Arthur Miller is widely reputed to be the greatest American playwright of the 20th century. And it’s true that his most famous work, Death of a Salesman, is a literary, as well as dramatic, masterpiece. But the same cannot be said of much else he wrote, certainly not The Crucible, considered Miller’s second greatest theatrical achievement (it is still widely produced by schools and professional companies across the nation). The play—which proposes an analogy between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s—is fatally flawed. As Peter Mullen once wrote in the London Times, “There were no witches in Salem, Mr. Miller.”
Miller was very much a man of the Left, and his reputation was burnished with the attributes attached to that exalted position: partiality to the great humanitarian causes of the day; a strong conscience; sympathy for the dispossessed and downtrodden. So it must have come as a great surprise to his many admirers to read Suzanna Andrews’s story about Miller in the current Vanity Fair, in which we learn of Miller’s abandonment of his son Daniel, born with Down’s syndrome. As Stephen Schwartz wrote for the Weekly Standard upon Miller’s death, “Arthur Miller’s life is the great American morality play of the 20th century.” Schwartz was more prescient than he knew; he was writing about Miller’s vindictive attitude towards his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. But it is this new revelation that ought to damage permanently Miller’s reputation, if not as a writer, than as a humanitarian.
Miller put Daniel in an institution days after his birth, a not-uncommon practice at the time. Miller rarely, if ever, visited his son (Miller’s wife Inge Morath visited every Sunday). Nor did the playwright deign to mention Daniel in his 1987 memoir, or in any of the “scores of speeches and press interviews he gave over the years.” Daniel was shuttered away and anonymous: when Miller died in 2005, the Los Angeles Times’s obituary said that “Miller had another son, Daniel, who was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome shortly after his birth in 1962. It is not known whether he survives his father.” Daniel not only survived, he succeeded. He triumphed over the adversities of his condition and his early institutionalization, and now lives, for the most part, independently. He has competed in the Special Olympics, and is widely loved and admired by the many people who have come to know him.
“How could a man who, in the words of one close friend of Miller’s, ‘had such a great world reputation for morality and pursuing justice, do something like this?'” Andrews asks. A good question. Miller left a quarter of his estate for Daniel, but a very rich man’s leaving a quarter of his estate to one of his four children is hardly an act of moral courage.
“Attention must be paid.” This line, spoken by Linda Loman, wife of Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, is one of the most famous lines in American drama. Through Linda, Miller pointed out the intrinsic value of a human life, no matter how problematic its condition. How tragic that he ignored his own admonition.