NEW YORK CITY, Jan. 24--A decade or so ago, Americans could point with pride to a reigning triumvirate in native playwriting--Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller. Williams had produced two masterpieces, The Glass Menagerie and A Strcetcar Named Desire. Miss Hellman had recently followed a long series of carefully wrought works with her crowning achievement, The Autumn Garden. Miller had written a masterpiece in Death of a Salesman, and had just produced a near-masterpiece with The Crucible, which among other things threw a heavy and much-needed punch at Senator McCarthy.
What happened to them since? Curiously, all three went into a slump. Miss Hellman did an adaptation, tried writing the book for a musical, rallied somewhat with Toys in the Attic, and then, for the first time in her career, fell flat on her face with My Mother, My Father and Me last season.
Since Streectar (1947), Williams has operated below peak form. He has offered a stream of new and rewritten works--a dozen of them--but only in parts of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the old mastery evident. Earlier this month a revised version of Tinkerer Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More failed as decisively as had its previous version a year ago. More and more people are suspecting that Williams has been a burned-out writer for a long time; and many of these date the demise from the time Williams started undergoing psychoanalysis.
And Miller? In 1955 came a negligible mood-piece, A Memory of Two Mondays, together with a fairly successful neo-Greek experiment, A View From the Bridge. And then . . . silence, broken only by the wretched screenplay for The Misfits.
Thus an understandable crescendo of excitement followed the announcement a few months ago that Miller had readied a new play, After the Fall, which would moreover be the inaugural vehicle of the Lincoln Center repertory company. Thursday the work had its formal opening--which was a crucial test for Miller, a milestone for the Center, and an all-important event for the American theatre in general. After the Fall clearly puts Miller on the vacant throne; he is the most serious artist that native playwriting has seen since O'Neill.
One can now understand the lengthy gestation period. Why are we so impatient with our creative artists, anyway? Faust took Goethe 60 years to finish. And I do not invoke Goethe lightly. For After the Fall is Miller's Faust and also his Odyssey. Spanning some four decades, the work is an epic that probes the struggles of an extraordinary and complex "contemporary man"--Quentin, a lawyer--to attain one moment of perfect contentment, to reach home after long and stormy wanderings, to arrive at the truth--or at least his truth ("Speak truth, not decency. I curse the whole high administration of fake innocence! I declare it; I am not innocent--nor good!").
Besides its philosophical protagonist, the work draws on a Goethean, even Shakespearean gamut of characters--from a university professor to the almost bestial beings that infest Central Park. And Miller's language rises at times to impressive prose poetry: "The wish to kill is never killed, but with some gift of courage one may look into its face when it appears and with a stroke of love--as to an idiot in the house--forgive it."
Miller's major concern here is the one that has occupied him in every one of his previous works: the problem of intrafamilial relations (Quentin: "I don't know any more what people are to one another!"; "When you've finally become a separate person, what the hell is there?") and of quasifamilial intimacy (to Quentin: "You tend to make relatives out of people"). After the Fall is chiefly a picture of painful failures in such relationships, even to the point of self-destruction ("A suicide kills two persons; that's what it's for").
Though the play contains much of universal relevance, it is also to a large extent a piece a clef. Quentin is obviously Miller himself. The work thus is a significant autobiographical document, and takes its place alongside O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (although it lacks the sustained power of the O'Neill work).
There are Quentin-Miller's brother and father, and his mother, whose death he could not mourn. There are Quentin's two wives, both of whom finally find him "cold and remote." The first, Louise, is Miller's first wife, Mary Grace Slattery. The second is Maggie, a switchboard operator who becomes a celebrated performer only to succumb to sexual obsessions, hysteria, drink, and fatal sleeping-pills--Marilyn Monroe, of course. Quentin's third big love is Holga, an archaeologist from Salzburg who helps Quentin to confront the Nazis' genocide camps (twice she states, "No-one they [the Nazis] didn't kill can be innocent again," and Quentin muses, "No man lives who would not rather be the sole survivor of this place than all its finest victims. ... Who can be innocent again on this mountain of skulls? ... We are very dangerous!"). Holga represents Miller's present wife, the Austrian-born professional photographer Ingeborg Morath.
Lou, the kindly law professor who prostituted his writing talents for the Communists and commits suicide when threatened with exposure, seems to be a combination of William K. Sherwood and Clifford Odets. Mickey, who decides to name all his leftist pals before the House Un-American Activities Committee, is stage and film director Elia Kazan (this act ruptured for some years the close friendship between Miller and Kazan). Ludwig Reiner, the confidant whose name Maggie invokes from time to time, is patently Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors' Studio and Marilyn Monroe's father-confessor.
The Miller-Monroe marriage takes up most of the play's second half. It is an ugly and piteous picture; many persons will doubtless find it embarrassing, disgusting, and tasteless. Yet it is unsparingly honest. Miller does absolve himself of direct responsibility for La Monroe's death, but he makes no attempt to deny that he shares some of the guilt for the union's collapse. Over and above their validity as components in a work of art, the Monroe episodes constitute a precious document in the history of psychology; they provide the explanation by one knowledgeable, sensitive, and articulate observer for the inevitability of the suicide of one of the most celebrated international personalities of our time. Still, the truth is--though it may sound callous--that the raison d'etre of many people is to furnish fodder for works of art. A great work of art is often worth more than a human life. And it is not impossible that history will remember Marilyn Monroe chiefly through Miller's play.
From the beginning to the end of the work Miller has applied the scalpel to himself without flinching. The play is as brutally candid as he could make it. Perhaps, like O'Neill, Miller felt a compulsion to offer a cathartic accounting of himself to the public. Whatever the reasons, it took an incredible amount of courage to so bare his soul before all who wish to look. Literary history contains few such revelatory items.
Yet one must not assume that the play is wholly depressing or despairing. Near the start of the work Quentin says, "With all this darkness, the truth is that every morning when I awake, I'm full of hope." At the end he concludes that unbounded love is not the whole answer, either: "Whoever goes to save another person with the lie of limitless love throws a shadow on the face of God." But at least "it does seem feasible not to be afraid. Perhaps it's all one has." Thereupon, Quentin once more goes forth to try, with Holga; and, appropriately, the play's final word is "Hello!"
With its occasional fuzzy lines and perhaps a disproportionate amount of time spent on the Miller-Monroe affair (though even this is doubtless the result of being true to its impact on the memory of Quentin-Miller), After the Fall is not so nearly perfect a creation as Death of a Salesman, but it is much more ambitious--both in content and in form. Miller wrote some 5,000 pages in order to get a working script of 180 pages, which took well over four hours to play. During the rehearsal period Miller trimmed and revised, and the work's two acts now add up to a running time of three and a quarter hours.