Biography of Arthur Miller, Major American Playwright

Arthur Miller at work

New York Times Co / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Arthur Miller (October 17, 1915–February 10, 2005) is considered one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, having created some of America's most memorable plays over the course of seven decades. He is the author of "Death of a Salesman," which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize in drama, and "The Crucible." Miller is known for combining social awareness with a concern for his characters’ inner lives.

Fast Facts: Arthur Miller

  • Known For: Award-winning American playwright
  • Born: October 17, 1915 in New York City
  • Parents: Isidore Miller, Augusta Barnett Miller
  • Died: Feb. 10, 2005 in Roxbury, Connecticut
  • Education: University of Michigan
  • Produced Works: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge
  • Awards and Honors: Pulitzer Prize, two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, two Emmy Awards, three Tony Awards
  • Spouse(s): Mary Slattery, Marilyn Monroe, Inge Morath
  • Children: Jane Ellen, Robert, Rebecca, Daniel
  • Notable Quote: "Well, all the plays that I was trying to write were plays that would grab an audience by the throat and not release them, rather than presenting an emotion which you could observe and walk away from."

Early Life

Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in Harlem, New York to a family with Polish and Jewish roots. His father Isidore, who came to the U.S. from Austria-Hungary, ran a small coat-manufacturing business. Miller was closer to his mother Augusta Barnett Miller, a native New Yorker who was a teacher and an avid reader of novels.

His father's company was successful until the Great Depression dried up virtually all business opportunities and shaped many of the younger Miller's beliefs, including the insecurity of modern life. Despite facing poverty, Miller made the best of his childhood. He was an active young man, in love with football and baseball.

When he wasn’t playing outside, Miller enjoyed reading adventure stories. He also kept busy with many boyhood jobs. He often worked alongside his father; other times, he delivered bakery goods and worked as a clerk in an auto parts warehouse.


After working at several jobs to save money for college, in 1934 Miller left the East Coast to attend the University of Michigan, where he was accepted into the school of journalism. He wrote for the student paper and completed his first play, "No Villain," for which he won a university award. It was an impressive beginning for a young playwright who had never studied plays or playwriting. What's more, he had written his script in just five days.

He took several courses with Professor Kenneth Rowe, a playwright. Inspired by Rowe's approach to constructing plays, after graduating in 1938, Miller moved back East to begin his career as a playwright.


Miller wrote plays as well as radio dramas. During World War II, his writing career gradually became more successful. (He couldn't serve in the military because of a football injury.) In 1940 he finished "The Man Who Had All the Luck," which reached Broadway in 1944 but closed after only four performances and a pile of unfavorable reviews.

His next play to reach Broadway came in 1947 with "All My Sons," a powerful drama that earned critical and popular praise and Miller's first Tony Award, for best author. From that point on, his work was in high demand.

Miller set up shop in a small studio that he had built in Roxbury, Connecticut, and wrote Act I of "Death of Salesman" in less than a day. The play, directed by Elia Kazan, opened on February 10, 1949, to great acclaim and became an iconic stage work, earning him international recognition. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, the play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and swept all six of the Tony categories in which it was nominated, including best direction, best author, and best play.

Communist Hysteria

Since Miller was in the spotlight, he was a prime target for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In an age of anti-communism fervor, Miller’s liberal political beliefs seemed threatening to some American politicians, which is unusual in retrospect, considering that the Soviet Union banned his plays.

Miller was summoned before the HUAC and was expected to release names of any associates he knew to be communists. Unlike Kazan and other artists, Miller refused to give up any names. “I don’t believe a man has to become an informer in order to practice his profession freely in the United States,” he said. He was charged with contempt of Congress, a conviction that was later overturned.

In response to the hysteria of the time, Miller wrote one of his best plays, "The Crucible." It is set during another time of social and political paranoia, the Salem Witch Trials, and is an insightful criticism of the phenomenon.

Marilyn Monroe

By the 1950s, Miller was the most recognized playwright in the world, but his renown wasn’t only because of his theatrical genius. In 1956, Miller divorced Mary Slattery, his college sweetheart with whom he had had two children, Jane Ellen and Robert. Less than a month later he married actress and Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, whom he'd met in 1951 at a Hollywood party.

From then on, he was even more in the limelight. Photographers hounded the famous couple and the tabloids were often cruel, puzzling over why the “world’s most beautiful woman” would marry such a “homely writer." Author Norman Mailer said their marriage represented the union of "the Great American Brain" and "the Great American Body."

They were married for five years. Miller wrote little during that period, with the exception of the screenplay for "The Misfits" as a gift for Monroe. The 1961 film, directed by John Huston, starred Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift. Around the time the film was released, Monroe and Miller divorced. A year after divorcing Monroe (she died the following year), Miller married his third wife, Austrian-born American photographer Inge Morath.

Later Years and Death

Miller continued to write into his 80s. His later plays didn't attract the same attention or acclaim as his earlier work, though film adaptations of "The Crucible" and "Death of a Salesman" kept his fame alive. Much in his later plays dealt with personal experience. His final drama, "Finishing the Picture," recalls the turbulent last days of his marriage to Monroe.

In 2002, Miller's third wife Morath died and he soon was engaged to 34-year-old painter Agnes Barley, but he became ill before they could marry. On February 10, 2005—the 56th anniversary of the Broadway debut of "Death of a Salesman"—Miller died of heart failure at his home in Roxbury, surrounded by Barley, family, and friends. He was 89 years old.


Miller's sometimes bleak view of America was shaped by his and his family's experiences during the Great Depression. Many of his plays deal with the ways capitalism affects the lives of everyday Americans. He thought of theater as a way to speak to those Americans: "The mission of the theater, after all, is to change, to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities," he said.

He established the Arthur Miller Foundation to help young artists. After his death, his daughter Rebecca Miller focused his mandate on expanding the arts education program in New York City public schools.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Miller won two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, two Emmy Awards, three Tony Awards for his plays, and a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. He also received the John F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award and was named Jefferson Lecturer for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2001.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. "Biography of Arthur Miller, Major American Playwright." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, September 2). Biography of Arthur Miller, Major American Playwright. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "Biography of Arthur Miller, Major American Playwright." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).