From Los Angeles to Lafayette, theater companies and critics are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arthur Miller’s birth on October 17, 1915. Best known for Willie Loman and wrongly accused witches, Miller, who died in 2005, was also the first American playwright to probe Jewish identity as a self-searching Jew.
Despite tapping Jews and Judaism throughout his almost 70-year career, Miller’s best-known plays are not overtly Jewish in content, including “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons,” and “The Crucible.” According to many critics, however, not only do Jewish themes run through those works, but Miller’s most famous character — “Salesman’s” iconic Willy Loman — is actually a closeted Jew.
“[Willy Loman’s] tragedy makes sense only in the Freudian world of repression, which happens also to be the world of normative Jewish memory,” wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in a 2003 essay. “Something crucial in [Loman] is Jewish,” said Bloom.
At the time of penning “Salesman,” Miller refused to come down on either side of the Loman religion debate, saying the issue of “ethnic particularity” was an “artificial limitation.” At the end of his career, however, Miller referred to the doomed Loman family as “Jews [who were] light-years away from religion or a community that might have fostered Jewish identity.”
In at least a dozen of his plays, short stories and other works, Miller painted pictures about what it means to be Jewish. Having written about Jews as early as 1936, while wrapping studies in Michigan, his later works touched on their rocky assimilation into America and the Holocaust’s aftermath.
Born in New York City’s Harlem, Miller’s childhood was interrupted by the 1929 Wall Street market crash, in which his well-to-do father lost almost everything. For the 14-year-old Miller, this jarring transition into near-poverty went on to inspire his major characters — ordinary people who found themselves suddenly out of luck or oppressed.
Observing how the Depression catalyzed anti-Semitism at home and abroad, Miller developed his recurring theme of Jews as “sociological constructs” used by those in power — sometimes anti-Semites — to distract the populace from its lot. Perhaps forgotten nowadays, the Jewish Americans of Miller’s youth were discriminated against in many quarters, from Father Charles Coughlin’s weekly, Nazi-inspired radio broadcasts, to rampant university and business quotas.
Miller’s Jewish characters were often apologetic about their Judaism, seeking to flee it. The playwright never hid his own origins, but he was most comfortable identifying with atheism, and considered anti-Semitism “a rather normal feature of everyday life.”
‘All I’m good for is so [anti-Semites] can point to me and everybody else will give them their brains and their money’
“All I’m good for is so [anti-Semites] can point to me and everybody else will give them their brains and their money, and then they will have the country,” says a Jewish shopkeeper in Miller’s only novel, 1945’s “Focus,” about an anti-Semite who is mistaken for a Jew. The book helped launch a national conversation about anti-Semitism, and paved the way for Miller’s post-Holocaust morality tales.
Critical of both anti-Semitism and Jewish particularism, the themes launched in “Focus” echo in Miller’s work for decades, including 1964’s largely forgotten one-act, “Incident at Vichy,” set during the round-up of Jews in Holocaust-era France.
“Jew is only the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction,” says the Jewish character in “Vichy,” after being rescued by a gentile. “Each man has his Jew; it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews,” the man intones.
Miller regularly dealt with the Holocaust in his post-war work, most famously in 1964’s “After the Fall,” using the stage set of a single chair next to a concentration camp guard tower. Not as popular as Miller’s previously mentioned standards, the play was seen as an allegory for his failed, five-year marriage to the ultimate gentile goddess, Marilyn Monroe.
Allegorically speaking, Miller’s most potent work was 1953’s “The Crucible.” Literally about the New England Puritans’ witchcraft trials, the oft-performed play was also Miller’s metaphor for the Communist hysteria in which he and artist friends were blacklisted as “Un-American.”
In “The Crucible,” Salem’s devout young women are overtaken by self-induced hysteria, with lethal consequences for those accused of practicing sorcery against them. As stand-ins for the Americans accused of promoting Communism during the 1950s, the falsely accused Salem women — and one man — struggle to defend themselves against hearsay and mass hysteria.
More than 40 years later, Miller’s 1994 play, “Broken Glass,” followed a similar formula, though set in New York City of 1938 and with Jews.
As a closeted Jew and self-absorbed business honcho, the play’s Phillip Gellburg projects so much Jewish self-hatred onto his wife that she becomes paralyzed from the waist down, bound to a wheelchair. With the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany as the trigger, Sylvia Gellburg’s “hysterical paralysis” does not lift until her husband’s sudden death, emphasizing what can happen when Jews “try to disappear into the goyim,” as put by the play’s Dr. Hyman.
“You helped paralyze her with this ‘Jew, Jew, Jew’ coming out of you all the time,” admonishes Dr. Hyman before reminding Phillip that “everybody’s persecuted” in some way, and to get over himself.
‘You helped paralyze her with this “Jew, Jew, Jew” coming out of you all the time’
As in “The Crucible,” a hate-charged environment induces hysteria and psychosomatic symptoms, and Miller’s characters conduct a two-act exorcism. The demons are destroyed, but so are the trapped people onto whom society projected those demons — the innocent witches, and the self-loathing Gellburg.
In all of Miller’s epic works, characters deal with morality against the backdrop of persecution or repression. The “villain” is not always a person, but concepts like capitalism, ethnic tribalism, or authoritarianism, which fuel the characters’ own psychoses.
“The closer a man approaches tragedy, the more intense in his concentration of emotion upon the fixed point of his commitment, which is to say the closer he approaches what in life we call fanaticism,” wrote Miller in 1958 about his leitmotif of self-destructive characters.
With fanaticism in the news, Miller’s works continue to ring alarm bells about extremism and self-loathing, whether by an unfaithful salesman, Satan-obsessed townspeople, or the ubiquitous self-hating Jew. Despite the doom and gloom, Miller believed his plays were ultimately redemptive, and bore something of a lesson for Jews.
“There is a tragedy in the world but the world must continue,” Miller told an interviewer in 1966.
“Jews can’t afford to revel too much in the tragic because it might overwhelm them. I have, so to speak, a psychic investment in the continuity of life. I couldn’t ever write a totally nihilistic work,” said Miller.