Arthur Miller was born in Manhattan to Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Isidore, was a businessman who was ruined in the Depression. Witnessing the societal decay of the Depression and his father’s desperation had an enormous effect on Miller, inspiring major themes in his work.
Miller’s plays meld social awareness with deep insights into human weakness. Shortly after World War II, he produced All My Sons (1947), a tragedy about a factory owner who knowingly sends faulty airplane parts to the military, with devastating consequences. The play was an instant success.
Death of a Salesman premiered in 1949 and won a Pulitzer Prize. The play examines desperation and paternal responsibility through the story of Willy Loman as he looks back on his failings, and in the end chooses suicide so he can leave the insurance money to his estranged son. Miller’s characters in this tragedy utter a cry for compassion. In the famous words of Willy’s wife, “attention must be paid” to the value and dignity of every life.
Overwhelmed by post-war paranoia and intolerance, Miller began work on his third major play, The Crucible (1953). Set during the Salem witch trials of 1692, the play was a clear indictment of the McCarthy Era’s mass hysteria. Through The Crucible, Miller voiced his concern for ordinary people destroyed by a society in the grip of fear.
Soon, Miller himself was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities for attending Communist Party meetings. Refusing to name others who had associated with suspected Communist groups, Miller was cited for contempt of Congress, and then blacklisted by Hollywood. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, he wrote very little of note, concentrating at first on guilt over the Holocaust, and later moving into comedies.
Today, Miller’s plays endure as some of America’s best. He often explored the consequences of a sudden change in fortune, like the one his father experienced. Of this experience Miller wrote, “This desire to move on, to metamorphose — or perhaps it is a talent for being contemporary — was given me as life’s inevitable and rightful condition.”