Drama in Twilight
The good and the bad of Arthur Miller’s middle period.
Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By COLIN FLEMING
With their first volume of Arthur Miller’s collected plays, the Library of America provided one-stop shopping for what most people would think of as the playwright’s canonical works. You got most of the big boys: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge. But with this second entry in the series, it’s departure time for the intrepid Miller buff, or any reader keen to have a look around the back alleys of his mind, where everything got a whole let less traditional, and a whole lot more outré.
Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, 1956
After the Fall (1964) bridges the period between the early years and the often radical work found throughout these 14 plays, which are supplemented by a trove of Miller’s explanatory, prefatory, and critical musings. Voyeurs hoped that they would be in for a treat with Fall, the play providing a public airing of what went on behind closed doors in Miller’s marriage with Marilyn Monroe. Reading it now, you realize how disappointed the salacity-seekers must have been: It’s a labyrinthine, episodic work that takes place in the mind rather than the boudoir. It’s also an absolute psychological corker, and Miller’s foreword (which reads like a warning) is reprinted as well: “This play is not ‘about’ something,” he begins, before suggesting, “hopefully it is something.” That idea of actuality—the thing and not something that suggests the thing—is a constant here, even as the specters of symbol and metaphor circle around Miller’s protagonists.
The short, one-act The Reason Why (1970) encapsulates Miller’s mid-career aesthetic of fashioning drama that could exist entirely on its own, in a vacuum, sustained by its own meaning, but which also sends us searching for what we might think of as an antecedent for the action unfolding. In the case of The Reason Why, that antecedent is man’s fall from grace, in the Garden of Eden, as hoary a literary trope as you could find. But one doesn’t need to give a fig leaf about Eden or anyone’s fall from it to wrest meaning from this tale of two men sitting on a porch, contending with a rogue woodchuck. The latter inspires a lot of conversation on hawks, wars, and the classification of rodents until one of the men, as though he had just come up with an idea for a fifties B film, remarks, “He is monstrous.” And so he is; and put down as well, with a bit of ace marksmanship.
Not a lot of writers can pull off funny and grim at the same time, and while Miller had certainly mastered the darker side of human interactions, the humor in a work like The Reason Why feels newly minted. But as soon as the reader comes to enjoy it, it’s undercut: “Just leave him,” one of the men says, regarding the late—and not so lamented—woodchuck. “The hawks’ll come.” And just like that, it’s goodbye humor, and hello visage of the apocalypse.
Fame, from the same year, tweaks the humor/anguish paradigm and features a writer named Charley, a worn-around-the-edges figure one can envision stepping out of a Ring Lardner story. Our man has recently hit it big, and, wouldn’t you know, success is a downer. Miller excels at quiet details that spark both humor and sadness, and what we might term a sort of insistent nostalgia. A friendly bartender calls attention to a button dangling from the writer’s jacket, suggesting a fix. “No, that’s got a couple of days yet,” he responds—a man clinging to his past literally by a string. A reunion with a loutish ex-classmate follows, and we see how vaporous identity can appear in Miller’s world, and how it must be fought for: Charley is no more able to place the lout than the lout can understand that Charley the classmate and Charley the writer could be one and the same person.
Other works abandon the vignette approach for splashier effects, although with mixed results. Good luck with The Poosidin’s Resignation (1976), with its cartoonish dictator-characters talking in a patois that suggest nothing so much as Jar Jar Binks. Much better is The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977, revised in 1984), a blend of Pinter-style intrigue and the kind of double-dealing one associates with James Bond films. Provided there is any double-dealing. It’s one of those plays where no one seems to have any clue what anyone else is up to, or if anyone might be listening in, somewhere else.
Potentially bugged rooms make for lively theatrical fodder, where paranoia overrides personalities, and the true voice of the individual is challenged to make itself heard and accepted as fully legitimate. It’s a very Milleresque directive, as far as this middle period goes, and one that announces itself on every page.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.