Arthur Miller: The life behind ‘Death of a Salesman’

John Lahr’s biography of Arthur Miller begins with a fascinating chapter on the creation and electric debut in 1949 of the playwright’s masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman.” Lahr calls the play’s impact on American theater “seismic.” But at the first performance, when he lowered the curtain, the audience sat in stunned silence, “like a funeral,” Miller recalled. “I didn’t know if the show was alive or dead… Finally, someone thought to clap, and then the house fell apart.”

From there, the sharp and insightful “Arthur Miller: American Witness,” part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, goes back to the beginning, tracing the twists and turns of Miller’s childhood in New York City. Born in 1915, the playwright spent his early years in the privilege of a Harlem row house until his business-owning father, a numerical whiz who couldn’t read or write, lost everything in the Depression and moved family to a much reduced situation in Brooklyn. Lahr calls the elder Miller’s downfall the defining trauma of Miller’s life, describing what the author calls the “heartbreaking and shocking” moment when the once-prosperous patriarch asked his teenage son for a quarter for the subway.

Theater critic Lahr, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker who has written biographies of Tennessee Williams and Frank Sinatra, among others, is equally adept at recounting Miller’s checkered life story and interpreting the canonical works that grew out of it. The playwright frequently drew on his own past as a subject: Lahr quotes his friend and collaborator Elia Kazan, who directed Miller’s “Salesman,” “All My Sons” and “After the Fall,” as saying, “Art was not a writer who raised stories. His material had to be experienced; he reported on his inner state.”

See also  What will the weather be like for the high school football playoffs this weekend?

Leave a Comment