There is a sort of lower intestinal theory going about these days to account for and perhaps excuse the current fiasco at the Theater of the Lincoln Arts Center. The argument being that After the Fall must be regarded as something which Arthur Miller had to get out of his system and that if only people had the decency to leave him alone (Christ! Fair’s fair!) he will now come out with something really big (He’s already working on the new play, y’know.) This spiritual gastro-enterology has never seemed very convincing; I do not appreciate the categorical imperative for getting things out of the system—or at least not in public. Moreover there seems to be no reason to suspect, from what he has done in the past, that this present evacuation is going to be followed by anything at all, except perhaps more of the same. Arthur Miller has always been the owner of a sound, but essentially minor, talent and no amount of purgation can improve the quality of whatever there may be to follow. As it is, however, those qualities which he has, substantial as they are, always seem to overreach themselves, straining after a magnitude for which they are simply not fitted. And in the few years that he has been away, on Sinai it would seem, Miller has developed an absurd literary hubris, puffing himself up like an idiotic bull-frog in Aesop.
The play is surrounded by devices that make it look bigger than it really is. For one thing it is very long, which seems to carry an awful lot of weight with the audience. The location is cunningly chosen too, for the play is set “in the mind, thought and memory of Quentin.” Just like Death of a Salesman, which was to have been called Inside His Head. With “your average B’way audience,” conditioned by popular psychology and by the fifth-hand derivatives of a long forgotten avant garde, this cranial venue commands immediate reverence. “The mind of man! Jeez! That’s just about the most important place in the whole world.” For “your average B’way middlebrow,” his shelves a-creak with Will Durant, the mind or the brain or the head is the most privileged cultural enclosure of all and what goes on inside it is necessarily more literary than that which does not. So we get the arena stage turned into a bumpily upholstered basin which represents the inside of Quentin’s head, the outside of which is played with the usual quizzical, ogling monotony by Jason Robards. With Quentin (get that name!) as storm center, the action swirls about in free-associational eddies and “people appear and disappear instantaneously, as in the mind…the effect, therefore, will be the surging, flitting, instaneousness of a mind questing over its own surfaces and depths….”
Like the location inside the head, this free psychic line of action, with its flitting and surging, can make an audience feel that it is in on something big and philosophical, especially if the set is it, as it is in this case, to reproduce the suggestive chiaroscuro of the mind. The play, as noted, is built around the three marriages of the author; starting with the withered frustration of the first, it reaches a controversial climax in the Monroe episode before it finishes in the hopeful calm of the third marriage. Onto this matrimonial armature Miller has then wound a wretchedly pompous soliloquy which maunders on, quite unforgiveably, about the cruelty of love, the indifference of personal friendship, betrayal, and about man’s inhumanity to man (“What burning cities taught her and the death of love taught me—that we are dangerous”). Through the drone one is always picking out the jangled harmonics of the poetry from which this stuff is derived. How about “Is the knowing all? To know and even happily that we meet unblessed; not in some garden of wax fruit and painted trees, that lie of Eden, but after, after the Fall, after many, many deaths. Is the knowing all?” I smell Burnt Norton.
Elsewhere the play rises to the heights of Paddy Chayefsky with some brisk Middle of the Night family squabbles and some convincing marital scraps. The central “Marilyn” part is useful only by virtue of the smokescreen of controversy which it has generated. The scenes themselves are perfectly standard business, done better by Jeff Chandler and Kim Novak in the Jeanne Eagels Story. As for the brave bit about “who named names” this is no more than pop politics, a video-dilemma by Reginald Rose pumped up to size with rhetoric like, “They took our lust for the right and turned it to Russian purposes.” This line has all the awkward daftness of a foreign phrase book: “Halt! Our postilion has been struck by lightning and his lust for the right turned to Russian purposes.”
Miller has also made what seems like an utterly cynical use of the concentration camp image, in order to make his personal drama cast bigger shadows. At the back of the set is a large concrete block representing the ruined watch-tower of a camp. At appropriate points in the action this piece of scenery lights up balefully to indicate the larger implications of some personal outrage. This is a dismally didactic irony and seems, in addition, to be a cheap way of basking in reflected atrocity. The point at issue, however, is not the tastelessness of the play. The self-righteous outcry of a rabidly prurient public is far more odious than any supposed malice on the part of the author. The controversy is convenient for Miller however. It allows him to defend an irrelevant salient so that attention is taken away from the boring inadequacy of the play itself.
That inadequacy, however, is not accidental, nor are the rhetorical tricks with which it strains after something better. Both the inner frailty and the pretension lie at the core of Miller’s dramatic capacity. The comparison with Reginald Rose is more than a passing snub, for it actually makes reference to an enduring affinity between Miller and the sturdy, footling craftsmen of “liberal” telly. Stripped of its tricks, and with the soliloquies cut, and so on, After the Fall shrinks to its proper proportion, as a sequence of sketches for The Defenders and The Eleventh Hour. Thus, the appearance of this play as the first item on the agenda of this new national theater does not seem so amazing as one might think. There is an important piece of social history still to be carried on, which traces that uneasy and yet intimate alliance between the Thirties Left and the slick commercial liberalism of both Broadway and television drama.
March 5, 1964