Arthur Miller seems an ideal subject for a biographer. Works such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible have a resonance that extends well beyond America and the era in which he wrote them. As Christopher Bigsby notes, ‘there is never a moment when an Arthur Miller play is not being staged somewhere in the world’.
Two episodes in his life – his refusal to denounce communists to a congressional committee and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe – make him more of a public figure than most writers. He repeatedly faced knotty ethical and political dilemmas, such as whether to fight in the Spanish Civil War, what stances to take on Stalin’s crimes, the Soviet gulag, the birth of Israel and the Vietnam War, as well as the McCarthy-led witch-hunt responsible for his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and his handling of them contrasts interestingly with his peers’ responses. The story of his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents’ adaptation to America reads like a novel; his second and third wives – Monroe and the photographer Inge Morath – both had significant artistic careers themselves; and such colourful figures as Elia Kazan, Lee and Paula Strasberg, Orson Welles, John Huston, Tennessee Williams and Laurence Olivier crossed his path.
While calling his book ‘definitive’ is jarring hype (and in one respect, as will be seen, nonsensical), Christopher Bigsby is well placed to write the biography. As a leading expert on American drama, he is assured when discussing the plays or making comparisons with the work of, say, Williams or