The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.