Arthur Miller's Suicidology of the Stage: Suicide and Dramatic Form in Death of a Salesman


Nicholas Duddy


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On August 5, 1962, the body of Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller's exwife, was found in the bedroom of her Brentwood home. Tangled bedsheets, bottles of pills, a rotary phone receiver by her hand—the room resembled the mise-en-scène of a murder mystery, and in death the cultural icon received just as much attention as in life.1 Newspapers across the world announced her death with front page headlines that were both equivocal and sensational: "Marilyn Dead" (Daily News), "Marilyn Phone Riddle" (Daily Express), "Marilyn Monroe Kills Self: Found Nude in Bed … Hand On Phone … Took 40 Pills" (New York Mirror).2

Less than two weeks later, Los Angeles County Coroner Theodore Curphey, clad in a white lab coat, cigar in mouth, sat before a room of reporters to announce the findings of his inquest. He prefaced his ruling with a public appeal:

Ladies and gentlemen, I must be frank to state that in seeking in my own mind any justification for this conference the most impelling reason that occurred to me is the importance of recognizing that in the death of Marilyn Monroe she has unwittingly and unfortunately played the greatest role of her career in focusing the attention of every one of us living on the gravity of a worldwide problem that bathetically cries out for a solution.3

Sitting beside Curphey were two men, psychologist Norman Farberow and psychiatrist Robert Litman, who had helped the coroner reach the verdict of a "probable suicide" by performing a "psychological autopsy" on Monroe, studying her lifestyle, behavior, and character traits to uncover her suicidal state of mind.4 Solemn in their black suits, Farberow and Litman fielded questions from the press about Monroe's final moments. "The only conclusion we could reach was suicide," Litman stated. "Or at least a gamble with death."5

Farberow and Litman had developed this method of psychological enquiry while working with Edwin Shneidman at the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, an organization established just four years earlier as a clinical practice, public health agency, and research site into suicide. The Center's origins, though, date to 1949, the year Death of a Salesman opened in Broadway's Morosco Theatre. While Miller refined Salesman's production script, Shneidman, who would later be considered "a father of contemporary suicidology," analyzed 721 suicide notes pulled from a coroner's vault and compared them in a blind test to simulated notes written by non-suicidal individuals.6 This systematic study became a seminal development in the emerging discipline of "suicidology," "the scientific study of suicidal phenomena."7 And it is this investigation into Monroe's death, an infamous event in twentieth-century history, and a seminal moment in the contemporary study of suicide, that represents the nexus between Miller and Shneidman, the playwright and the psychologist, two men preoccupied with understanding suicidal experience.


1. "Marilyn Monroe Found Dead of Suspected Overdose," Variety, August 6, 1962, https://variety.com/1962/film/news/marilyn-monroe-found-dead-of-suspected-overdose-1201341679.

2. "Marilyn Dead," Daily News, August 6, 1962; "Marilyn Monroe Found Dead," Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1962; "Marilyn Monroe Kills Self," New York Mirror, August 6, 1962.

3. Marilyn Monroe Video Archives, "Los Angeles County Coroner Announcing Findings into the Death of Marilyn Monroe 1962," YouTube, online video, August 15, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAenczGuVJ0&t=112s.

4. Thomas Curwen, "Norman Farberow, psychologist at forefront of suicide prevention, dies at 97," Washington Post, September 18, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/norman-farberow-a-psychologist-at-forefront-of-suicide-prevention-dies-at-97/2015/09/18/68d9d86a-5d86-11e5-b38e-06883aacba64_story.html.

5. Robert Litman quoted in Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (London: Arrow Books, 1993), 645.

6. David A. Jobes and Kathryn N. Nelson, "Shneidman's Contributions to the Understanding of Suicidal Thinking," in Cognition and suicide: Theory, research, and therapy, ed. Thomas E. Ellis (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2006), 29–49 (29), https://doi-org.libproxy.library.wmich.edu/10.1037/11377-002; Antoon A. Leenaars, "Lives and Deaths: Biographical Notes on Selections from the Works of Edwin S. Shneidman," Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 40, no. 5 (November 2010): 476–491 (476), doi:10.1521/suli.2010.40.5.476.

7. Edwin Shneidman, "An Overview of Suicide," Psychiatric Annals 6, no. 11 (1976): 13–47 (17), https://doi-org.libproxy.library.wmich.edu/10.3928/0048-5713-19761101-05.

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