The playwright who never got over Marilyn Monroe
By Jeffrey Meyers
March 1, 2012
Arthur Miller: 1962–2005, By Christopher Bigsby, University of Michigan Press, 589 pp., $65
Arthur Miller wrote his great plays—All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), and A View from the Bridge (1955)—from the age of 32 to 40, while married to his first wife, Mary Slattery. These plays, which focus on domestic betrayal, all end with the suicide of the main character. Except for his screenplay The Misfits (1961), his work was artistically barren while he was miserably married to Marilyn Monroe, and he wrote many mediocre works during his long and happy marriage to the Austrian photographer Inge Morath. In the last half of his life, though Miller abandoned 90 percent of what he wrote, the plays he did complete were attacked by Robert Brustein, John Simon, and critics in Commentary and The Partisan Review. Incident at Vichy closed after 32 performances, The American Clock after only 12. Having sat through his play based on Genesis, The Creation of the World—later made into an opera and a musical—critics saw that it was not good.
But Miller was honored in public life. Plays that seemed tediously familiar in America were admired in Britain; his moralistic dramas, which had a universal appeal, were frequently produced in foreign countries. Miller cruised the Nile with the Aga Khan, was invited to the White House, met Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia, directed Death of a Salesman in Beijing, won the Prince of Asturias Prize and the Jerusalem Prize, gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture, and was honored with the creation of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia in England.
Monroe’s character and his suffering during their short marriage, I believe, obsessed Miller for more than 50 years. He wrote three stories, a film script, a novel, and four plays with sad, neurotic heroines. He re-created Monroe in two of his best works, The Misfits and the underrated After the Fall (1964), directed by Elia Kazan, who had named names during the Communist witch hunt in Hollywood, slept with Monroe before Miller, and had his current mistress, in a blonde wig, play the character based on Marilyn. The play explored with self-abasing honesty Miller’s love for Monroe, her scorn for him, their unhappy marriage, and his inability to rescue her. Monroe also inspired characters in the plays Broken Glass, Mr. Peters’ Connections, and Finishing the Picture. In 1988, Miller received a $750,000 advance for his autobiography, Timebends, which treated Monroe more discreetly. Its dominant themes were the origins of creativity, the dangers of fame, the temptations of the flesh, the corruption of Hollywood, the commercialization of Broadway, and the betrayal of American idealism.
Inge Morath, birdlike and dynamic, capable and self-reliant, a cultured and sophisticated European intellectual, was the antithesis of Monroe. After she took Miller to visit extermination camp sites, the Holocaust became a dominant theme in his late works. As his theatrical career failed, he became more politically engaged. Miller protested against the Vietnam War, spoke at the 1968 Democratic Convention (along with Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer), and helped exonerate a young man falsely accused of murder. As the president of PEN International from 1965 to 1969, Miller helped free political prisoners who’d been jailed and tortured in Russia, Poland, Turkey, Spain, and Chile. The British academic Christopher Bigsby concludes in his biography that Miller had “taken a largely moribund organization and made it … a vibrant and effective forum for writers from around the world.”
The second volume of Bigsby’s life of Arthur Miller brings the total number of pages to 1,272 and the total weight to more than five pounds. Though Bigsby, who runs the Arthur Miller Centre at East Anglia, has already written a study of Miller’s plays, his strangely impersonal biography is more about the work than the man. His long analyses of Miller’s theatrical failures—he had no critical success for 40 years—can be tedious. The biography offers almost nothing about Miller’s relations with his two oldest children, very little about money, and nothing at all about his will. Bigsby refers to but does not discuss Miller’s affair, when married to Morath, with an artist named Edith Isaac-Rose. Though he mentions many friends—Alexander Calder, William Styron, Václav Havel—he never describes the nature of the friendships, never gets beyond the merry round of celebrities consorting with celebrities.
The book, like Miller’s earnest late plays and well-intentioned public pronouncements, is plodding and ponderous: “the taxonomy that decides the issue is no more than the order of an antinomian world.” Bigsby loses focus when discussing the insidious influence of the CIA on PEN and Miller’s support for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, causing his ostensible subject to disappear into a mass of facts. Speaking of those, the book is fraught with misspellings, faulty footnotes, and inaccuracies. It was Albert Camus’s publisher, not Camus himself, who “smashed his car into a tree,” and Dostoyevsky, not Kafka, who said if God is dead, “everything is permitted.” Errors like these, found throughout the text and too numerous to catalog here, further diminish the book.
Two of Bigsby’s best, comparatively brief passages are personal. He’s good on Miller’s secret Down syndrome son, Daniel, born in 1967, whose existence was first revealed by Vanity Fair in September 2007. Though Miller was denounced for putting Daniel in an institution and never visiting him, Bigsby convincingly concludes that by handing his son over to specialists he was following the medical advice that prevailed in the 1960s. Daniel, who has had a decent life, now lives under supervision with another Down syndrome man and has worked a number of jobs.
In the late autumn of 2002, about 10 months after Morath’s death, the 87-year-old Miller met the 32-year-old would-be painter Agnes Barley. They soon became intimate, and she moved into his Connecticut house. She realized that people were naturally curious about their unusual connection but felt lucky to be in love with him. She took care of him when he was dying of bladder cancer, and Miller’s sister recalled that Barley “was his nurse, his muse, everything good for him. And she was selfless.” They had more than two years together, and he left her his apartment on East 68th Street. The affection with which she describes her relationship with Miller is a high point of the book.
Jeffrey Meyers has written about his friendship with Arthur Miller in Privileged Moments: Encounters with Writers and The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. His John Huston: Courage and Art appeared in 2011.