Rebecca Miller, daughter of American playwright Arthur Miller and his third wife, Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath, is a novelist and filmmaker whose works include The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. She has directed a stage revival of her father’s play, After the Fall, and her handful of acting credits include a minor role in a television adaptation of An American Clock. She also met her future husband, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, on the set of another Miller classic, The Crucible (1996.)
When she was born in 1962, her father was forty-six and had been America’s foremost dramatist for more than a decade. His previous wife, Marilyn Monroe, died shortly before Rebecca’s birth. Miller also had two teenage children, Robert and Jane, from his first marriage. His marriage to Rebecca’s mother would last until her death in 2002 (with Arthur living on for three more years.) Miller’s work is still renowned in Europe, with three major revivals in the UK alone during 2019. In his home country, though, that legacy is more contentious.
In an early television appearance, Miller said that his plays contrast “what you think you’re seeing” with “how it really is … Imagine if we could see the truth?” While the social realism of his work is well-known, the ‘real’ Arthur Miller remains an enigma. “His public persona was so different to the man I knew,” Rebecca says. Believing that she was “the only filmmaker he would allow to get close enough,” she combined home movies, family photos, private correspondence and archive footage, with personal interviews in her HBO documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer (2017.)
We first see Rebecca filming her father as he builds furniture in his Connecticut workshop in 1998. He draws a direct comparison between his carpentry and the writing process. In both practices he must find a “sense of form” which will finally “move like a living thing, and move people with it.”
Arthur Asher Miller was born in Harlem, New York in 1915. His father, Isidore Miller, was a Jewish immigrant from Galicia, Poland (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) who had moved to America as a child to evade the pogroms. Mysteriously, his family were already settled in New York when this seven-year-old boy made the long journey alone. Later, he would speak of living in a “house of idiots” before his departure. In his autobiography, Arthur said that ‘Izzie’ had been farmed out to relatives, but in this documentary, he speculates that his father may have once been institutionalised. Despite this unpromising start, Isidore quickly made his way in New York’s garment district, and would marry Augusta Barnett, the daughter of Austrian immigrants, in 1910.
By the 1920s, the Millers were living in West 110th Street, Manhattan, employing a chauffeur, and attending Broadway shows. The second of three children, Arthur was his mother’s favourite. In contrast to her illiterate husband, ‘Gussie’ was highly educated, and a keen reader with a talent for drawing and a love of bridge. As Arthur’s sister-in-law, Fran Miller observes, she domineered her husband and controlled the household with a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Arthur’s sister, Joan Copeland, believes Augusta was frustrated by her limited role in an arranged, and ill-matched union. A flamboyant character, she believed herself clairvoyant, and her children would inherit her intellectual gifts.
The tensions between husband and wife worsened after Isidore lost his business after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the family moved permanently to Brooklyn. Although this personal tragedy was not his fault, Isidore was devastated, and Augusta treated him with “sneering contempt” and “anger at his waning powers.”
Arthur was an average student, and after graduating high school he took a series of jobs, including a stint as a waiter at a luxury hotel in the Catskills. His brother Kermit was more academically oriented, and as the oldest son would have been the first choice to go to university. But as the Great Depression raged on, Kermit dedicated himself to revitalising the family business. Meanwhile, Arthur discovered a love for literature – particularly the novels of Dostoevsky – while commuting by train to his job manufacturing auto parts. He continued working in menial jobs to pay for his tuition at the University of Michigan.
The aspiring young writer was drawn to plays more than novels, Arthur says, as an artist might choose sculpture over drawing: “It just seemed more tangible.” In an early interview, he noted that throughout history, the theatre had been “a kind of tribune,” a way of “addressing one’s fellow citizens.” His first play was strongly autobiographical, giving voice to his own suppressed conflict with his father against the backdrop of an industrial dispute. He won a $250 award for No Villain, and learned that writing enabled him to “speak the unspeakable.”
While Kermit joined the army and would serve in World War II, an old knee injury led to Arthur being declared 4F. In 1940, he married Mary Grace Slattery, a former classmate now working in publishing. Mary had rebelled against her conservative, Catholic family, leaving the Midwest behind for New York. “We were mysteries to each other,” Arthur would later admit to journalist Mike Wallace. He was an intellectual, an artist, an urban Jew; and to him, Mary embodied all the promise of an America he longed to know. His weakness, Rebecca suggests, was a “need to be adored,” and in his “puppyish” letters to Mary, he constantly sought her approval.
After the failure of his Broadway debut (ironically titled The Man Who Had All the Luck), Arthur vowed never to repeat the experience and while Mary paid the bills, he wrote a novel, Focus. The theatre soon drew him back, and in 1947, All My Sons launched him as a major American dramatist, alongside Tennessee Williams. It was also Miller’s first collaboration with Elia Kazan, the leading director of the era. “Nothing was more culturally important than a great play,” he remembers. He bought a second home in Roxbury, Connecticut, and built the studio in which he would write Death Of A Salesman (1949.)
Like all of Miller’s great works, Salesman began not with abstract ideas but a character, Willy Loman, whose failed career drives him to madness. “For Willy,” Arthur explains, “the past was alive.” In Arthur’s mind, the man “had a tragic aspect … underneath all his exaggerations was a striving to do something wonderful.” Willy’s son Biff embodies the disillusionment of a younger generation. As the first performance ended, the audience remained in their seats as if in shock, with some theatregoers moved to sobbing. While his engagement with social issues established him as a realist, Arthur also considered expressionist drama an important influence. He would win the Pulitzer Prize for Salesman, and critics compared him to Ibsen. The play’s impact, he admits, was “beyond my comprehension.”
Success brought him a “feeling of omnipotence” which made him feel dissatisfied in his marriage. Mary was “tough,” their son Bob remembers. She “spoke her mind,” and like many writers’ spouses, helped to shape Arthur’s early plays in a way that has rarely been acknowledged. But Mary was not demonstrative in her affections, and after a time, Arthur began to feel distant from his wife. “In all the feeling for Mary, I rarely see her face, rarely sense her,” he wrote in his journal in January 1951, adding gravely, “At this moment I fear to go home.”
Miller was far from home, in Hollywood with Elia Kazan, who had introduced him to a beautiful young actress, Marilyn Monroe. “As [Arthur] described it,” she would say later, “I was crying when he met me.” Looking back, he remembers her wit: “she was being cute, and making fun of being cute,” a quality lacking in most of her peers. Although romance would have to wait, he cherished their “bond of shared silences,” telling her, “You’re the saddest girl I ever met.” (This line would resurface in Miller’s later work.)
The openness of the post-war years soon gave way to paranoia as a new decade began. “In the 1950s it was a dangerous time to be a liberal and an artist,” Rebecca says. As a young man, Arthur was briefly attracted by Marxism; but in his daughter’s words, “he came to feel that there was not enough room for the individual, and so he became a liberal.” The Soviet Union, which had been America’s ally during World War II, was now viewed as an enemy. As a wave of “popular fascism” gripped the United States, alleged communist sympathisers were blacklisted, and imprisoned.
As Arthur researched The Crucible, he was struck by the parallels between the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the modern-day witch-hunt targeting many in the arts. While driving to Massachusetts, he visited Elia Kazan. Fearing that the investigations could end his fledgling movie career, Kazan had agreed to ‘name names.’ Miller said it was “a terrible mistake,” and their friendship cooled. “The real villain was not him,” Arthur reflects, but Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, who were ultimately discredited. Some then turned against Kazan, who in Arthur’s view, was also a victim.
John Proctor, Miller’s protagonist in The Crucible (1954), is accused of witchcraft by a teenage girl with whom he had an adulterous affair. Arthur was interested in the guilt felt by people charged with crimes they did not commit. Proctor’s confrontation with his wife Elizabeth, who is also wrongly accused of witchcraft and blames him for their predicament, drew on Arthur’s own feelings of guilt over his failing marriage. In real life, there would be no reconciliation. Bob Miller remembers being “mystified” to find his sister Jane crying with Mary when their parents said goodbye for the last time.
During rehearsals for A View From The Bridge (1955) on 46th Street, Arthur passed a life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe in her famous ‘skirt-blowing’ pose from her hit movie, The Seven Year Itch, in the theatre lobby each day. Their romance was rekindled when she moved to New York that year. Unlike the “guarded” and “judgmental” people he had known, she seemed “completely honest about herself … she accepted everyone for who they were.” But as he later realised, her free-spirited attitude was “merely a disguise. She was in a way the most repressed person imaginable.” Having been “kicked around” for much of her life, she was, he thinks, “a courageous human being” who came to believe that “the best of her was in my eye … and so the hope she had was in me.”
As fellow playwright Tony Kushner observes, A View From the Bridge introduced new themes of sexuality and desire to Miller’s moral dilemma. As his romance with Marilyn went public, the House Un-American Activities Committee saw an opportunity for publicity. “I don’t believe, and never have, that a man has to become an informer in order to practise his professional career in the United States,” Miller told reporters in Washington. After admitting that he had attended meetings of communist writers as a young man, Arthur refused to ‘name names.’ He was found in contempt of court and sentenced to a year in jail, but the conviction was later quashed. “They were replaying The Crucible,” he tells his daughter. “We’re a nation of entertainers … even the fascists have to be entertaining.”
During their four-year marriage, Arthur lived in the shadow of Marilyn’s immense fame, which he came to feel distorted reality. “That was a difficulty to get over,” he says, “and I never quite made it, I admit.” He produced very little finished work in this time, later telling Mike Wallace that his priority was “taking care of her.” She lived in terror, he says, that she was going to be “found out as a failure.” While Bob remembers his stepmother as “bubbly and lovely,” he was not blind to the “waves of pain” that frequently engulfed her. Miller tried constantly to “make her see the brighter side of things,” which became “the most thankless job anyone can possibly imagine.”
According to Bob, putting others first didn’t come naturally to his father but his efforts for Marilyn were exhaustive. Arthur was “under his own spell of being the hero, the saviour,” culminating in the film they made together. He wrote The Misfits as a gift for her, but it also depicted “an attempt by people to find some way of being at home in the world. And the world is so hard and so rejecting that they can’t find a niche to call home.” Marilyn’s severe depression led to lengthy delays on the set. “She couldn’t gain confidence,” Miller says, “although that’s not how she expressed it. She would blame others for not treating her right. At the last minute she would find some imperfection in herself.” Her perpetual lateness left the cast and crew waiting, “several hundred people all depending on this fragile creature. It’s a terrific pressure. Her solution was all kinds of pills and alcohol …”
At this point Miller falls silent, as if submerged in grief. The Misfits was a “pretty good film,” he says, “but it wasn’t what I expected. We separated during the filming, and she went back to California …” Marilyn would fatally overdose less than two years later, shortly after being fired from her next picture. Miller was finishing his next play when he heard the news. A reporter asked if he would be attending her funeral, and still in shock, Arthur replied: “She won’t be there.”
After the divorce, he spent more time in Connecticut. In his writing, Rebecca suggests, he faces the conflicts that in life, he tried to avoid. “I just couldn’t bear people trying to destroy each other,” he reflects. “All real arguments are murderous. There’s a killing instinct …” He made a similar remark in an early TV interview. “All suicides are murdered,” he had said. “Victims of aggression, or sometimes of truth …”
After the Fall was partly inspired by The Fall, a 1956 novel by Albert Camus, which begins with a man watching a woman throw herself into a river. “Why didn’t he save her?” Arthur wonders. “What if he had saved her?” To Rebecca, Arthur admits that Quentin, hero of After the Fall, and his wife Maggie (who dies by suicide) were based on himself and Marilyn. It was staged in 1964, marking his reconciliation with Elia Kazan and starring Kazan’s wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie (wearing a Monroesque blonde wig.)
The play addressed his own failure to ‘save’ Marilyn, and realisation that “people were far more difficult to change than I had allowed myself to believe.” It was a success, but due to its shocking portrayal of Monroe’s downfall, was subject to “ugly, strident criticism” and “vicious attacks” in the press. “I managed to have an illusion that this wasn’t really Marilyn,” Miller says, “… but it was close enough …”
The first time Arthur met Inge Morath, he was chatting in a swimming pool on a break from filming The Misfits. She was among a group of photographers sent by the Magnum Agency to document the shoot, and recalls that when they met again in Magnum’s New York office in 1961, Arthur was choosing photos for a book about the film (probably James Goode’s The Story of The Misfits.)
During World War II, Inge had faced interrogation for refusing to join the Hitler Youth, although her father was a member of the Nazi Party. She was sent to work at a munitions factory in Berlin. When the city fell in 1945, she made her way back to Salzburg on foot, like thousands of other refugees. Despite the trauma she carried with her, Inge was in her daughter’s words “a hugely positive dynamo of a woman.”
Miller was “a very wounded person” when he met Inge, Rebecca says. “Arthur was a very lonely man,” Inge agrees, “because he doesn’t know how to reach out.” She took Bob and Jane with her on photographic assignments, and they grew closer. “That house was not really a home until she came around,” Bob says. His father seemed “renewed and reinvigorated,” helping Inge when she became a mother for the first time. He would be present more often during Rebecca’s childhood than he had before. “There were times when I think he was only interested in what interested him,” Jane says. “There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it.”
“As I was growing up he continued writing, but his life became much less public, much more private,” Rebecca says. “I think he was sheltering himself with his family. He would talk to me about his worries, about being able to write. I don’t even know if I answered … It was as if I was part of him. But the father I knew for the most part was very cuddly, fun, jokey. We would laugh so much …”
After Rebecca’s younger brother Daniel was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, Arthur followed medical advice and placed him in an institution. Inge continued to visit Daniel regularly, but Arthur did not join her and never discussed his son publicly. His diaries show that far from being disinterested, the separation caused him great anguish. In later years, he and the rest of the family established a closer relationship with Daniel, who now lives a “happy” and “independent” life. Arthur offered to talk about Daniel in one of his interviews with Rebecca, but to her regret, she never took him up on it.
In 1965, Miller turned down an invitation to the White House in protest at America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. “I was more of a rebel than a revolutionary,” he says, praising the bravery of the peace movement in the face of “endless war,” while critical of radical groups who seemingly wanted to establish “a new rule of violence.” As a young man, Bobby became part of the counterculture of the Sixties, which “dismayed” Arthur.
Miller enjoyed further success with Incident at Vichy (1964) and The Price (1968), which examined his Jewish identity. However, he felt that the theatre had lost its potency, and when The Creation of the World and Other Business opened in 1972, critics noted that his “play about human responsibility” now seemed “old-fashioned.” Although he would continue writing plays for the rest of his life, he often felt that he was “shouting into a barrel.” As Rebecca grew up, she witnessed his “many disappointments in the theatre,” and Tony Kushner is appalled by the critical drubbing of Miller’s later works.
Rather than feeling he was “losing his muse,” Arthur had the sense of being “out of place” in modern America. “It was hurtful for him that in his own country, he was dismissed,” Rebecca comments. “But he still had this ebullience, this belief in himself, that kept bubbling up.” Bob remarks on his father’s “blue-collar ethic” which brought him to his desk each morning. And when he wasn’t writing, Arthur would be building furniture or doing jobs around the home. His motivation, according to Rebecca, that “if you could make it yourself, you should …”
He is filmed at the opening night of Mr Peters’ Connections (1998), and then reading an unfavourable review in the next day’s newspaper. However, Miller’s earlier plays were now enjoying a “renaissance,” from a 1985 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, starring Dustin Hoffman, to the 1996 film of The Crucible, which Bob Miller produced. The enduring popularity of Arthur’s plays was “the happiest thing in my professional life,” he says, adding wryly, “they’ll forget ‘em soon enough … pessimism is the one defence I have against optimism.”
Arthur and Inge Miller travelled together, collaborating on three books of photojournalism: In Russia (1969), In the Country (1977), and Chinese Encounters (1979.) After nursing her for two years, Arthur lost his wife to cancer in 2002. “It was a very great shock to him,” Rebecca says. “It was like losing a very young woman, strangely … and he was quite lost after that.” When an interviewer asked what he would like his obituary to say, he replied simply, “Writer.” With Rebecca, he was more expansive: “No play is finished; they’re abandoned … you can only get so close, and then it doesn’t allow you to come any closer, to the hidden narrative, the truth … it’s a process of approaching the unwritten, the unspoken … the closer you get, the more life there seems to be …”
Rebecca Miller’s subjective approach is fitting to a man who, though fiercely private, often drew upon his own experiences in his work. However, it also leaves him vulnerable to being judged for his behaviour offstage rather than his writing. Carl Rollyson, whose many biographical subjects include Marilyn Monroe, reviewed the documentary in a Facebook post. “It is a remarkable revelation of the man, but it is also a very limited view. How could it not be? It is his daughter’s film, and she could not, for example, bring herself to interview him about his institutionalized Down’s Syndrome son. It is really a memoir, and not a biography.”
While promoting Arthur Miller – Writer, Rebecca Miller was interviewed for the New York Times by Maureen Dowd, who mentioned a 2007 Vanity Fair article which had accused Arthur of ‘abandoning’ his son Daniel. Rebecca believed it was “written in a spirit of malice … you also have to put things in a little bit of historic perspective. There were other families who put their Down’s Syndrome children in institutions.”
Perhaps inevitably, the spectre of his second wife also looms large. “The portrait of Monroe that emerges,” Lindsay Zoladz writes for The Ringer, “is inherently lopsided and not nearly as intimate as the one we get of Miller himself. One of the hardest parts of putting together the film, Rebecca admits, was finding ways to diminish Monroe’s presence, to prevent her from completely overtaking her father’s story … Arthur Miller – Writer is, among other things, a fresh reason to mourn the fact that Marilyn Monroe never got to be old and wise like her last husband.”
Regarding Monroe, Rollyson was frank: “For the most part, she is treated as rather pitiful, with Miller spending his time propping her up. He wrote very little while married to her but does not mention the countless hours locked away in a room trying to write. More importantly, he gives a very distorted view of what happened during the shooting of The Misfits … Monroe was upset about the script and was shut out from the Miller-Huston deliberations about how to fix it. She wasn’t happy that her husband was treating her as a myth, not a real person. If he was going to give her lines that she actually had spoken, then he was obligated to give the full context in which such lines were spoken.”
“I felt sometimes almost that I shouldn’t be in the room, I shouldn’t know all this stuff,” Rebecca admitted to Maureen Dowd (who wrote and presented a BBC radio documentary about Monroe, The Smart Dumb Blonde, in 2012.) “It was weird, but that was also the moment where I sort of transformed from a daughter into a filmmaker. And I also ended up sort of seeing how she was just a person, you know? Because there’s so much smoke around her.”
In her review for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert describes Arthur Miller – Writer as “a family portrait defined by intimacy with its subject, captured in footage the filmmaker first started shooting in her twenties,” noting “how warm and goofy Miller is in scenes with his daughter, as she captures him working on carpentry projects in his studio in Connecticut or reminiscing in his kitchen. Rebecca Miller, when the camera turns to her, watches him intently, with palpable affection.”
Rebecca’s goal in making the documentary, she told Maureen Dowd, was to show the public a different, more relaxed Arthur Miller. “He had a remoteness in interviews, because he was a shy person and he was very protective of himself, understandably at that point,” she said. “It was a feeling like, his warmth and his humour would never really come through.” While his place in the history of American theatre is assured, the man himself has sometimes been perceived as an aloof, condescending figure. In Arthur Miller – Writer, Rebecca Miller reaches out to the flawed, struggling humanity at the heart of his dramatic imagination.