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Arthur Miller's 100th birthday, a rebirth on Broadway

Avi Hoffman plays Willy Loman in the upcoming

Avi Hoffman plays Willy Loman in the upcoming Yiddish production of "Death of a Salesman," theater critic Linda Winer's favorite Arthur Miller play. Credit: Arielle Hoffman

Oct. 17 would have been Arthur Miller's 100th birthday.

A century may not seem an awfully remarkable life span these days. But the playwright, who died at 89 in 2005, gave birth to so many stories of so many lives that, unless the culture forgets the theater altogether, we can assume some of his characters will be living their shattering dramas for generations ahead.

If reality played fair, of course, we would be embracing a huge Miller festival this season, a citywide -- even national -- blowout with many theaters contributing revivals of his minor and masterworks, with films, panels and the fistfights that his far-reaching, contentious, monumental life deserves.

On the brighter side, Broadway will have two major Miller revivals -- "A View from the Bridge" and "The Crucible" -- both with promise of tantalizing unpredictability, and both directed by Ivo van Hove, the cutting-edge Belgian provocateur and head of a leading theater in Amsterdam.

We will also get to see two relative rarities. Next month, the Signature Theatre, which dedicated its 1997-98 season to Miller, offers the seldom-seen 1964 one-act, "Incident at Vichy," about men being interrogated by the Nazis and French collaborators in World War II. And as we speak, the audacious New Yiddish Rep is in previews for Thursday's opening of "Death of a Salesman" -- in Yiddish with English supertitles in a translation authorized by the playwright. How fascinating to have the chance to hear "Salesman," Miller's Pulitzer winner and best-known work, in a different, but obviously related, voice.

I only met Miller once, for an interview in August 2004, in his modest one-bedroom in an unremarkable building on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was just six months before he died in his beloved country home in Roxbury, Connecticut, which he bought during his tumultuous five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe. (At 80, Miller actually hit a New York reporter who asked about her. I did not ask.)

Miller was a giant. His most powerful work holds the stage with the certainty of tires on cement. But he also was gigantic in person. He was even taller than I expected, a craggy monument of a man with a disarming gawky quality that suggested a recent adolescent growth spurt.

After decades of being honored abroad and neglected at home, he was obviously enjoying what appeared to be a re-energized career in a land so proud of its limited attention span.

He was anticipating a Broadway revival of his most controversial work, "After the Fall," and the world premiere in Chicago of "Finishing the Picture" -- his second work with strong parallels to his Marilyn years. (Photographer Inge Morath, his third wife and soul mate of 40 years, died of lymphoma in early 2002.)

Physically, mentally, creatively, he showed no signs of the cancer and heart disease that soon killed him. Amateur psychiatrists among us can speculate on the effect of the critical and commercial rejection of both works, especially of his new Hollywood satire. Although he continued writing throughout his life, his last two plays, "Picture" and the 2002 "Resurrection Blues," were never even produced in New York. And though I was thrilled by such daring late plays as "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" and "Mr. Peters' Connections," they were not considered successful.

"Arthur Miller, like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee -- and Shakespeare for that matter -- has gone through periods of being in and out of fashion," says Gregory Mosher, who directed an unforgettable revival of "View from the Bridge," starring Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson, in 2010. "That's life in the big city," says Mosher, noting that in the '80s when he was artistic director at Lincoln Center and Miller was "in effect in residence," the playwright was considered out. "Now he's in, bless him. He is known, of course, for his moral ferocity. Fair enough. But what really interested him was people, and that's why he'll always be around."

Miller, who wrote big, rich dramas about ordinary little people, felt himself a playwright for the masses in a culture that no longer honors theater as a mass preoccupation. "Being a playwright meant that you were talking to the public," he told me in that cranky but bemused voice that, for all his international reach, never got far from the sound of Brooklyn. "Now we're supposed to talk to what's called a 'theater audience.' I don't know what that is, but it's not the idea of a big public."

But young playwrights, the serious ones, tend to revere his work. Ayad Akhtar, the wonderful Pulitzer-winning author of "Disgraced," believes Miller's "enduring legacy is his capacity to think in terms worthy of myth . . . Yes, Miller was a consummate dramatist," Akhtar told me in an email, "a legitimate American tragedian, and, yes, a moral conscience. But above all, I think it was the ability to craft stories that more than simply linger in us -- intellectually, emotionally, morally: They go to the root of who and what we are."

Soon we can linger with some of those stories again. "A View from the Bridge," the acclaimed London's Young Vic revival that won three 2015 Oliviers -- including one for van Hove -- opens Nov. 12. Mark Strong, the Brit who also won for best actor, plays Eddie, the obsessed Brooklyn longshoreman in Miller's 1955 American-immigrant power play.

Next spring, van Hove returns to his new Broadway territory with "The Crucible," Miller's 1953 parable of the Salem witch trials but inspired by his contempt citation (later overturned) from the House Un-American Activities Committee. British actors Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo star.

In some ways, Miller himself may not have been surprised to see his milestone birthday celebrated on Broadway by foreign artists. His later career, after all, was mostly honored abroad and neglected at home. "Death of a Salesman" and "Crucible" ranked second and sixth on the list that England's National Theatre made of the 100 most popular English-language plays of the 20th century.

As he told me 11 years ago, "People ask you to say something. I feel you ought to say something. Otherwise, shut up." And, fortunately for the past and future of important theater, he never did.

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