Arthur Miller/Photo courtesy Dutch National Archive
Maybe it's not surprising, but the moment I mention Arthur Miller to my drama students, they blurt out another name: Marilyn Monroe. Of course, her name is loaded with significance in its own right, but on the occasion of Miller's centenary - he would have been 100 years old on October 17 - he deserves a solo spotlight equal to the one that shines on the woman to whom he was married for fewer than five years.
Who knows what makes an icon? But if that status belongs to someone who changed the way we see the world - on the page, on stage, and on screens large and small - Arthur Miller is worthy of icon-dom. He gave us lines like "Attention must be paid," spoken by Willy Loman's wife, Linda, in Death of a Salesman, in one of the great modern speeches written for an actress in a play that will always be synonymous with Miller's name. He questioned the corrupting power of capitalism in All My Sons. And his stand in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee is legendary - he refused to name names unlike his onetime friend and rival for Monroe's affections, Elia Kazan - and he turned that righteous belief in not naming names into great theater in A View from the Bridge and The Crucible. He tackled political and historical themes in Incident at Vichy, Playing for Time, and Broken Glass but never lost sight of the individual in crisis, even in these plays. Of course, he also defended bigamy in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, but even in that play it could be said that Miller was questioning the ways in which society suppresses individual desire and expression.
Tony Kushner, the contemporary playwright who most closely tackles some of the same issues as Miller did, spoke at Miller's memorial service in 2005 and said: "His drama was the drama of individual integrity, individual wholeness or completeness or repleteness versus unaccountable power - or perhaps one could say of the individual versus history."
Miller himself wrote that all serious plays ask, ''How may a man make of the outside world a home?" and his work clearly challenges us to question our own places in the world. What more fitting celebration of Miller at 100 than to sit down and watch one or more adaptations of his great works and begin to understand how we might build our own homes in the world.
"All My Sons" (1948)
Find remarkable performances in this play about duplicity and greed by Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller and Burt Lancaster as his son, Chris. This was Miller's first major Broadway play and it holds up remarkably well today.
"Death of a Salesman" (1951)
Fredric March and Mildred Dunnock as Willy and Linda Loman were followed by a 1966 TV version starring Lee J. Cobb (who starred as Willy on Broadway in 1949) and Mildred Dunnock, who was his Broadway co-star (Dunnock supposedly said in an interview that she had known many Willys in her life - a remark that was greeted, as you can imagine, with peals of laughter). Many prefer the 1985 TV film with Dustin Hoffman and Kate Reid that features a controversial performance of Biff by John Malkovich. (While he was alive, Miller would rewrite some of the lines in the play to conform to the physical type of the actor playing Willy. So for Cobb, he had Willy say people made fun of him because he was fat; for Hoffman, Willy was made fun of for being short.) And if you can find it, there is also a very good TV version made in 2000 with Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz who brings new strength to the role of Linda.
"After the Fall" (1974)
This TV movie was made ten years after the play appeared on Broadway. Faye Dunaway and Christopher Plummer are superb in a drama that investigates how a man, Quentin, tries to move forward and make his peace with a world in which his marriages do not survive and his friendships are torn apart by political forces. Miller was excoriated by many for his depiction of Maggie, a character many saw as being much too close to Marilyn Monroe. She is, as is fitting in this autobiographical work.
"The Crucible" (1996)
Daniel Day-Lewis is an Adonis of a John Proctor; Paul Scofield, a properly fearsome Judge Danforth; and Bruce Davison, a perfect weasel as Reverend Parris. Nicholas Hytner directs with great style, but you have to forgive Winona Ryder as Abigail for she knoweth not what she is doing in the film.
"The Misfits" (1961)
This entry isn't based on one of Miller's stage plays but he did write the script, and you just can't go wrong watching "The Misfits" for the first time or again, as I just did. Miller's script for his about-to-be-ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift is filled with tenderness, angst, and unanswerable questions about romance and destiny. We know now that this was the last film made by all three stars and no matter what the flaws in the film, Miller brought out each actor's quintessential self, an astounding legacy. It is a heartbreaking and heartbroken film.