American Tragedy: Arthur Miller's Common Man

“It is time, I think, that we who are without kings took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time – the heart and spirit of the average man.” — Arthur Miller

When Arthur Miller began writing his breakout drama All My Sons, he started with a suggestion from his mother-in-law. She told Miller the story of an Ohio woman who turned her father over to federal investigators after learning he knowingly sold defective aircraft parts to the Army. From this simple situation the author saw the roots of a play. “I never knew the people involved, and it turned out that it wasn’t a daughter, but a son in my play,” Miller recalled. “All I knew was . . . that this had happened in the Middle West. I never saw it in the paper or anything.”

Miller later claimed that it was the only play he took directly from real events — a half-truth in the light of the thinly veiled portrait of his relationship with Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall or the shadows of the McCarthy communism hearings that can be seen in The Crucible. But the first acclaimed tragedy that Miller wrote remained the one he considers closest to an anonymous true-life experience of a common person, a fitting reflection of a philosophy he would articulate in the years that followed.

Following the two-year Broadway run of All My Sons, Miller premiered his next play, Death of a Salesman. In Salesman, critics found that the playwright had reconceived tragedy for a modern age, an impression that Miller encouraged. “The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity,” Miller wrote in his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man.” “From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society.” To see the classic kings and princes fall was to question the state of the nation, Miller argues, asking whether the same can apply to the everyman.

In his obituary, The New York Times called Miller the “most American of the country’s great playwrights,” even though he was more of a moralist than a patriot. Instead, he challenged his country by telling stories with polemic questions at their heart. In All My Sons and elsewhere, he portrays average businessmen in suburban vistas and leaves their failures unresolved. Like the classic tragedians, Miller fiercely interrogates the ideals of his country about success and responsibility through All My Sons’ single Midwestern family, asking where the gap exists between private greed and the public good.

Charles Haugland

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