Arthur Miller looks out at the world with a somewhat quizzical expression on the cover of this perceptive biography by John Lahr. A distinguished critic and author, Lahr sees Miller as a keen observer of postwar America who brought to the Broadway stage plays that confronted the social and moral issues of his day.
Lahr concentrates on the first forty years of Miller’s life, during which he was a productive and prize-winning playwright. His experiences in these years — the dynamics of his family and its fall from upper-middle-class luxury to near-poverty during the Depression; his aimless adolescence and intellectual awakening at the University of Michigan; his stumble into playwriting at Michigan and success as a scriptwriter for radio plays; his political liberalism; and his dysfunctional marriage to Marilyn Monroe — are all featured in his work. Between 1947 and 1955, Miller wrote the highly successful All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and View from the Bridge, exploring fascism, antisemitism, and the political unrest of the McCarthy years and House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Although his plays deal with challenging issues of personal and social morality, Miller himself was a socially and morally conflicted man. Arthur Miller focuses on Miller’s professional life as a playwright and public intellectual — a fitting decision, since it could be argued that, for Miller, work life was life. Lahr has nothing to say about Miller’s relationships with his four children, except for his son Daniel, who was born with Down Syndrome and subsequently institutionalized; Miller never visited or mentioned him. He was divorced by his two wives and estranged from his older brother. As Lahr recounts, Miller reversed his decision to attend his nephew’s bar mitzvah by explaining, in a letter, that if he did not devote himself entirely to his work, there would be “fewer results.”
The last twenty-five pages of the book follow Miller’s marriage to the photographer Inge Morath and their forty years of happiness together. His two major plays during these years, After the Fall and The Price, were not well received by the critics, though The Price had a good run on Broadway. Despite falling out of style and almost disappearing from the public eye, Miller continued to write both plays and essays until he died, and his earlier plays were often revived, most successfully in London.
“How many good plays does a writer have in him?” asks Elia Kazan, Miller’s frequent director and colleague. In the 1940s and 1950s, Miller set out to answer this question, writing plays that remain landmarks of American theater — an achievement that John Lahr thoughtfully illustrates in this readable biography.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.