Arthur Miller's life had symmetry rarely granted his characters

If you didn't know who he was, you could mistake him for a retired longshoreman. Or lumberjack.

Arthur Miller, who died Thursday at his farm in Roxbury, Conn., was much more than a commanding physical presence. His writing reshaped modern American theater.

At the time his most celebrated work - "Death of a Salesman" - first overwhelmed audiences in 1949, he was only 34. But even then, Broadway recognized this as more than a significant dramatic accomplishment. It was considered revolutionary, because his classic commentary on the perils of following the American dream wove together realism and memory, and disguised broad societal themes within the ordinary lives of its characters. Mr. Miller's plays, which he continued to write until his death, were less elaborate than those of Eugene O'Neill, more approachable than those of Tennessee Williams, and more theatrical than those of Clifford Odets. His approach to social relevance mirrored that of Henrik Ibsen, but drew from uniquely American stories. And his plays continue to be rediscovered because they are both universal and timeless.

All great playwrights are more than their résumés. In Miller's case, his confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee and his tumultuous marriage to screen legend Marilyn Monroe will always stand out in his. But great playwrights also understand how to draw from personal events and experiences, so that these contribute to, rather than define, their theatrical characters.

Veteran stage and screen actor Eli Wallach, who starred with Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift in Miller's screenplay "The Misfits," rediscovered that quality when he appeared in the 1992 New York revival of "The Price." Wallach remarked to me then, that "People come out after seeing one of [Miller's] plays, and say 'That was my father. That was my uncle. That was me.' They never forget it."

When "The Price" was revived in 1999, I sat behind actress Edie Falco at a Wednesday matinee. At intermission, she confessed that she hadn't known this play. After the curtain fell, I asked her what she thought. She shook her head and said simply, "I'm speechless." Tony Award winner James Naughton directed that production, and told me after the show, "This was the only production I ever worked on where nobody ever for a moment wandered from the process. Every day in rehearsal, and every moment during performances: It all comes from our great affection and respect for Arthur Miller's work."

Knowing the intellectual pinnacles he reached would not prepare you for the personality of Miller himself. His wife of 40 years, acclaimed photojournalist Inge Morath, who passed away before Miller, once lamented to me, "People just don't realize how funny Arthur is."

Nor did they realize how unadorned his daily life remained, despite his iconic status. Their modest, three-room Manhattan apartment, kept as a pied-à-terre to balance their Connecticut farm, was a homey environment, often decorated with daughter Rebecca's paintings.

"I made these benches," he pointed out proudly to me during one visit as we settled in for a conversation in the kitchen. "And this table." It was that craftsman's eye that turned wood into sturdy furniture and words into muscular plays.

Miller said that the best production he'd seen of "After the Fall" - the controversial play that some critics felt reflected his marriage to Monroe - was directed by Austin Pendleton. Describing how actors felt as supported in Miller's plays as visitors did in his handmade chairs, Mr. Pendleton said in an e-mail interview after Miller's passing, "'Death of a Salesman' is such a great play that people tend to take for granted how structurally daring it is."

Pendleton wasalso quick to praise "Arthur's flexible sense of language. Think of the Puritans in 'The Crucible,' followed by the Brooklyn Italians in 'A View From the Bridge,' or the Connecticut WASPS in 'The Last Yankee,' the Midwesterners in 'All My Sons,' Maggie in 'After the Fall,' and Solomon in 'The Price.' The range of his ear, for capturing individuals, was fantastic."

When "The Crucible," his most performed play, was revived on Broadway recently, Miller told me about a Chinese woman who had seen the piece - a searing work on how personal integrity is smothered by political madness. It premièred at the height of America's Communist-era red-baiting. "She came up to me and asked me how could I have known about life in China during the Cultural Revolution? She was convinced that that was the basis of the play."

That conversation echoed another I'd had with Miller years earlier about criticism labeling his work "social problem plays."

"I've never written about society that way," he said. "If my plays were about the social problems of their day, nobody would keep doing them. The problems would have changed."

One thing that lasted his whole life was an instinctive striving to understand how people coped, how they survived. From Willy Loman in 'Salesman,' and Eddie in 'View From the Bridge,' to the Nazi prison camp musician in 'Playing for Time,' and Solomon in 'The Price,' his characters sought, and rarely found, what has come to be called closure, a sense of symmetry to their life's journey. In a small way, Miller was granted that - his life ended on Feb. 10, 2005, exactly 56 years to the day that, on Broadway, "Death of a Salesman" began its life. The writer is gone; the work will always survive.

Tony Vellela is a journalist who has covered theater since 1966.

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