Sex, Politics and the American Way

By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH

The title of Arthur Miller’s play, “After the Fall,” performed recently at Speakeasy Theatre in Berkeley, invites speculation.

Some say it refers to the Biblical fall of innocence; others, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, who once was married to Miller. Still others contend that the title has to do with the breakup of the American Communist Party (of which Miller was a member) in the decades after the Second World War.

A forward to the play, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1964, appears to favor the former. In it, Miller referred to the paradisiacal innocence that existed before knowledge; that is, before Eve tempted Adam with that apple.

Quentin, the play’s protagonist, says: “Is the knowing all? To know, and even happily that we meet unblessed; not in some garden of wax fruit and painted trees, that lie of Eden, but after, after the Fall, after many, many deaths. Is the knowing all?”

Throughout most of the Berkeley performance, Quentin (Peter Carlstrom) spoke to the audience in a stream-of-consciousness litany as if it were a collective therapist, as various characters from his past and present appeared, declared expository lines, then exited.

Quentin, a lawyer, had been a member of the American Communist Party, but makes it clear that he did not want to be labeled as “Red” lawyer. Act II focuses on Quentin’s failed marriage to Maggie, a famous singer addicted to sleeping pills and alcohol, and on Quentin’s “finding” himself in his discovery of his love for a German woman, Holga (Sylvia Burboeck).

One line from the play is as apropos now as during the anti-communist witch-hunts: “We must be careful not to adapt a new behavior just because there’s hysteria in the country.” Quentin responds: “Not to see one’s evil; there’s evil.”

Another character states, “Don’t say no to evil; we say yes to anything.” Today, in the United States, many are saying “yes” to new laws drafted by the Bush administration that will effectively divest us of many our civil liberties, and “yes” to increases in military spending to the detriment of domestic issues.

Arthur Miller wrote, in his 1987 autobiography, “Timebends,” that in his search for God, he found “salvation” in Marx. He also claimed that should he not have found Marx, he would not have been in Salem two decades later, studying the records of the1692 witch trials, when he was writing “The Crucible,” the play that served as an analogy to the McCarthy subversion trials of the early 1950s.

Though Miller joined the American Communist Party, he was never a party stalwart. His analytical thinking led him to the conclusion that the hard Stalinist line the party advocated was not for him. He had joined, he wrote, because the Great Depression “was a moral catastrophe, a violent revelation of the hypocrisies behind the facade of American society.”

In “Communists, Cowboys, and Queers” (1992), David Savran wrote, “In Miller’s autobiography … he remembers those years [1930s and ’40s] as a time when he believed with passionate moral certainty that in Marxism was the hope of mankind. In the course of his testimony before the House Committee, Miller defended his support for a number of causes and organizations that the committee deemed subversive.”

Miller’s beliefs coincided with a specific historical movement. He came out of a generation of Left intellectuals that cast its impression on 1930s and ’40s American culture. He was in his teens during the Depression of the 1930s, when the Communist Party was at the height of its political influence and had its largest membership.

Paul Bhule, in “Marxism in the United States,” points out that the late 1930s was the era of the Popular Front, in which the Stalinized Communist Party prospered in the eyes of many intellectuals when it turned to the support of so-called “progressives” like Roosevelt.

But the party’s history, “from 1945 to 1960, was branded not only by McCarthyism, but by the animosities of its former supporters trading accusations and counter-accusations over the errors and crimes of Stalinism.”

Bhule adds, “Miller’s recantation before the House Committee [witch-hunt hearings] neatly conforms to the attack on utopianism launched by the Cold War Liberals who persistently associated it with ‘totalitarianism.’ In Miller’s final confession, he mourned, ‘I was looking for the world that would be perfect.'” As Miller confessed in “Timebends,” his journey “from a Popular Front Communist to a Cold War liberal was a slow process.”

At a short recess during his testimony, Miller announced that he was going to be married “to the woman who will then be my wife.” Bhule wrote that the question had been asked if Miller “deliberately staged his announcement [of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe] to coincide with the day of the hearing in order to deflect attention from his testimony and clear his name in the public eye. On June 21, Miller had become the protagonist in a drama uncannily like the one of his own.”

Bhule added, “The drama of his announcement presages the complications that would plague Miller in regard to his next play, ‘After the Fall’-the capricious, yet inexorable slippage between sexuality and politics, and the difficulty in separating oneself from one’s texts.”

Miller had been indicted for contempt for refusing to give or confirm names of writers he had met at meetings of communist writers. It didn’t hold so they arrested him on a previous passport denial. A year later, the Court of Appeals “threw the whole thing out,” Miller said, in an interview in 1966 in The Paris Review.

Asked in the same interview if his political views had changed since the 1950s, Miller responded that he was in deadly fear of people with too much power: “Now it’s a day-to-day fight to stop dreadful things from happening.”

Miller stated in his 1969 book, “From Russia,” that at the time (the 1950s) there were millions of Americans who shared the HUAC chairman’s feelings about rooting out and arresting all suspected subversives. “Given the right political atmosphere, the kind we had in the 1950s,” he said, “these deeply angry people will come out on the streets to picket movies and plays by authors they regard as hostile to American values, and given the legal power would unquestionably clean up our production in a matter of weeks.”

In December 2001, Arthur Miller, now 85, gave an exclusive interview to the BBC World Service, during which he voiced his concerns about the U.S. government’s emergency measures introduced after 9-11. In September, he said, he had spoken out against the government’s attacks, describing them as part of a “war against humanity.”

Also in the interview, he expressed his views on matters such as non-citizens accused of helping the country’s terrorist enemies being tried outside the normal courts by a military tribunal. He said that he fears for our civil rights and that the U.S. government could be seen as “taking advantage of the situation and increasing its power over the individual.”

Widely considered the preeminent American dramatist of the past 50 years, Arthur Miller continues to speak of stopping “dreadful things” from happening.