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Playwright Arthur Miller died last week in Connecticut at the age of 89. Pop culture vultures will remember Miller for having married Marilyn Monroe and for then having written an uncharacteristically uncharitable play, After the Fall (1964), based on their tempestuous marriage. Miller will also be remembered for his brave refusal to name communist sympathizers to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956.

Among theater enthusiasts, he will be remembered for redefining the tenets of tragedy from a theological construct — based on kings and princes and destiny — to a political one based on working people and systemic social injustice. In Death of a Salesman (1949), Miller created a family tragedy from a failed traveling salesman with delusions of grandeur. Indignity and despair strike when Willy Loman, an old man without means, is refused permission to represent the company he’s been with for decades. Even his sons leave him, literally, babbling in a toilet. “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell,” his neighbor explains in a single line that embodies Miller’s indictment of a cultural ethic that pricks the nuclear family with a poison tip.

Had America not swung so sharply to the right with its diminishment of workers’ and other civil rights, Miller’s best plays might have become antique curiosities. Instead, they are classics. The Crucible (1953) – ostensibly about the Salem witch hunts of the 17th century but actually about McCarthyism – speaks as eloquently to hate crimes and the fallacies in our war on terrorism as it did to those in our war on communism.

Miller’s plays are not subtle. They shout from a pulpit about
personal ethics, where every family is a kind of nation, sending sparks of indignation,
like exclamation points, around the world. In 1983, Death of a Salesman
played to standing ovations in Beijing. Graduate theater students tend to dismiss
the American greats — O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Albee – for being of another
era, another sensibility. Playwright Tony Kushner admitted to the Weekly
in 2003 that he used to be like that, with an attitude that now embarrasses
him because, over the years, the great American plays keep striking back with
new pertinence. Of Miller, Kushner said, “No American playwright has ever
understood so profoundly the mechanics of getting an audience and keeping them
and moving them to the next point. And the fact that it’s in the service of
such monumental ideas is amazing.”

Steven Leigh Morris

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