Arthur Miller ~ After the Fall ~ a close up examination of Arthur Miller’s controversial play, which the majority of viewers/readers have considered to be a portrayal and betrayal of Marilyn Monroe despite Miller’s vociferous denials to the contrary.
In his autobiography 'Timebends A Life', Miller insists that After the Fall was “neither more nor less autobiographical” than anything else he had written for the stage. Yet evidence in the text suggests to the contrary, marking it out to be a transparently autobiographical piece of work. Quentin’s life has been seen as a reflection of Arthur Miller’s own life in several respects, both privately and publicly but perhaps the most well known reason for controversy is the figure of Maggie. Maggie’s presence on stage was tumultuous and troublesome for the 1964 audience who had, just two years before, mourned the death of their most celebrated fellow American, the ultimate female sex symbol and icon Marilyn Monroe. She had died of an apparent overdose, after several failed suicide attempts, and it was believed that the character of Maggie was based on her. Maggie’s death and suicide attempts in the play paralleled Marilyn’s in real life. Miller had married Monroe on the 29th June 1956 much to the amazement and excitement of the public.
David Savran in his book 'Communists Cowboys and Queers' 1992, takes a very cynical view of the marriage of the intelligent playwright and the glamorous movie star. Researching press reports from that time he notes certain “innuendo” with regard to the popular opinion and attitude of the time. The announcement of Miller’s marriage to Monroe coincided with his giving evidence of his testimony before the House of Un American Activities Committee. Savran himself supports the probability that “Miller deliberately staged his announcement to coincide with the day of the hearing…” and that it was “…in order to deflect attention from his testimony and clear his name in the public eye”. Savran likens Miller at this point to another of his protagonists John Proctor in The Crucible:
Miller like the fictional John Proctor, had tried to capitalize on the rhetorical force granted the release of withheld information about a sexual liaison, using his relationship with a powerful and bewitching woman to vindicate a controversial political stand
'After the Fall' immerses Miller more deeply into the inseparable mix of private and public life. There is a merger of sexuality and politics, the author is the text and the text is the author.
As with many writers Arthur Miller kept a notebook, jotting down various thoughts and observations. After meeting Marilyn in 1951, Miller’s notebook had become the “repository of his guilt”. When he initially met Monroe, Miller had been married for some years to his first wife, so it would not be out of the question to presuppose that Miller experienced a level of guilt. Once extricated from his first marriage and married to Monroe he “felt guilty for wanting to flee”. The notebook contained scenes and notes about characters based unmistakably on people Miller knew. Whilst Marilyn was in London with Miller filming The Prince and the Showgirl, she found his notebook lying open on the table. In the notebook she read that Miller was having second thoughts about the marriage and he had made further disparaging remarks about her. In his biography of Marilyn Monroe, Donald Spoto wrote:
"Arthur never admitted he had made such personal observations, but his published memoirs and every interview he granted after her death expressed those sentiments"
In After the Fall Maggie voices her feelings of betrayal and hurt on reading Quentin’s notebook entries, in a way which may be reminiscent of Marilyn finding the notebook:
MAGGIE: What about your hatred? You know when I wanted to die. When I read what you wrote, kiddo. Two months after we were married, kiddo.
QUENTIN: Let’s keep it true – you told me you tried to die long before you met me.
MAGGIE: So you’re not even there huh? I didn’t even meet you. You coward! What about your hatred! [she moves front.] I was married to a king, you son of a bitch! I was looking for a fountain pen to sign some autographs. And there’s his desk [she is speaking towards some invisible source of justice now, telling her injury] and there’s his empty chair where he sits and thinks how to help people. And there’s his handwriting. And there’s some words…
Maggie is confronting Quentin or is Marilyn confronting Arthur? What is the authorial intention? When looking to define a text the reader (or the audience as in the case of After the Fall) is liable to find themselves caught up in an unproductive circle. The reader constructs a view of the author then the reader searches the text to confirm that the author knew what s/he was doing. The author is “’in’ the text only insofar as we read her ‘out’ of it”. This presents a dichotomy; knowledge of the author’s life can illuminate a text but at the same time the process of enlightenment closes the text down. The audience are focused on Marilyn Monroe and therefore, any other possible meanings, symbols, metaphors, image, grand narrative, historical voices, or themes which lie intrinsically in (or hidden in) the language of the play are lost in the focus of finding what the audience are expecting and looking for, which in the case of After the Fall is Marilyn Monroe.
After hearing a remark made by his friend the producer Robert Whitehead, regarding the audience perceiving Maggie as Marilyn, Miller professed to be shocked at the possibility that anyone could conceivably think in those terms:
"I was totally surprised to hear him say that everyone would of course reduce Lorraine, renamed Maggie, to a portrait, purely and simply of Marilyn. I was sure that the play would be seen as an attempt to embrace a world of political and ethical dilemmas, with Maggie’s agony perhaps the most symbolically apparent but hardly the play’s raison d’être."
It seems astonishing that Miller did not recognise the connection the audience would make to his private life through his portrait of the character Maggie, who bares a striking resemblance in personality traits and mannerisms to Marilyn Monroe. However, critical theorists Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that taking into account authorial intention is committing a fallacy, which has come to be known as “The Intentional Fallacy”. They insist that regardless of the author’s intention “the work is a public utterance“, therefore, it is now in the public domain and as such the analysis of the content should not depend on the “intent or design of its author” for its meaning. In contrast to Wimsatt and Beardsley, the American literary critic E.D. Hirsch challenged the notion of setting aside the intention of the author. He argued that a text can support several different and indeed conflicting interpretations and opinions. In the case of such disagreements Hirsch believes the only course of action is to refer to the author’s “original meaning”.
Miller was clearly aware of his own authorial intention as regards to the theme of After the Fall, which he declared was “the paradox of denial” and yet the author himself is denying the association of a fictional character with that of a character in his real life biography. Shortly after the play aired he wrote a one-page article for Life Magazine where he publicly denied that Maggie was a representation of Marilyn and stated that she was only “a character in a play about the human animal’s unwillingness or inability to discover in himself the seeds of his own destruction”. Hirsch recognised the subjectivity of the author, accepting that when seeking authorial intention, the author can lie. He is also aware that the lie may be deliberate but conversely, he acknowledges that it may well be the case that the author is “suffering from the erroneous conviction” that his statement is true. Regardless of author intention, real or denied, Miller found himself struggling with an “almost complete loss of control over the relationship between public and private” and was unprepared for the New York reviewers “vilification” of After the Fall and therefore, of Miller himself.
In an article by Howard Taubman for the New York Times, After the Fall it is described as Miller’s “maturest play” and regardless of its obviously autobiographical undertones Taubman praises Miller for giving of his own “flesh” and “blood” using fiction to enable the drama to “pierce to the bone”. In contrast Taubman also demonstrates that understanding the biography of an author and having prior knowledge can cloud people’s judgement at times. He asks:
"But has not Mr. Miller exceeded the bounds of good taste and decency in revealing so much of his life with Marilyn Monroe? For, of course, there is almost no pretence that Maggie, generous-hearted, childlike enchantress and sick, self-destructive creature, is anything but the late, beautiful tormented film star, or that Quentin is anyone but the author. Had Mr. Miller the right to go this far?"
Before the play was even staged, a section of the public had already made their minds up, as Taubman continued:
"Feelings are running strongly on this question. Even before the play opened I received protests from admirers of Miss Monroe. They had heard rumors, and without further evidence were indignant at the outraging of her memory
He does however; acknowledge that “she [Maggie] serves an important dramatic purpose”. Throughout the article there is no mention of the other issues and themes that permeate this play. The focus is decisively upon Maggie and Quentin. There are eighteen short paragraphs in this review and only one of them briefly touches upon stage direction.
During an interview for The Paris Review (1966) the interviewer asked Miller if he would agree that the portrayal of Maggie was a symbol of obsession. Miller confirmed that she was. Furthermore, he added that she was “consumed” by what she did, that success had become her “prison” defining who she was instead of providing a means of “release”. As suggested previously in this chapter, Roland Barthes believed that by giving the text an author it imposes a limit. Frequently the reader interprets a work based not upon their personal analysis and grasp of the text, but rather by looking back to the author for an explanation, as corroborated in Taubman’s review. By putting forward his theory of the death of the author, Barthes’s was attempting to free the reader and offer them the opportunity to gain their own personal appreciation and insight into the text away from the influence of the author. Barthes summed up his hypothesis by saying “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”. This last statement is confusing and contradictory, as he had acknowledged earlier on in his essay “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile”.
Miller has explored the moral ethics of being an informer in many of his plays. He made a particularly close inspection of ethics of informing in The Crucible and After the Fall. Whilst throughout his work he provides an arena for the display of justice and moral sobriety his own political stance has always been “complex and contradictory”. His refusal to name names before “the committee” is not what it seems on the surface. By the time Miller was called the heat was already cooling. “The Committee” were losing their power and credibility, and whilst he declined to name names, unlike Elia Kazan (who directed After the Fall and upon whom the character of Mickey was based) he was not considered a “hostile witness”. He spoke against the Communist party of his own volition. The irony is that, whether intentional or not, the use of the autobiographical exposé that lies at the heart of After the Fall makes Miller something of an “informer” himself.
Whilst critical theorists will continue to debate the essence of writing, authorial intention, and the ever changing meaning of the text, the audience/reader response will still inevitably, at times, be coloured by their knowledge of the author and his biography. For the 1964 audience of After the Fall it was to be expected that certain aspects of the play would override the author’s conscious intention to bring to the drama political and social issues that needed to be addressed for the wider good of humanity. After the Fall is richly symbolic; the dialogue is poetic and the subject matter of fundamental importance. The details of After the Fall are so close to Arthur Miller’s life that it is hard not to read them autobiographically. However, the play is an artistic creation and therefore it is dangerous to take it as a total truth of Miller’s life. It seems more rewarding to consider what it was he was trying to say regarding the issues of guilt and responsibility – which have been at the centre of all his plays, and as individuals, to reflect upon them and our own responsibility within society.