In the summer of 1957, author John Steinbeck wrote an impassioned essay for Esquire magazine defending Arthur Miller's stance against the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller was defying Senator McCarthy's committee by refusing to name the people he knew or suspected to be members of the American Communist Party, and Steinbeck lauded Miller's courage and morality in striking what was, at the time, a very dangerous pose. Imagining that he was Miller, Steinbeck wrote:
If the charge were murder or theft or extortion I would be subject to punishment, because I and all men know that these things are wrong. But if I am imprisoned for something I have been taught from birth is a good thing, then I go to jail with a deep sense of injustice, ... and the rings of that injustice are bound to spread out like an infection. If I am brave enough to suffer for my principle, rather than to save myself by hurting other people I believe to be innocent, it seems to me that the law suffers more than I.
Clearly Steinbeck had nothing but respect for Miller and understood Miller's role as America's conscience. But there's another underlying truth that Steinbeck inadvertently hints at. Miller's choice is to suffer for his principle or to save himself and his ego by "hurting other people." Although Miller opted for the more difficult path in the case of the HUAC, his most revealing works indicate he believed he often chose the lower road, putting himself first at the jeopardy of his relationships with his wives, parents, and friends.
Miller accepts -- indeed, embraces -- the Judeo-Christian mythology that identifies humans as inherently flawed and believes that those flaws lead us in our ignorance to bruise and betray those around us. For Miller, the Biblical Fall resonates through every human interaction, and in 1964 he wrote a play examining that fall as seen through the eyes of one man trying to make sense of his actions. Miller, who seems to live by Jonathan Swift's adage "speak the truth and shame the Devil," clearly has devils of his own, as evidenced by the highly autobiographical After the Fall, now playing at the Speakeasy Theatre at Black Pine Circle School in Berkeley.
Rebecca Goodberg's first outing as the new artistic director of Speakeasy is an ambitious one. In this three-hour play, Miller dragged up all his own guilt -- not loving well enough, not standing up enough, not preventing his intimates from destroying themselves -- in an effort to derive some meaning from his life. In ATF, Miller was as unsparing of himself as he was of capitalism and class conflict in his more well-known works Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. ATF is not as noted as either of those plays, perhaps because it's not as focused, or perhaps because it's so much more personal. ATF is so naked, there's something almost embarrassing about watching it. It's a bit like reading an allegedly fictional story a friend has written; you know it's autobiographical, even though all the names have been changed.
The similarities between Miller's life and this play are numerous and blatant. Miller was married three times; his lawyer protagonist Quentin has been married twice, and is courting wife-to-be number three. Miller's stormy second marriage was to a beautiful yet deeply troubled actress, Marilyn Monroe; Quentin's second wife is a beautiful yet deeply troubled singer, Maggie. Miller became obsessed with the Holocaust; Quentin is as well. Miller went head-to-head with the HUAC, eventually winning himself a contempt of court ruling that would hold up his passport and in many ways his career; Quentin faces the committee in defense of a client. Miller's father lost his business in the Depression; Quentin's -- well, you get the idea. There's no need to rent a documentary of Miller's life. A night at Speakeasy will tell you everything you might want to know, and then some. As such it's a dramatic portrait of some of the personalities in his life (most notably his three wives, played here by two women).
Marin Van Young is outstanding as Marilyn -- excuse me, Maggie -- investing the role with all the slink, sexiness, and burgeoning desperation it requires. Miller was creating a monster when he wrote this part, considering that any actress who attempts it is not only playing a fictional character, but is haunted by the model behind the role. If you know that Miller was married to Monroe, you know exactly who Maggie is, and that means the actress has to deal with certain expectations on the part of the audience. Van Young rises (or falls, I suppose) to the occasion, giving us a sexy, lost woman prone to real extremes of mood, from the sunny carnality of her first meetings with Quentin to the shrill, drugged-out, self-destructiveness that ended the marriage. It would have been an interesting choice to make Maggie anything other than blonde and perhaps clothe her in outfits less Monroe-like, but it seems that Goodberg doesn't want there to be any confusion about who she represents. Quentin (who is still married when he meets Maggie) is intrigued by her from the beginning, but it's a shallow fascination, and he freely admits to a friend that at first he saw Maggie as a joke, "a pretty piece trying to make something of herself." But she's more than that, and Quentin is drawn in by her helplessness as well as her exceptionally giving nature. Maggie can't hold anything back, whether it's her affection or her rage, and Van Young doesn't hold back either, embodying her role completely.
Miller met his third wife, Austrian photographer Inge Morath, in 1961 on the set of The Misfits (where she was, ironically, shooting Marilyn on an assignment for the Magnum photo agency). It was a busy year. The Misfits, which Miller had written for Monroe to showcase her talents as a serious actress, would be the last film she completed. Soon after, they divorced; a year later she was dead, and he was remarried.
Number three seemed to be the charm for him. He and Morath would be married for forty years, until her death this January of lymphoma. A vivacious, involved artist in her own right, Morath worked up until two weeks before she died, producing (among other things) three books of photos with essays by Miller. The playwright had finally met his match: A woman who could take care of herself while building something with him. Inge is represented here by Holga, a German archaeologist who shows Quentin a concentration camp (Inge took Miller to Matthausen after they were married) and seems to have the clearest head of any woman Quentin has yet encountered. Sylvia Burboeck (who also plays Quentin's first wife, Louise) shines as graceful, dignified Holga and presents her character as both intelligent and endearing, a thoughtful woman who has been through tremendous difficulties yet maintains her poise and an open spirit. It's fortunate that Miller waited until Monroe was dead to write this play -- if she was as delicate as he seems to think, one can only imagine how she would have responded to his portrayal of her and her successor.
There's a lot more to this play -- taking place as it does in Quentin's head. The action moves loosely between past and future, juxtaposing his domestic trials in childhood, his realization that the architects of the concentration camps were people just like him, and his struggles with the HUAC. Just as in Goodberg's last production (the Shakespeare-derived Slings and Arrows in Shotgun's Black Box series), it's the romantic relationships that most often take center stage. Painful, cathartic, and often blisteringly true, this isn't an easy production, but it's a well-done, incisive look into the psyche behind America's conscience.
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