Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

Two days ago I told some students, "There are, for better or worse, three plays we generally count on educated Americans being familiar with: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. All were first produced within five years of each other, and the author of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller, is still alive."

Alas, Arthur Miller died last night of congestive heart failure.

Miller and I shared a birthday, and once we even shared an elevator. I was a freshman at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in the Dramatic Writing Program, where Miller had taught during the previous semester, and I suppose he was coming to pick up mail or something. I was too awed to be in the same elevator with him (and a bunch of other people) to say anything, and I never caught sight of him again.

To be honest, Miller's writing never did much for me, but I certainly respected a lot that he stood for, and I will always respect what he was able to accomplish in the theatre. The reason that Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, and Death of a Salesman have endured so stubbornly through the years has a lot to do with their timing -- they were just the right sort of plays for the actors and directors who had developed their ideas and skills with the Group Theatre to create powerful theatrical events from. They were masterpieces of method acting, and remain today the perfect vehicles for actors and directors interested in psychological interpretations of texts. They are the iconic American plays, the plays that gave writing, acting, and directing their own identity.

They were not, however, kitchen-sink dramas -- all three, and Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman in particular, incorporated elements of symbolist and expressionist theatre, a fact that sometimes gets forgotten when Williams and Miller are saluted as masters of realism. What they actually were was masters of using nonrealistic elements within realistic contexts, paving the way for most of the popular and critically successful theatre of the second half of the twentieth century in the U.S.

Of course, it doesn't matter one bit what I or anybody else thinks of Arthur Miller as a writer. The fact is that he was an immensely powerful force within the theatre, and within our culture at large. His death brings to a close an era when the theatre seemed to have something to offer American society itself.

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