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He stood up to the witch-hunters

By Elizabeth Schulte | February 18, 2005 | Page 9

"HE WAS a gifted man of the theater, but something else," writer Studs Terkel said of playwright Arthur Miller, who died February 11. "He always spoke out. He spoke out for what he believed in, not only when it was unfashionable to speak out, but unsafe. Giftedness and guts: Those are the words for this man."

Miller, who is best known for writing the plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, was 89 years old when he died. His early life was shaped by the Great Depression--during which his father lost his business after the stock market crash of 1929. Miller worked several jobs to save enough money to go to the University of Michigan.

When he returned to New York City, Miller became part of a network of radical theater artists around the Group Theater and the Federal Theater Project. Working alongside the likes of Clifford Odets and Elia Kazan--with whom Miller would later bitterly break over the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s--Miller developed a vision of theater that not only reflected the events of the day, but tried to have an impact on them

In the 1940s, Miller created such plays as All My Sons--about war profiteering by a U.S. company that supplies faulty plane parts during the Second World War. In 1949, Miller created his best-known play, Death of a Salesman, which tells the story of Willy Loman, an aging salesman whose life is coming to an end, with little to show for it.

The play has come to symbolize the decay of the American Dream. "I don't say he's a great man," Loman's daughter Linda says in the play. "Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."

In this play, like his others, Miller dealt with the question of how the decisions that one person makes can impact and reflect upon society at large. Miller continued to explore this theme during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early '50s, and the much-publicized investigations of radicals by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The anti-communist witch-hunt ruined the lives of tens of thousands of people--communists, socialists, unionists, or people who had simply signed an antiwar petition. In targeting the entertainment industry, HUAC sought credibility and a high profile--sending the message that, if a Hollywood actor could be put on trial, anyone could.

Miller didn't hesitate to lend his name in defense of witch-hunt victims. An outspoken opponent of HUAC, he wrote a play against the hearings called You're Next. And when his old friend, Kazan, became a willing witness before the committee and fingered several of his old friends, Miller was infuriated.

In 1953, he wrote the play The Crucible, which is set during the Salem witch trials of the 1600s, but whose message couldn't have been more timely--and more obviously a statement against the McCarthyites. During one performance, when the leading character, John Proctor, was about to be executed, the audience stood and remained silent for several minutes, with heads bowed--because at that very moment, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were being executed.

Unrepentant, Kazan responded with the film On the Waterfront, a script that he and Miller had discussed making together. Kazan's movie about dockworkers amounted to a tribute to being an informant. Miller had an answer to Kazan in his play A View from a Bridge, about a Sicilian waterfront worker who in a jealous rage informs on his illegal immigrant nephew. One story says that Miller sent Kazan the script, telling his former friend, "I sent you this because I wanted you to know what I think of stool pigeons."

Miller was forced to appear before HUAC in 1956 when he tried to apply for a passport to leave the country with his new wife, Marilyn Monroe. The committee, waning in credibility by that time, tried to make a deal with Miller: If he would let the chair of HUAC have his picture taken with Monroe, the committee would drop the charges. Miller and Monroe refused.

Miller did appear before the committee and spoke openly about himself, but he refused to name a single name. He was indicted for contempt of Congress, but was later cleared of all charges.

In the 1960s, Miller opposed the Vietnam War and was a delegate for antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Throughout his life, Miller insisted on the unique importance of live theater. "Watching a play is not like lying on a psychiatrist's couch or sitting alone in front of the television," Miller said in 1991. "In the theater, you can sense the reaction of your fellow citizens along with your own reactions. You may learn something about yourself, but sharing it with others brings a certain relief--the feeling that you are not alone, you're part of the human race. I think that's what theater is about, and why it will never be finished."

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