The passing of Arthur Miller this week is a sad moment for American letters. Miller devoted himself to his craft – writing plays. Although he wrote in other formats, writing drama meant for performance captured his mind and heart even as a teenager. As with all writers, however, he had doubts.
Miller studied journalism at the University of Michigan in the 1930s and after graduating returned to his native New York to try to make it as a playwright. He wrote several plays, all rejected, until finally one was accepted. That play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” opened on Broadway in 1944. It closed after four performances, a devastating setback for the young writer.
But Miller didn’t quit.
He kept writing, but as with anyone who deals in a creative medium, he did not know if what he was doing was any good. He worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by day and wrote radio scripts at night. He was also writing a play he thought had possibilities, but he wasn’t sure. He dealt with that uncertainty this way:
“I laid myself a wager,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I would hold back this play until I was as sure as I could be that every page was integral to the whole and would work; then, if my judgment of it proved wrong, I would leave the theater behind and write in other forms.”
The play was “All My Sons.” It was accepted, produced and won the 1947 New York Drama Critics Circles Award, as well was two Tony awards.
Miller’s wager with himself strikes an imposing contrast to our web age of instant posting and collaboration with the public. Can you imagine Miller saying to himself, “Well, I’m going to put the first draft of my play on my web site and see what people have to say about it”? He did not have the opportunity to do that in 1947, of course, and I somehow doubt that he was have been tempted even if the opportunity had been there.
My impression of Miller is that he was very strong, very individual and very American. I am sorry we will no longer hear his voice.
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The quotation from Miller’s biography comes from the excellent obituary by Marilyn Berger in the New York Times.
Jim Stovall (Posted Feb. 13, 2005)
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