After Decades On Stage, Arthur Miller's Works Defy The Final Curtain The great American playwright was born a century ago Saturday. An activist as much as he was a writer, Miller challenged social ills in playscripts — and set a new standard for the citizen-artist.
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After Decades On Stage, Arthur Miller's Works Defy The Final Curtain

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After Decades On Stage, Arthur Miller's Works Defy The Final Curtain

After Decades On Stage, Arthur Miller's Works Defy The Final Curtain

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Arthur Miller wrote some of the greatest plays of the 20th century - "Death Of A Salesman," "The Crucible," "All My Sons." He tackled morals, politics and family in works that challenged the conventions of stagecraft, and he took his concerns about justice in society beyond the theater. Arthur Miller was born 100 years ago, and Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Arthur Miller's masterpiece is "Death Of A Salesman," his 1949 play about Willy Loman. We're never told what he sells, but he spent a lifetime on a shoeshine and a smile.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

LEE J. COBB: (As Willy Loman) Forty dollars a week, that's all I need - $40, Howard.

VITALE: His luck finally runs out when his boss lets him go.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

COBB: (As Willy Loman) Your father came to me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Howard Wagner) I've got to see some people.

COBB: (As Willy Loman) I'm talking about your father. There were promises made across this desk. You mustn't tell me you've got people to see.

VITALE: Lee J. Cobb originated the role on Broadway and reprised it for an audio recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

COBB: (As Willy Loman) I put 34 years into this firm, Howard. And now I can't pay my insurance. You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away. Man isn't a piece of fruit.

VITALE: "Death Of A Salesman" takes place over roughly 24 hours in the mind of Willie Loman, as he drifts seamlessly from one scene to another in his life. It was a poetic breakthrough in the realism-dominated theater of 1949.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ARTHUR MILLER: There was that conscious desire on my part to create a form which would embrace both the social and the exterior personalities of people and the psychological life underneath.

VITALE: Sitting in his home in Roxbury, Conn., in 1999, not far from where he wrote, "Death Of A Salesman" a half-century earlier, Miller told me he had been trying to write a different kind of play for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MILLER: And the consequence was the form of "Death Of A Salesman," which, at one and the same time, carries forward his business life, his sexual life, his family life, the whole, rounded picture, which you can't do in a straight realistic form.

VITALE: Miller wrote the play in six weeks. The way he played with the form, the way he structured his plays is what sets him apart, says fellow playwright Tony Kushner, editor of the Library of America's "Collected Plays Of Arthur Miller."

TONY KUSHNER: He just absolutely understands what makes a scene, what makes an act, what makes a dramatic arc. And he takes you to extraordinarily difficult and important places. He's a writer who, over and over again, could put his finger on an understanding of what lies under social disease.

VITALE: In "Death Of A Salesman," Miller put his finger on the downside of a society that measures human worth by economic success. The perspective came from the writer's own experience. Growing up in Harlem in the 1920s, Miller watched his father's successful business collapse during the Great Depression. Miller said when he wrote "Salesman," America was entering a dark era, the Cold War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MILLER: We were then pitched into the anti-Communist crusade. And everybody was either being investigated or was investigating somebody else. It was a period of bitterness, secrecy, paranoia.

VITALE: Miller's 1953 play, "The Crucible," about the Salem witch trials of 1692, was his response to what many called the witch hunts of his day, the congressional hearings into supposed Communists in the American arts community. The play made Miller himself a target.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Miller is fighting a contempt of Congress citation for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

VITALE: In 1996, Miller adapted "The Crucible" into a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as an innocent man who would rather hang than make a false confession and condemn his friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CRUCIBLE")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As John Proctor) Is there no good penitence but it be public? God does not need my name nailed to the church. God knows how black my sins are.

PAUL SCOFIELD: (As Judge Thomas Danforth) Now, look you, Proctor...

DAY-LEWIS: (As John Proctor) How may I teach my sons to walk like men in the world if I sold my friends?

SCOFIELD: (As Judge Thomas Danforth) You have not sold your ...

DAY-LEWIS: (As John Proctor) I blacken all of them when I nail this to the church, and they have hanged for silence.

VITALE: Arthur Miller was eventually exonerated, but he said the experience affected him for the rest of his life. His 1955 play, "A View From The Bridge," deals with the persecution of illegal immigrants. When his wife's Italian cousins jump ship in Brooklyn, dockworker Eddie Carbone welcomes them, until one starts dating his niece.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Eddie Carbone) I promised your mother on her deathbed. I'm responsible for you. You're a baby. You don't understand these things. I mean, like, when you stand by the window waving outside.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Catherine) I was waving to Louis.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Eddie Carbone) Hey, listen. I could tell you things about Louis which you wouldn't wave to him no more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Catherine) Eddie, I wish there was one guy you couldn't tell me things about.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Eddie Carbone) Catherine, do me a favor, will you? You're getting to be a big girl now. You got to keep yourself more. You can't be so friendly, kid.

VITALE: Eddie is convinced the Italian wants to marry his niece, just to become an American citizen. So he turns him in and ends up alienating his own family. Actor Mark Strong plays Eddie in the London revival that's coming to Broadway.

MARK STRONG: It's about a man's emotional inability to understand the world around him. And we're all trying to make sense of the world around us. But what's fascinating about this is seeing a guy fall apart while trying to do the right thing.

VITALE: Arthur Miller took up social causes in his plays and his life. He became president of PEN, the organization that defends the rights of authors around the world. Tony Kushner is a gay activist and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels In America." He says Miller was a model for him.

KUSHNER: I mean, he really devoted himself in an immensely admirable way to - not just describing the world and thinking about the world and writing about the world in his plays, but also as an activist, as a citizen trying to make the world better.

VITALE: Arthur Miller's personal life was a bit more complicated. He left his first wife for Marilyn Monroe. Their marriage ended in divorce. After his third wife died, he took up with a young artist half his age. But at 83, his career was far from over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MILLER: Well, I still want to do something wonderful on stage. It's an endless fascination. I've used different styles. I've experimented with different ways of doing things. And I expect I'll continue till I drop.

VITALE: Arthur Miller's last play opened in Chicago in 2004, just a year before he died of heart failure at the age of 89. Like his best-known character, Miller struggled with his trade, right up till the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

COBB: (As Willy Loman) He's a man, way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. Now when they start not smiling back, that's an earthquake.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

COBB: (As Willy Loman) A salesman's got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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