Feb. 11, 2005
Arthur Miller, playwright and U-M alumnus, dead at 89
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Playwright Arthur Miller died in his Connecticut home Thursday, leaving a legacy of classic American theater works, including "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible" and "A View From the Bridge." Miller was one of the University of Michigan's most distinguished alumni, and the University will place his name on a new campus theatre that is in the planning stages.
A Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the nation's most distinguished recognition for the arts, The Kennedy Center Honors, Miller often visited his alma mater to meet and work with students in the theatre program.
Miller's longstanding association with U-M also included several honors and artistic collaborations.
U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said, "We mourn the death of Arthur Miller, one of the nation's most celebrated playwrights and a loyal alumnus whose affection for the University endured for his lifetime. Arthur Miller expressed his genius in an exquisite ability to communicate the beauty and the sadness of ordinary people and everyday life. We are proud that Michigan played a part in his life, and grateful for the many ways this extraordinary man shared himself with us."
Growing up in New York, Miller had flunked algebra three times at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, but worked between 1932 and 1934 at various jobs including truck driver, radio singer and clerk in his father's warehouse to earn funds for college. He came to Ann Arbor by bus with the $500 he had saved to attend U-M.
Years later, Miller said he had been attracted to U-M because, "tuition was cheap—about $60, I think—and I'd heard they gave Hopwood awards to student writers. For a 19-year-old who knew he wanted to write, even though I didn't know what I'd write, the fact that the University gave a dollar prize meant they took writing seriously here."
"Building a theatre named for him is a fitting tribute for Michigan to make," said Dean of Music Karen Wolff. "Future generations of students will see his name on the walls of that theatre and know the extent of the possibilities that lie before them. Every student has that same seed of potential."
In 2000, Miller sent a simple postcard to tell the University of Michigan that it could name a theatre after him. Since that time, funding has been solicited, architects chosen, land dedicated and assurance given that the Arthur Miller Theatre in the soon-to-be-constructed Walgreen Drama Center will the only venue in the world that bears the playwright's name. Plans for the new drama center will be presented to the University Regents this spring.
U-M awarded Miller an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1956. A student production in 1974 premiered his musical "Up From Creation," and U-M's interdisciplinary literary journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, devoted its entire Fall 1998 issue to Miller, discussing his personal journey from manual laborer during the depths of the Depression, to University student, to successful Broadway playwright.
Two Pulitzer Prize winners, Miller and U-M professor and composer William Bolcom, teamed up for an opera based on Miller's psychological tragedy "A View From the Bridge" with a libretto by Miller and Arnold Weinstein. It debuted at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1999.
"He was a wonderful collaborator and friend," Bolcom
said Friday. "He was extremely cooperative in every way and understood
how a libretto had to differ from a play. A less experienced person would
not have had this insight. He took out words we wouldn't have dared to."
Last year, U-M's Department of Theatre and Drama staged "An Arthur Miller Celebration," a production of scenes from several of the playwright’s well known and rarely performed works. As part of that event, Miller regaled an audience about the challenges and rewards of being a playwright during the "Arthur Miller Symposium" on the Ann Arbor campus.
A full house of 1,300 University of Michigan alumni and friends gathered at New York City's Richard Rodgers Theatre in November 2004 to honor Miller at "Michigan on Broadway: A Tribute to Arthur Miller," a revue-style homage by School of Music faculty and U-M alumni.
As an undergraduate, Miller stayed in a rooming house at 411 N. State Street in Ann Arbor where he paid $1.75 a week for a room that he shared with another student. He learned the craft of playwriting in classes with English Professor Kenneth Rowe, and wrote for the student paper, the Michigan Daily, where he served as a reporter and also wrote editorials. For a time, Miller was night editor for the paper, receiving a small salary that enhanced his total income. He interviewed inmates at Jackson State Penitentiary, where a classmate had been hired as a psychologist, and he also covered the 1937 GM sit-down strike in Flint for the Michigan Daily and bonded with many of the striking autoworkers. Another outlet for his writing was the student humor magazine, Gargoyle, where he used the name Art Miller.
"In 1936, as a student at the University of Michigan, the National Youth Administration paid me $15 a month to feed a couple of thousand mice in a cancer research laboratory," Miller recalled. "I walked two miles to get to the genetics lab. I washed dishes for my meals, but without that NYA money, I couldn't have paid my room rent and would no doubt have had to leave school. Jobs in those times were next to impossible to find."
Miller won two of U-M's prestigious Avery Hopwood Awards for playwriting before graduating and moving back to New York. There he survived the failure of a Broadway play but found moderate success in two books. His first theatrical success was in 1947 when "All My Sons" ran for 328 performances on Broadway. That triumph was soon followed by the Pulitzer Prize for "Death of a Salesman" in 1949 and his successful 1953 production, "The Crucible."
Miller's first Avery Hopwood Award was for "No Villain," written in 1936 during a week's spring vacation from classes. It was produced in 1937 by the Hillel Players at U-M under the title "They Too Arise." (A later revision titled "The Grass Still Grows," won the Theater Guild's Bureau of New Plays Award.) His second Hopwood Award (1937) was for "Honors at Dawn" and he was a runner-up in the 1938 Hopwood competition with the play "The Great Disobedience."
Miller wrote in his autobiography "Timebends" that U-M was "a place full of speeches, meetings and leaflets. It was jumping with issues . . .political facts of life were not all I learned," he wrote. "I learned that under certain atmospheric conditions, you could ice skate up and down all the streets in Ann Arbor at night."
After Miller's graduation, Professor Rowe helped him make connections in New York City's theater world. The two continued corresponding for many years after. "In 1938, when I graduated, I managed to get into the WPA Writers Project—$22.77 a week—for six months until the project was shut down," Miller said. "In that time I wrote a tragedy for the stage about the conquest of Mexico and perhaps more important, managed to break into writing for commercial radio. The government's help in both instances was brief but crucial."
The U-M campus agreed with the young man from New York. "For me it was very welcoming and I found it a very good environment for mixing with a lot of people I normally wouldn't have met," Miller said. "It was my idea of what a university should be," he wrote 15 years after graduation. "It was … the testing ground for all my prejudices, my beliefs and my ignorance, and it helped to lay out the boundaries of my life."
Contact: Joanne Nesbit