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27 February 2019

Arthur Miller’s anatomy of a nation

Arthur Miller saw the Great Depression and the years after as a period of moral catastrophe. His understanding of American hucksterism, greed and shame could hardly be more relevant in Trump’s world.   

By Sarah Churchwell

“There’s never been a society that hasn’t had a clock running on it,” declares a character in Arthur Miller’s play The American Clock, “and you can’t help wondering – how long? How long will they stand for this?” Whether time is running out is a question on many people’s minds today on both sides of the Atlantic, whether they’re watching the “Brexit clock” tick or wondering how long the Trump presidency will endure. The American Clock is set during the 1930s but was written in 1980, as Miller watched America’s headlong race back into the gleeful, reckless greed that dominated the 1920s and led to the Great Depression, and it’s one of several of Miller’s plays that are being revived in London. Clearly that sense of timeliness, in every sense, is mounting.

In addition to The American Clock, this year will bring a new production of The Price with David Suchet to the Wyndham’s Theatre, Sally Field and Bill Pullman will star in All My Sons at the Old Vic, The Crucible will be mounted at the Yard with a female-led cast (including a woman playing the hero, John Proctor), and an almost entirely black cast will revive Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. Miller’s plays are emblematic, representative: they are often set at moments of national crisis, whether the Depression, the Second World War or the Salem witch trials, as the conflicts of the characters symbolise epochal conflicts in American life. Read them together and you start to get a sense of a nation in a constant state of crisis.

Miller called The American Clock a “mural for theatre”, evoking the agitprop social murals of the 1930s, with a large ensemble representing all of the United States, presenting vignettes that shift and adapt across geography and time. One character picks up another’s narration, finishes another’s line. The stories are the interconnected experiences of a nation struggling to survive, as Miller attempts to render a “mythopoetic” vision of America that might be sufficient to its mythopoeic vision of itself, a nation of shared values and impulses, despite its differences.

The American Clock suggests that out of chaos can come new possibilities, an idea that many people with whom Miller would have had little sympathy are today banking on (again, in every sense). Miller rejected both socialism and fascism as too rigid and extremist; like most of his work, The American Clock suggests that a healthy society needs to find a balance between individual and collective needs. He would have had no truck with disaster socialism or disaster capitalism, but these are still possibilities the play leaves open.

Miller shows a cross-section, a collage, of Americans across the nation and the social spectrum struggling to achieve a balance between the two, in order to emerge from the catastrophe of the Depression – which Miller characterised in his autobiography, Timebends, as “only incidentally a matter of money. Rather it was a moral catastrophe, a violent revelation of the hypocrisies behind the facade of American society.” The ending of The American Clock is ambivalent about whether social renewal is possible, but understands that belief in American renewal is itself central to American renewal. Optimism becomes the only faith system that matters: hope as ideology, a communal identity defined by collective self-belief.

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There are good reasons why Miller is enjoying a renaissance this year: not only was he always a political writer, but his political questions align firmly with our zeitgeist. Miller wrote about the individual’s responsibility to society – but also about society’s responsibility to the individual. He challenged the key myths of American culture, broadly incorporated in the familiar ideas of the American dream, including materialism, self-sufficiency and selfishness, but also blind faith in the lotteries of rags-to-riches stories and the redemptive individual. Miller’s work consistently turns to themes of individual and community, trying to come together to rise above chaos but often stymied by the failings of those individuals.


Arthur Miller was born in New York in 1915, when Harlem was a mixed neighbourhood of German, Italian and Jewish immigrants, into which black Americans were moving as they left the South in search of opportunity. His father Isidore, who had immigrated from Poland, had built up a large and prosperous clothing business, but when Arthur was 14, it all came crashing down along with Wall Street. The business failed and the family descended the economic ladder. The effects of the Depression shaped not only Miller’s adolescence but his moral and political imagination – and the rest of his life. “I don’t think America ever got over the Depression,” he later said.

Whatever the truth of that may be, certainly Arthur Miller never got over it. He chose theatre, he said, although he had little experience of it even as an audience member, because “you could talk directly to an audience and radicalise the people”. That didactic impulse never entirely left him, but it swiftly acquired greater subtlety.

Miller’s first play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, closed in 1944 after just four days. Three years later, he found his first success, All My Sons, followed two years after that by Death of a Salesman, still the play for which Miller is best known. In 1953, he produced The Crucible, using the Salem witch trials of 1692 as an analogy for the witch hunts of McCarthyist America; the hat-trick clinched his status as one of America’s major playwrights of the 20th century.

Two years later Miller himself was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and publicly defied them. He had begun (improbably, it was felt) dating Marilyn Monroe, who threw the weight of her popularity behind Miller as he resisted the committee’s pressure. At a press conference he announced simultaneously that he would not co-operate and that he and Monroe were engaged. Having refused to plead the fifth amendment, which protects a witness from self-incrimination (and is thus often viewed as a morally evasive choice at best), Miller was charged with contempt of court. His marriage to Monroe was complex and controversial, and for many years after her death in 1962, continued to define his public reputation – not least because of his 1964 play After the Fall, widely condemned at the time as an exercise in self-exculpation.

But culpability was always one of Miller’s themes, to which he returned in later life as the chaos attending a highly public marriage to a movie star, followed by her early death, subsided. Themes of guilt and complicity run through most of his plays as a counterweight to myths of American innocence and optimism: people don’t just betray each other, they betray themselves and their own ideals.

Each of these great plays is driven by their protagonist’s powerful need to believe in their innocence; their acceptance of guilt and collective responsibility is tragic but redemptive – except for Willy Loman, who can never be brought to see his own self-deceptions. They destroy him, and it is left for those wrestling with his legacy to insist that “attention must be paid” to such a man. But all three men at the centre of these plays are destroyed, in different ways, by the shame they feel for their choices, by their self-righteous efforts to justify themselves and the inevitable failures of those self-justifications. This makes denial another constant theme, one that Miller watches play out on personal levels to suggest the ways it operates nationally as well.


The structure of a play,” Miller liked to say, “is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” His best plays open at the beginning of aftermath: they are, from one perspective, all denouement. At the start of All My Sons, Joe Keller has already committed the betrayal – selling bad plane parts to the military – that would more traditionally have been the climax of a different play about Keller’s conflicted decisions. Here, the drama is psychological: Keller and his family must come to terms with the choices he has already made.

Similarly, in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman has already failed: his death merely makes manifest the moral and psychological death he suffered before the action began. In The Crucible, the affair of John Proctor and Abigail Williams that provokes the dramatic action is already over when the play begins. Drama is not cause, but effect. This also gradually brings the past into the present – a technique Miller learned from Henrik Ibsen – showing that even national history is really just the history of personal choices. Climax is confrontation: confrontations with truth, with personal repercussions and moral ramifications.

Miller’s imagination ran towards the epic and the heroic, apparently insignificant lives embodying significant themes; a certain tendency towards grandiosity was usually checked by the smallness of the lives he explored. Willy Loman’s ordinariness is what makes his claims to tragic heroism in The Death of a Salesman remarkable, rather than sentimental showboating, whereas John Proctor’s place in history risks making his martyrdom in The Crucible overblown. Loman’s tragedy is that he has worked hard, and cannot understand why there have been no rewards; on the contrary, there has been only failure. Like so many Americans today who feel “left behind”, Loman is the representative American who can’t understand why the dream has passed him by.

Although The Death of a Salesman is usually read as a broadside against “the American dream”, it is attacking only a cheapened version of the dream, one that postwar America was busily selling itself: condemnation of a society allowing its aspirational political ideals to deteriorate into justifications of selfish materialism. Miller gave the play a telling subtitle: “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem.” It is a requiem less for Loman than for the American dream itself: the degraded dream Loman desires is the corruption of an older, more generous one – ideals of mutual responsibility and opportunity, rather than a simple, deluded faith in the idea that “free enterprise” alone could build an exemplary society. That dream is represented in the play by Willy’s neighbours, Charley and his son Bernard, whose prosperity and stability are set in relief against the Lomans’ psychological and financial precarity. Charley and Bernard represent American meritocracy, for they are also honest, hard-working and compassionate. Bernard’s profession as a lawyer reflects their sense of civic responsibility, symbolising democratic ideals of justice and equality under the law.

Loman’s profession as salesman is just as symbolic of the debased dream he chases: the empty dreams of wealth and status that were engrossing mid-century America in every sense, turning it into a nation of salesmen peddling meretricious kitsch.

The Death of a Salesman was written just as the postwar boom began, as America enjoyed a new prosperity – thanks largely to government investment in programmes such as the GI Bill, which sent millions of returning soldiers to university, and the Federal Housing Administration’s loans, which created housing opportunities like Levittown, celebrated at the time as the American dream made real.

Such government loans gave a man named Fred Trump his start in the property business during the 1940s, when he borrowed sums he was later forced to concede before a congressional inquiry had been “wildly” inflated. He used these inflated loans to develop housing projects that became the foundation of the Trump Organization, which would be sued for racial discrimination by the US Department of Justice in 1973, two years after Fred’s son Donald took over the business. The story of Death of a Salesman is that of a nation running a real risk of moral collapse – of becoming a country of con men.

The story that inspired All My Sons was true. The corruption of American ideals is Miller’s perennial subject, the failures of his “everyman” figures to live up to the values their nation espouses – and thus, by extension, the nation’s failure to do the same. The American tragedy, he suggests, is the human tragedy: the story of people who sell out in every sense.

Willy Loman cannot accept that his values were misplaced; he dies rather than face the hollowness of his own life. Both All My Sons and The Price, by contrast, are plays about living with the feeling of having sold out and the costs of the choices we make. Materialism faces off against idealism once more – but now materialism has a more cynical feel. Loman’s tragedy is less bad faith than having put his faith in a bad bargain. Walter and Victor in The Price, selling off their dead parents’ belongings, are less deluded; they are wrestling with the unintended consequences of their own ordinary choices. They gradually pull down each other’s self-righteous justifications, learning the price of being oneself, while Miller suggests the price of a society that allows its morals to be shaped by economics, for a country that offers “no respect for anything but money”.

In his autobiography, Miller wrote that he hoped the audience would leave The American Clock with “a renewed awareness of the American’s improvisational strength… In a word, the feel of the energy of a democracy.” Can energetic improvisation create a collectivity that overcomes division? It’s tempting to answer with the words of another great American writer and say that it’s pretty to think so.

But cynicism was, for Miller, part of the malaise he seeks to redress: America is not America without its idealism. That said, his dramas end with tragedy, not transcendence. And his tragic heroes are not usually hubristic; their flaws are more ordinary, more sordid. They are men who seek exculpation – but culpability, Miller suggests, is the human condition, the original sin. Character may be destiny – but character is also choice. We are what we do, we are what we choose – and this goes for the societies we create, too, while we watch and wonder if the clock is running down.  

Sarah Churchwell’s “Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream” is published by Bloomsbury

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