Arthur Miller’s Literary Reckoning with His Jewish Experience

January 12, 2023 | John Nathan
About the author:

One of the most prestigious American playwrights of the 20th century, Arthur Miller is best known for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Although he did once comment that the actor who best understood the former play’s protagonist was Yosik Buloff, a giant of the Yiddish stage, most of Miller’s theatrical works are without explicitly Jewish content. A recent biography by John Lahr, however, calls attention to Miller’s explorations of the condition of American Jewry. John Nathan writes in his review:

It was against this background [of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and the Nazi conquest of Europe] that Miller wrote his first success—not a play but the novel Focus (1945), about a casual anti-Semite who becomes a foot soldier in the cause of Jew-hatred. He is, however, so often mistaken as a Jew by his fellow persecutors he ends up being a victim of his own prejudice.

Before then, Lee Strasbourg’s Theatre Group eventually decided against staging Miller’s new play The Grass Still Grows, about a Jewish family (not unlike Miller’s), because, having already mounted Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing, they didn’t want “to do another Jewish play.”

Through the course of 200 pages or so—a fraction (a third, in fact) of the number of pages Lahr uses in his acclaimed Tennessee Williams biography—the author cherry-picks the crucial personal and world events from which Miller wrought his plays. . . . It is a tapestry rich with personal as well as public detail, but it also makes irrefutable the argument (sometimes opposed) that Miller’s Jewishness was foundational to his writing.

If Miller’s illiterate immigrant father Isidore—who became a wealthy businessman before everything was lost in the [1929] crash—is there in his college play No Villain (1936, about the dilemmas faced by a family business in the teeth of industrial action), so too is the crushing memory of Isidore needing his sixteen-year-old son to pay a subway fare.

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