The Magazine

The Moral of Arthur Miller

The real lessons of America's most famous playwright.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Of course, many Americans remember Miller for something far from the lives of waterfront workers: his marriage to Marilyn Monroe from 1956 to 1961. The relationship was as political and social, in the Marxist sense, as it was psychological and sexual. Each was drawn to the other by a particular discontent. Monroe was inhabited by a desperate need to be taken seriously as an actress and as a person. Miller's capture of the most desirable female in the world was seen by his leftist admirers as their ultimate revenge after the humiliations they had suffered at the hands of anti-Communist union leaders, social democratic and other anti-Stalinist intellectuals, and congressional investigative committees. If the Communists could not seduce America, the "Lincolnesque" Miller had, at least, seduced The Goddess.

Sexual politics has a unique allure. The liaison of Trotsky and the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, played on the screen by the steaming Salma Hayek in a recent film, keeps the old Bolshevik's name current among many for whom Trotsky's confrontations with Stalin mean little. Leftist acrimony was a deeply established element in Miller's personality. In his plays and interviews, he expressed his barely concealed rage at the society around him, which had disappointed him by its indifference to the simple verities of the 1930s left, both politically and in its aesthetic tastes. He never forgave American theater-goers for the turn in their affections from political pantomime to absurdist and other styles.

AND SIMILARLY, he never absolved Marilyn Monroe for ending their marriage, soon after completion of The Misfits--a film about an uprooted cowboy, his friends, and a divorcée--written by Miller and released in 1961. One year and six months after its premiere, Monroe was dead from a fatal dose of barbiturates. Hollywood insiders have argued that Miller was cruel to her: Not only did he fail to provide her the reputation for artistic seriousness she craved, he and his circle held her in visible contempt for failing to share their political orientation. The Misfits was filmed in the Nevada desert in the height of summer, and the assignment proved extremely taxing for its male lead, Clark Gable, no less than for Monroe. Gable died of a heart attack shortly after the production wrapped up. Miller, who saw Monroe slipping away from him, and hated to let her go, had adopted the devastating habit of overanalyzing her every change in mood, which drove her deeper into depression.

The Misfits was directed by John Huston, who kept his camera trained on the outstanding features of Monroe's body, but the real theme was the same as that of Death of a Salesman. Gable, as the cowboy Gaylord Langland, and Eli Wallach, playing his sidekick Guido, have been shortchanged by American enterprise. They refuse to "work for wages," and instead hunt stray horses for sale as pet food. Miller's America was always a bleak, unrewarding place; but his social consciousness masked a personal heartlessness. His sense of America as a land of despair reinforced his permanent anger at the insufficiency of the adulation he received from critics as well as the public.

BUT FEW IMAGINED how deep his rancor went until 1964, when his play After the Fall was produced on Broadway. Aside from exhuming old Miller obsessions with governmental investigations of communism, After the Fall exposes a tortured intimacy between a lawyer, Quentin, and his second wife, the beautiful and highly sexual but dumb, corrupt, and drugged-out Maggie, a television star. Maggie is portrayed as the ultimate harridan, demanding that Quentin fulfill demeaning orders, enraged and jealous, and even accusing him of homosexuality. In a terrible scene, the couple fight over a bottle of pills and Quentin is tempted to kill Maggie.

Miller claimed, disingenuously, not to have imagined that the public would perceive this portrait as a vicious caricature of Marilyn Monroe. But they did, and little but condemnation would come to Miller for After the Fall. Robert Brustein, in a much-quoted review in the New Republic, called the play "a three and one half hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness . . . there is a misogynistic strain in the play which the author does not seem to recognize. . . . He has created a shameless piece of tabloid gossip, an act of exhibitionism which makes us all voyeurs, . . . a wretched piece of dramatic writing." Those who understand the milieu from which Miller sprang will recognize something else in After the Fall: a classic Stalinist hatchet job, turned against a most unlikely target.