Miller, Marilyn, and James Baldwin’s ‘After the Fall’ Backlash

When Arthur Miller’s first play in eight years, After the Fall, opened in 1964, many were outraged by his harsh portrayal of Maggie, a self-destructive singer based on Marilyn. Jason Robards starred as Quentin, the Miller figure in the drama, while Barbara Loden, who played Maggie, even wore a blonde wig per husband Elia Kazan’s direction.

Among those upset by the play were May Reis and the Rostens, all friends of both Miller and his ex-wife. The critical backlash was even less forgiving, and while Miller’s reputation remains stellar outside the U.S., in his home country it would never fully recover. One of his most vocal critics was African-American writer James Baldwin, whose own reputation has soared posthumously in the age of Black Lives Matter.

W.J. Weatherby would recall Baldwin’s visceral loathing of After the Fall in his 1976 book, Conversations With Marilyn.

“Miller was obviously writing out of deep personal experience and, although Maggie was only a shadow of Marilyn – the other side of Roslyn in The Misfits, the missing side that made her unsatisfying in the movie and hard for Monroe to make convincing – it was easy to see how Miller thought Marilyn had died, and why. But many admirers of hers were indignant at the portrait and the interpretation. James Baldwin, for example, was seen stalking up the aisle and out of the theatre before the end of the play.”

Baldwin’s disgust is also mentioned in Lee Server’s biography of Ava Gardner:  “Jimmy wanted Ava to come and join him picketing outside Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall because it was so mean to Marilyn Monroe.”

Whether Baldwin actually went ahead with his plan is not revealed. However, in a 1964 interview for Playbill, he made his contempt for Miller clear.

“If we were living in a civilization with any sense of proportion, a non-writer such as Arthur Miller could never achieve any eminence. It’s not Arthur Miller’s fault that we think he’s an artist. He’s watered-down Clifford Odets … After the Fall is the only play I ever walked out on. Anybody who could read it and not burn it obviously cannot be taken seriously as a theatre person.”

Much as I admire Baldwin, I think he goes too far in dismissing Miller as a hack. Arthur would address the backlash against After the Fall in a 1966 interview with Paris Review.

“INTERVIEWER: Do you think the push toward personal success dominates American life now more than it used to?

MILLER: I think it’s far more powerful today than when I wrote Death of a Salesman. I think it’s closer to a madness today than it was then. Now there’s no perspective on it at all.

INTERVIEWER: Would you say that the girl in After the Fall is a symbol of that obsession?

MILLER: Yes, she is consumed by what she does, and instead of it being a means of release, it’s a jail. A prison which defines her, finally. She can’t break through. In other words, success, instead of giving freedom of choice, becomes a way of life.

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel in the New York production that the girl allegedly based on Marilyn Monroe was out of proportion, entirely separate from Quentin?

MILLER: Yes, although I failed to foresee it myself. In the Italian production this never happened; it was always in proportion. I suppose, too, that by the time Zeffirelli did the play, the publicity shock had been absorbed, so that one could watch Quentin’s evolution without being distracted.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think happened in New York?

MILLER: Something I never thought could happen. The play was never judged as a play at all. Good or bad, I would never know what it was from what I read about it, only what it was supposed to have been.

INTERVIEWER: Because they all reacted as if it were simply a segment of your personal life?

MILLER: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Could this question of timing have affected the reaction here to After the Fall?

MILLER: The ironic thing to me was that I heard cries of indignation from various people who had in the lifetime of Marilyn Monroe either exploited her unmercifully, in a way that would have subjected them to peonage laws, or mocked her viciously, or refused to take any of her pretensions seriously. So consequently, it was impossible to credit their sincerity.”

Many years later, he would revisit the controversy with daughter Rebecca Miller for her documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer.

“The play addressed his own failure to ‘save’ Marilyn, and realisation that ‘people were far more difficult to change than I had allowed myself to believe.’ It was a success, but due to its shocking portrayal of Monroe’s downfall, was subject to ‘ugly, strident criticism’ and ‘vicious attacks’ in the press. ‘I managed to have an illusion that this wasn’t really Marilyn,’ Miller says, ‘… but it was close enough …'”

Finally, an insider’s take on the furore can be found in Richard D. Meyer’s Making the Fall, which I reviewed here.

“An interesting and well-written account from a university professor who personally witnessed each phase of the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, directed by Elia Kazan. (The author had access to Kazan’s notebooks and letters, which are reproduced here.) At the time, the play was the first produced at New York’s Lincoln Centre, and caused a great deal of controversy with what many perceived as Miller’s negative portrayal of his recently deceased ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe. It’s more academic than anecdotal, and the issue of Miller using his private life (and crucially, that of others) as dramatic material is never fully addressed. However, it’s still a worthwhile read for anyone interested in mid-century American theatre, or the enduring cult of Marilyn.”

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