The life of the playwright behind ‘Death of a Salesman’

Arthur Miller’s impact on American theater was seismic. New Yorker drama critic John Lahr delves into Miller’s life, and the plays that made him famous. 

"Arthur Miller: American Witness" by John Lahr, Yale University Press, 264 pp.

John Lahr’s biography of Arthur Miller opens with a riveting chapter on the creation and the electric 1949 debut of the playwright’s masterwork, “Death of a Salesman.” Lahr calls the play’s impact on American theater “seismic.” But at the first performance, when the curtain came down, the audience sat in stunned silence, “like a funeral,” Miller recalled. “I didn’t know whether the show was dead or alive.… Finally, someone thought to applaud, and then the house came apart.” 

From there, the sharp, insightful “Arthur Miller: American Witness,” part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series, goes back to the beginning, tracing the twists of Miller’s New York City childhood. Born in 1915, the playwright spent his early years in privilege in a Harlem townhouse until his business owner father, a whiz with numbers who couldn’t read or write, lost everything in the Depression and relocated the family to greatly reduced circumstances in Brooklyn. Lahr calls the elder Miller’s downfall the defining trauma of Miller’s life, describing what the author calls the “heartbreaking and shocking” moment when the formerly prosperous patriarch asked his teenage son for a quarter for the subway.

Drama critic Lahr, a longtime New Yorker contributor who’s written biographies of Tennessee Williams and Frank Sinatra, among others, is equally adept at narrating Miller’s eventful life story and interpreting the canonical works that sprang from it. The playwright frequently mined his own past for subject matter: Lahr quotes friend and collaborator Elia Kazan, who directed Miller’s “Salesman,” “All My Sons,” and “After the Fall,” as saying, “Art was not a writer who made up stories. His material had to be experienced; he reported on his inner condition.” 

“Salesman,” whose tragic protagonist Willy Loman represents, in Lahr’s words, “the aspiration and the desperation of American life,” was inspired in part by a salesman uncle of Miller’s who took his own life. “The Crucible,” the 1953 play that dramatizes the Salem witch trials of 1692, grew out of Miller’s anguish over McCarthyism. (Kazan, a one time member of the Communist Party, famously named names in his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, resulting in a rupture in the relationship between the two men; Miller, on the other hand, was a hero to the left for his principled testimony, neither naming names nor pleading the Fifth as many prominent witnesses had.) “After the Fall” was a thinly veiled interpretation of Miller’s disastrous five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe. 

The success of “Salesman” had made Miller famous as a public intellectual, but his romance with the movie star made him an international celebrity. “After the Fall,” which premiered in 1964, a year and a half after Monroe’s death, was panned by critics, who dubbed it voyeuristic and distasteful. “Miller, who had refused to name names to HUAC, now stood accused of informing on Monroe,” Lahr writes.

With time, the author notes, “once the memory of both Miller and Monroe had dimmed in the collective unconscious,” the play came to be regarded more generously. Similarly, “The Crucible,” whose original Broadway run lasted only 197 performances, has seen its reputation improve, as the years create distance from the historical events that inspired it. Its early critics, Lahr notes, were unable to see “beyond its connection to the Red Scare to its deeper meanings.” 

At roughly 200 pages, “Arthur Miller: American Witness” is a slender volume. Miller’s parents, whose influence looms so large in the early chapters, are hardly mentioned later in the book, although the lifelong friction with his older brother, Kermit, is more fully rendered. In addition, we learn little about Miller, who died in 2005, as a father himself (Monroe was the second of his three wives, and he had four children).

In Lahr’s hands, however, the plays come alive. While the shattering story of Willy Loman has become well-worn over the decades – “the show,” Lahr notes, “is staged somewhere in the world nearly every day of the year” – a new and acclaimed Broadway revival featuring a cast of Black actors is proof of its continued relevance. While Miller’s critical reputation rose and fell throughout his lifetime, Lahr’s perceptive book makes a strong case for the enduring relevance of the playwright as well.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to The life of the playwright behind ‘Death of a Salesman’
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today