scale revivals of his work staged. One of his more significant later works, “The American Clock“, based on Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression Hard Times, ran for only 11 previews and 12 performances in late 1980 at the Biltmore Theatre.
In 1980, Miller courted controversy by backing the casting of anti-Zionist Vanessa Redgrave as a concentration-camp Jewess in his teleplay Playing for Time (1980), an adaptation of the memoir The Musicians of Auschwitz. Another politically active Jew in show business, soon-to-be-president of the Screen Actors Guild Edward Asner, recommended that other Jews shun Miller. Commercial Broadway producers didn’t need Asner’s advice to shun Miller, however. Ironically for America’s greatest living playwright, his original work was popular in Britain, whose intellectual and theatrical communities treated him as a major figure in world literature. The universality of his work was highlighted with his own successful staging of Death of a Salesman in Beijing in 1983.
Arthur Miller wrote plays, screenplays, novels, short stories, non-fiction, and an autobiography, but it will be for Death of a Salesman that he will be remembered. It is the “Great American Fiction” of the 20th century, if not the Great American Play, perfectly encapsulating what was wrong with America in that tumultuous century. The play has become a standard warhorse, now revived each decade on Broadway, and all over the world.
In addition to George C. Scott and Lee J. Cobb (who received an Emmy nomination for the 1966 teleplay; Miller himself received a Special Citation from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for that production), Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy have garnered kudos for playing Willie Loman. The 1984 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman won a Tony for best Reproduction and helped revive Miller’s domestic reputation, while Volker Schlondorff’s 1985 TV film of Death of a Salesman, based on the 1984 revival, won 10 Emmy nominations, including one for Miller as executive producer of the Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special. Dustin Hoffman won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for playing Willy Loman. The hit 1999 revival won four Tonys, including Brian Dennehy for Best Actor, while running for 274 performances at the Eugene O”Neill Theatre.
Arthur Miller based his works on American history, his own life, and his observations of the American scene. Though uniquely American, they simultaneously were universal stories about an individual’s struggle with his society, his family, and especially, himself. Miller’s characters suffer from anxiety, depression, and guilt, and it was the genius of Miller to portray their pain and sorrow realistically, creating works that were familiar, yet uncanny in their power to move an audience. Miller’s stature is based on his refusal to avoid moral and social issues in his writing, even when the personal cost was terrible. Miller might not have been the greatest writer in America, but his bravery and his willingness to fight for what he believed in his chosen art form made him a great American whose name will live on in world letters.