Death of a Playwright: Arthur Miller

February 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, remembering playwright Arthur Miller, who died last night at age 89. In 1999, Paul Solman talked to Miller about his life and work. The occasion was the Broadway revival of his most famous play, Death of a Salesman. Here is an excerpt from that report.

PAUL SOLMAN: Feb. 10, 1949, Death of a Salesman, starring Lee J. Cobb, premiered in New York. Tonight, exactly half a century later, Willy Loman returns to Broadway with Brian Dennehy as America’s most tragic traveling salesman.

ACTOR: Why don’t you just open a window in here, for God’s sakes!

ACTRESS: They’re all open here.

ACTOR: The way they boxed us in here, bricks and windows, windows and bricks!

ACTRESS: We should have bought the land next door.

ACTOR: Bricks lined with cars. Not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should have had a law against apartment houses!

PAUL SOLMAN: This is the play’s third Broadway revival. George C. Scott played Willy in 1975, Dustin Hoffman in 1984.


ACTOR: It’s all right.

PAUL SOLMAN: Playwright Arthur Miller was only 33 when he won a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman in 1949.

The play takes place in Brooklyn during the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life, as he’s flayed by his failures and those of his sons, especially the older one, Biff. The idea had come two years earlier when Miller bumped into his Uncle Manny, the salesman, after a performance of his first hit play, All My Sons.

ARTHUR MILLER: I was coming out of the theater and there he was. And I hadn’t seen him in, I don’t know, ten or fifteen years. And I greeted him. And without a word, he said the equivalent of “Biff is doing very well.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Biff, the son of Willy Loman in the play?

ARTHUR MILLER: Yeah. And I’m using Biff, but his… the real name was not Biff. And the idea suddenly struck me that he’s living in two different eras at the same time.

PAUL SOLMAN: ‘Cause he’s talking about his son, your cousin?

ARTHUR MILLER: He’s talking about his son, my cousin. I hadn’t seen this man in 15 years, but, you see, what he was carrying forward was his competitive race with me, between me and his son as of 30 years before.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so here you had your play, and he’s saying to you, “Hey, my kid’s… your cousin’s doing just as well.”

ARTHUR MILLER: Just as well. It was very touching. At the same time, it was miraculous that the human brain could be running on two different tracks like that.

ACTOR: I’ve got to talk to you.

ACTOR: I haven’t the time, William.

ACTOR: Ben, Ben, nothing is working out! I don’t know what to do!

ACTOR: Now, look here, William. I bought timberland in Alaska and I need a man to look after things for me.

ACTOR: You have timberland? Me and my boys, the grand outdoors —

PAUL SOLMAN: Assailed by voices from the past, exhausted by years of false cheer on the road, Willy is unraveling. He begs his young boss for a desk job at almost any salary. Instead, he’s fired from the only job he’s ever had.

In the end, Willy kills himself. Death of a Salesman has lived through its share of historical changes. Written early in the Cold War, its cynical take on the American dream made it a political hot potato. When the film version was made in 1951, starring Frederick March, the studio decided to release it with an accompaniment.

ARTHUR MILLER: Columbia pictures made a film called The Life of a Salesman, which they wanted to show with The Death of a Salesman. It was short, the brunt of which was that the life of a salesman was… couldn’t be better, that it was a wonderful profession, that people thrived on it, and there were no problems at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, the Frederick March feature itself made Willy into a very untypical salesman, a sort of lunatic.

ARTHUR MILLER: And, indeed, the film suffered because they tended to make him crazy. And it was a real politically influenced film. And I complained about it, but I didn’t have any control over it at the time.

PAUL SOLMAN: This was the terror of the McCarthy era, when hundreds of prominent Americans were called before Congress to testify about their left-wing affiliations and name those with whom they’d associated.

In 1952, two of Miller’s colleagues from the original Death of a Salesman production, director Elia Kazan and actor Lee J. Cobb, named names before the house un-American Activities Committee.

ACTOR: Raise your right hand.

PAUL SOLMAN: Their 1954 movie, On the Waterfront was a sort of defense of their actions. When it came Miller’s turn to testify before the committee, however, he refused.

In fact, he didn’t take the fifth, the amendment that protects Americans from self- incrimination, but the first, the right to free speech. Miller was convicted of contempt and sentenced to a year in prison. The Supreme Court later softened the blow.

ARTHUR MILLER: They suspended the sentence but I still had to pay a $500 fine, which hurt. And so… but I must say that my thing came at the sort of… near the end of the whole fever that was not on the front pages anymore.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, you were on the front pages?

ARTHUR MILLER: Yeah, well, they… that’s why they brung me in; it was to get back on the front page.

That was the whole thing. The chairman of the House Committee on un-American Activities told my lawyer that he’d call off the hearing if he could take a picture with Marilyn Monroe. That was what the whole thing was all about.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean it was because you and Marilyn Monroe were married at that point?

ARTHUR MILLER: Sure. Had we not been, I would never have been subpoenaed, in my opinion.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was during the Cold War that Miller wrote The Crucible as a parable of the so-called McCarthy witch-hunts. It also plays worldwide to this day.

His View From the Bridge has often been revived as well, and he’s been writing plays throughout, many of them critical of American culture, but none more critical nor more popular than Death of a Salesman.

JIM LEHRER: This afternoon Jeffrey Brown talked about Arthur Miller with Gregory Mosher, a leading theater director and now head of Columbia University’s arts initiative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregory Mosher, today another great American playwright, Edward Albee called Arthur Miller’s work essential. Assess for us his impact on the American theater.

GREGORY MOSHER: Arthur Miller was one of the three dominant playwrights of the last century. He’s the last to go. Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams. Arthur Miller — between the three of them, they laid out every strand of American drama.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that is often noted is that he found a way to directly connect the theater to American social life.

GREGORY MOSHER: Arthur thought that if you had a gift, if you could write or paint or dance, the whole point of that gift was to engage life, not to retreat to an ivory tower or think delicate thoughts, but to roll up your sleeves and get involved in the hurly burly of American social life, and indeed world social life.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had a chance to work with him. What was that experience like?

GREGORY MOSHER: Arthur loved being in the rehearsal room. He loved actors. He was very direct. He never talked theory. He was very happy.

He wrote about a rehearsal room as a place where you could be reborn and examine all your imperfections and perhaps escape them this time. He was completely committed.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you in the end assess his legacy for us?

GREGORY MOSHER: His legacy is one of the absolute merger of the aesthetic and the social. You see it in the plays of Tony Kouchner, of course, Angels in America.

You see it in Vaclav Havel, the, I suppose, ultimate citizen artist in the second half of the 20th century, the man who organized an entire revolution in a green room of a theater in Czechoslovakia. That’s the thing that lives on.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Gregory Mosher, thank you very much.

GREGORY MOSHER: My pleasure.