Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

Article excerpt

Byline: David Gates

Back in the late '60s, Arthur Miller was on vacation in the Caribbean and spotted a man, standing ankle deep in the surf, who proved to be Mel Brooks. Now, in all of American theater, Brooks, for whom irreverent is too solemn a word, is as close as you'll find to the earnest Miller's evil twin. Brooks asked what he was up to, and Miller said he'd just finished a play called "The Price." What was it about? "Well," Miller began, "there are these two brothers--" "Stop!" Brooks yelled. "I'm crying!"

The beauty of it is, Miller told this story on himself. Despite his lofty public persona, there was nothing wrong with his sense of self-irony: he could see that to a Mel Brooks, working-class tragedy might seem like melodrama. It was just that Miller, however much his plays might be rooted in his own experience, had a notion of art that led him to aspire beyond the merely personal. "Great drama is great questions," he wrote in his autobiography, "or it is nothing but technique."

Miller's plays, along with those of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, practically defined the American theater in the 20th century, when drama was still a central force in the culture. Two of those plays, at least, "Death of a Salesman" (1949) and "The Crucible" (1953), will be produced for as long as companies continue to do O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Williams's "The Glass Menagerie"--even Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare.

But of course people will also continue to chew over his five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe. …