A Guide for Teachers
Written and Compiled by Jere Pfister
Edited by Eleanor Colvin
© Alley Theatre, 2005
The Life of Arthur Miller
"By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to
arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be
opened up a new relationship between a man and men, and between men and Man.
Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us know
more, and not merely to spend our feelings."
--Arthur Miller, from the "Introduction to his Collected Plays"
Since achieving fame with his plays All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (winner of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Arthur Miller has inspired audiences with a body of work that deftly examines the disillusioned terrain of the human heart as well as "the work of the individual conscience when pitted against the uniform thinking of the mob" (New Yorker). As a result, Miller has been a principal pioneer in the development of a distinctly American form of theatre.
Born in Manhattan in 1915 to Jewish immigrants, Miller was shaped by the failure of his father's garment manufacturing business in the late 1920s. Witnessing the social decay caused by the Depression and his father's desperation had a tremendous impact on Miller and his writing.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1938, Miller began writing in earnest. His first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), about an incredibly successful man who is unhappy with that success, opened to horrible reviews. Its unfavorable reception disheartened Miller, and he decided he would write one more play. If that were not successful, he would give up playwriting. Fortunately, All My Sons was a huge Broadway hit. Concerned with issues of morality when faced with desperation, All My Sons appealed to audiences who had just suffered through a war and a depression.
Miller was launched into the realm of the greatest living American playwrights with his masterpiece Death of a Salesman, which follows the tragic Willy Loman, a failed businessman attempting to remember and reconstruct his life. As Cold War paranoia pervaded the country, Miller penned his third major play, The Crucible (1953), as a response to 1950s McCarthyism. Three years later, he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to name those he knew to have Communist sympathies (he was eventually cleared of the charges). His next play was not produced until 1964. After the Fall, a highly inventive work about a lawyer named Quentin coming to grips with his turbulent past and self-perceived moral inadequacy, was influenced by Miller's tumultuous five-year marriage (1956-1961) to pop-icon Marilyn Monroe.
Among Miller's other plays are A View from the Bridge (1956), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), Broken Glass (1994), and Resurrection Blues (2002). His autobiography Timebends was published in 1987, and his most recent play, Finishing the Picture--based on the making of the 1961 film The Misfits, which Miller wrote for Marilyn Monroe--premiered in October 2004.
The Alley's long series of productions of Miller's plays began 50 years ago, when founding Artistic Director Nina Vance directed his Death of a Salesman in February 1954. Since that time, the Alley has mounted 11 productions of plays by Arthur Miller, including a co-production of All My Sons with the University of Houston in 2000. Miller was also the recipient of the 1984 Alley Award, which honored his distinguished body of work. Miller was married three times. In 1940, he married his college sweetheart Mary Slattery, with whom he had a daughter and a son. After their divorce, he later married Marilyn Monroe. At the time of her death by suicide, they were separated. His last wife, Inge Morath, a professional photographer, with whom he had another two children, died in 2002. Arthur Miller died on February 10, 2005 at his home in Connecticut. He was 89.
The Puritans were a group of Christians who wanted the Church of England purified of any liturgy, ceremony or practices that were not found in scripture. They thought the Anglican Church was still too close to the Catholic Church. The Bible was their sole authority and they believed that it applied to every level of their lives. They left England and migrated first to Holland and then to the new colonies that were being formed in America. The Puritans were stockholders in the Massachusetts Bay Company, which had received its charter from King Charles of England in the early 1620s. The Puritans arrived in groups and organized into towns and settlements. They were very fearful in this new land. They were afraid of nature and the unknown. In England, they had been people of wealth and political influence. Here, they had to survive in totally foreign and inhospitable terrain. For survival in this life and for the salvation of their souls they set up their towns under the laws of scripture in order to both prosper and show gratitude to God. They did not accept non-members of the church into their towns. Either you belonged to their church and believed their teachings or laws or you moved elsewhere. The Puritans feared annihilation. That fear opened them to the possibility that evil might exist inside their community.
Did witchcraft trials really occur in America?
o In January 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts a group of adolescent girls became ill with a strange illness.
o By March, the first examinations for suspicions of witchcraft had begun to take place in Salem. By April, over 300 suspected witches were in jail.
o In June, the courts legalized the death penalty for the crime of witchcraft and Bridget Bishop was hanged.
o In July, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good and three other women were hung. John Proctor petitions the minister of Boston to investigate the legality of the trials because torture is being used in order to elicit confessions. He wants the trial moved to Boston but he receives no reply.
o John Proctor and four others are hung in August. His wife escapes death because she is pregnant.
o In September, eight more people are hung, mostly women. These were the last hangings in Salem, for
the crime of witchcraft.
Why did the hangings in Salem stop?
The Governor of Massachusetts' wife was accused of witchcraft along with Rev. Hale's wife. The judges finally began to question the witnesses' credibility. They found the young women to be guilty as "distempered persons." In January 1693 the court reconvened and eventually released 150 persons who were still in jail on charges of witchcraft. In 1697 the General Court set aside a day of fasting in repentance for wrongs committed in the witchcraft trials. It took another 14 years before the falsely accused and their dependents were awarded any recompense. John Proctor's wife and children receive the largest settlement --150 pounds.
The end of WWII had brought prosperity back to the country. Young families were buying houses and cars and televisions. They were having babies. Weekends were for dancing and going to the drive in movies with the whole family. Father Knows Best was the best loved family series. "Gorgeous George" was the prince of wrestling and the Dodgers and the Yankees were the best game in town. Catholic Bishop Sheen and Evangelist Billy Graham were regulars on the family TV bringing church to the home. It was a white world though in TV land. There was another world out there. African American soldiers returned from WWII and moved back into "colored towns." But they had the same GI Bill as the white veterans and they went back to school too. And slowly people's attitudes would begin to change and unrest with the status quo was beginning to rise. In response to the unrest, Congress voted to insert the words under God into the Pledge of Allegiance. Change and disruption was in the air.
Americans were afraid in the 1950s of losing what they had worked so hard
for. They were afraid of Communism and of nuclear weapons. After WWII the Soviet
Union was gathering up countries throughout Eastern Europe and it was announced
that the Russians had developed their own nuclear bomb. The United States no
longer had control over the use of the bomb. Americans feared annihilation. That
fear drove them to accept the leadership, and charges made
against innocent people by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who in turn played on their fears.
Kenneth C. Davis writes in his history, Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About History But Never Learned: "In the 1950's 'McCarthyism' meant a brave, patriotic stand against Communism. It had the support of the media and the American people. Now it has come to mean a smear campaign of groundless accusations from which the accused cannot escape, because professions of innocence become admission of guilt and only confessions are accept-ed." Many who came before McCarthy, as well as many who testified before the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee (HUCA), were willing to point fingers at others to save their own careers and reputations." (Davis, 326) Another historian of the 1950s, David Halberstam, writes that McCarthyism crystallized and politicized the anxieties of a nation living in a dangerous new era. "He took people who were at the worst, guilty of political naïveté (innocence, gullibility) and accused them of treason. He set out to do the unthinkable, and it turned out to be surprisingly thinkable." (26)
The 21st Century
Fear persists. As the old millennium ended everyone who owned a computer had a new one, just in case the old computer lost all of its data because it's built in clock wasn't programmed past the end of 1999. People didn't fly on January 1, 2000, just in case the computers in the plane and the control towers didn't work. And when everything worked, Americans let out a big sigh of relief that another disaster had been overcome with American ingenuity. It was an election
year and things were good.
Three major surprises of the new millennium.
oThe country woke up on the day after the November 2000 presidential election and for the first time in recent history, did not know who won the election. This showed that there were major flaws in the American election process and that our system of government might be in danger.
oSeptember 11, 2001 revealed America's vulnerability to outside forces. It was a dual loss of innocence and a false sense of safety.
oIn November 2001, Enron Corporation suffered a financial and corporate melt down. The stock market that was wheezy after the events of 9/11, came tumbling down after Enron, as did consumer confidence.
Where has our fear led us?
oIncreased security that infringes on rights of privacy to the masses and the loss of rights for the many people wrongly suspected of terrorism.
oWashington, D.C. tourists can no longer get a clear view of the White House. For security reasons, it has been surrounded by barricades.
oThe acknowledgement by the government of the abuse and torture of prisoners at the hands of American troops. This is calling forth national debate on proposed torture policy and its consequences.
oA pervasive fear that is fed by 24-hour news accounts of the latest atrocities.