Arthur Miller's Debut

November 23: The Man Who Had All the Luck, Arthur Miller's first Broadway play, opened on this day in 1944, the playwright then twenty-nine. The play is a study of Depression-era struggle, though it turns the tables: while others around him suffer hardships, Miller's hero enjoys inexplicable prosperity, but his guilt and his personality will not let him enjoy it. He gets the girl, the cash, and every sign of prolonged good fortune, but finds in them only "treasures that rust, from which his spirit has already fled." Miller said that he wanted to raise "the question of the justice of fate, how it was that one man failed and another, no more or less capable, achieved some glory in life."

 

Miller first wrote the story as a novel, one which nobody wanted. The play, too, was a flop, closing after four performances and, as remembered in Miller's memoir Timebends, not a minute too soon:

Standing at the back of the house during the single performance I could bear to watch, I could blame nobody. All I knew was that the whole thing was a well-meant botch, like music played on the wrong instruments in a false scale. I would never write another play, that was sure.

But in the five years after The Man Who Had All the Luck Miller wrote both All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, each of which won a handful of Broadway awards. The Man Who Had All the Luck was not produced again for almost a half-century, as Miller's illustrious career was drawing to a close, and then in 2002, it made it back to Broadway, this time praised as "a fable about the American Dream," and "a national admonishment that [Americans] are not a chosen people but a fortunate one."

 

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men opened on Broadway on this day in 1937, six months after book publication. Also a Depression-era tale, and also exploring the puzzle of fate—why some are born to "live off the fat of the land" and some are not—Steinbeck's play had a successful six-month run, winning the Best Play Award from the New York Drama Critics' Circle.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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