Why is it that self-righteous scolds on abstract issues of social justice can’t seem to treat their own wives right? Doesn’t charity begin at home? I’m thinking of the playwright Arthur Miller, profiled by Deborah Solomon in this week’s New York’s Times Magazine because his second–that’s right, his second–play dumping on his long-divorced, long-dead wife Marilyn Monroe is about to be staged in a Chicago preview.
Miller is famous for his well-crafted “Death of a Salesman” (1947), which excoriates American capitalism for its heartlessness to little people, and also for his cardboard character-filled “The Crucible” (1953), which compares the 1950s investigations into communist espionage to the Salem witch-hunts (major difference unnoticed by Miller: there weren’t any real witches in Salem). To this day the 88-year-old Miller maintains impeccable leftist credentials. Solomon writes:
“’How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one [G.W.] Bush supporter?’ he asked with apparent earnestness.”
In 1956, Miller married Marilyn, a wretched mismatch that lasted only four years, and by 1963, Marilyn, whose career and sanity had been for years on a drug-befuddled downslide, was dead, a suicide by overdose. A little more than 18 months later, Miller wrote and staged “After the Fall,” a highly unflattering portrait of “Maggie,” a scold and pill-addict who tyrannizes her put-upon playwright husband. Mr. Lofty Social Principles seemed highly lacking in the fundamental social principle of compassion for an obviously mentally ill former spouse who wasn’t around to defend herself. As Solomon writes:
“The thinly veiled portrait seemed somehow beneath Miller, a man who had long been viewed not only as a major playwright but also as a moral exemplar, a guarantee that there was still integrity in the literary enterprise. His Willy Loman, the hapless protagonist of ’Death of a Salesman,’ remains one of the most affecting losers in all of theater. And Miller’s accomplishments are not confined to writing. In 1956, ordered to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to name names, risking jail and becoming an overnight hero of the American left.
“Yet here he was, in a play that opened less than 18 months after Monroe’s fatal overdose, testifying to her most private agonies. Her defenders insisted that she had genuinely tried to be a good wife and was scarcely the monster of selfishness sketched by Miller. Where was her sweetness, her friends asked? Her softness? Her idealism? She had revered her husband, looked to him for intellectual respectability, and the public had found them enchanting, as close to American royalty as anyone before the Kennedys moved into the White House.’
I’m not sure how “enchanting” anyone ever found the supremely self-absorbed Miller, who obviously couldn’t get off his moral high horse long enough to pay much attention to his gorgeous but pathos-dogged wife, an affection-starved orphan who clung first to men and then to drugs in order to supply an illusion of the self-regard she lacked. Look at this 1957 photograph (scroll down) of the two of them leaving the hospital after Marilyn has lost her unborn baby because of medical problems. Marilyn wears a pained, brave, hopeful smile, while a gaunt Miller is peering down at his chest thinking about–what? His speech for the next time he has to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee?
Even in a revival this summer, most critics found “After the Fall” distasteful. Solomon reports:
“’Instead of telling a story,’ Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic, ’Miller prefers to pour out guilt….The result is a seemingly endless stream of self-justification.’”
And it turns out that Miller’s brand-new play, “Finishing the Picture,” is also about Marilyn the pill-head. Its theme is Marilyn’s last movie, “The Misfits” (1960), for which Miller wrote the screenplay, and there onstage will again be (as Solomon reports) Miller’s Marilyn caricature, wandering about in drug dazes and delaying production by her tardiness.
Will Arthur Miller, scold of American capitalism, ever be through with scolding his tragically flawed late wife?