Miller vs. Miller: A Battle For the Stage

There are two Arthur Millers. One is a great playwright, the other is not.

The first Arthur Miller has a clear, objective eye. Unclouded by emotion and untouched by melodrama, he sees the soul of human behavior. Even in a play where he uses expressionistic staging, like Death of a Salesman, Miller’s objectivity ensures that we see Willie Loman as he is, not as he sees himself. Let’s call this one Objective Miller.

The second Arthur Miller is blinded by his sense of morality. Rather than observing his characters to test his ideals, he stages morality plays that conform to them. In plays like The Crucible, Miller’s characters are cards in a stacked deck, lacking the autonomy that brings about a real theatrical revelation. We’ll call him Moral Miller.

In the autobiographical After the Fall, Objective Miller is struggling with Moral Miller for artistic control. Take the biblical title into account, and you can already guess that Moral Miller won. But while there’s something incredibly self-indulgent about Moral Miller’s treatment of the material – and something lurid and exploitational in his depiction of his second marriage, to Marilyn Monroe – Objective Miller sneaks in a few scenes of raw honesty.

Even putting aside the autobiographical element, this is a relentlessly narcissistic script. Like Death of a Salesman, After the Fall takes place almost entirely in the mind of its main character, a successful Jewish lawyer with the WASPish name of Quentin. In his three hours onstage, Quentin flays himself with guilt, reckoning his marital infidelity as morally equivalent to Auschwitz and HUAC (a preposterously self-absorbed notion). This is a life twisted into a vindication of ideals at the expense of a truthful self-examination.

In the Roundabout’s new production, director Michael Mayer collaborates with Moral Miller to absolve Quentin of actual responsibility: every problem in Quentin’s life can be traced back to women. His first wife, his mother, his second wife, they all want a piece of Quentin, and he can’t give anything at all. Advantage: Moral Miller.

By favoring Moral Miller over Objective Miller, Mayer chooses moral certainty over artistic ambiguity. But Mayer’s second mistake is worse: he indulges Miller’s most narcissistic elements by treating him like an artistic monument. It’s like Shaw’s comment on bad Shakespeare: the director tries to prove that Miller is an Important Playwright by making him as dull as possible. Mayer collaborates with Moral Miller to subvert Objective Miller’s best scenes.

Here’s an example. During a late-night domestic fight, Quentin’s self-sufficient first wife Louise surprises him by ending the marriage. In Louise, Objective Miller has created one of his best female roles: a practical woman frustrated by her naïf-husband. The always-great Jessica Hecht brings out the best in Louise as she speaks her peace fearlessly. After an act of watching Quentin ignoring her, we should sympathize with Louise. But Quentin’s been preoccupied with HUAC and the blacklist, which gives him the moral high ground. Mayer supports this sneaky tactic by putting Hecht’s back to the audience. Advantage: Moral Miller.

Peter Krause, famous as undertaker Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under, has a genial smile and a relaxed presence. But he’s all wrong as Quentin, a man torn up by his neuroses, the biggest of which is a need to portray himself as utterly innocent. Krause displays none of the self-deceptive guile that might make sense of the role, plus he lacks the hard shell that men who lived through the Depression and World War formed around their emotions. Krause isn’t exactly bad, but his guileless presence makes him a non-entity. The unfortunate casting gives the final advantage to Moral Miller.

Maybe audiences want Moral Miller in these confusing times, maybe he comforts us with his clear moral choices. But staging his plays that way doesn’t do the audience – or Miller – any favors. Productions like this flatten the drama into cardboard by telling the audience that the world is divided into evildoers (HUAC, Puritans) and tragic heroes (longshoremen, salesmen). Objective Miller knows that the moral choices aren’t so clear. But he’s been cut from his own autobiography.

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