Arthur Miller was an American playwright who first rose to prominence in the years following World War II. He shined a light on U.S. culture of the period, speaking to the hopes and fears of a populace grappling with a rapidly changing world. Many of his plays -- including “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible,” and “All My Sons” -- are now regarded as modern classics. All of them are marked by his unique style.
Miller never dealt in fanciful subjects, and his characters never resorted to undue affectation. He favored the common language of the common man -- delivered with style, but unvarnished by excessive affectation. His protagonists are often working-class Americans, and their stories don’t always end happily. That realism reflects a very modernist sensibility, focused on the struggles of everyday figures and the tragedies of life as well as its triumphs.
According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Miller believed very strongly in the power of the theater to transform society as a whole. Accordingly, he made heavy use of allegory in his plays: clothed in realism, but reverberating beyond the merely factual. A famous example occurs in “The Crucible,” which ostensibly talks about the Salem Witch Trials, but also served as a thinly veiled condemnation of the anti-communist fears sweeping through America at the time.
Miller’s plays deal with strong issues of right and wrong. More importantly, they stress how people treat those issues in times of intense pressure. For example, “All My Sons” deals with a businessman selling faulty parts to the army in order to keep his family fed, while “The Crucible” covers the reactions of good people to the evils of the Salem Witch Trials. In all these cases, Miller’s style reflects a strong sense of ethical values, as well as how difficult it can be to adhere to those values.
Regardless of whether his protagonists hold onto their values or sacrifice them, Miller’s style retains a deep-seated compassion for them. We feel deeply for his everyman hero in “Death of a Salesman,” and the hapless Puritans caught in the web of mass hysteria in “The Crucible.” The ultimate tragedy of their lives -- and the way they struggle and suffer against greater forces than they -- is intended to connect us to the struggles of our fellow man. The National Endowment for the Humanities quotes Miller as saying “there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it.”