Book Review

After the Fall by Arthur Miller

thoughts on avoiding the canon

written may 2nd 2020

Every time I read Arthur Miller I find myself gushing like a hyperventilating mess and almost frothing at the mouth in excitement.

Arthur Miller is the kind of writer I wish I didn’t enjoy as much as I do. As a writer to love, he’s more than a bit cliched, and though I don’t read his books very often, I find myself very very regularly drawn to the “Mi” shelves of the plays/dramas sections of secondhand bookstores staring wistfully at the many gorgeous paperback editions of his texts.

After the Fall is a book I’ve fondled numerous times in dingy, musty shops over the past decade or so, and when I found this sexy Bantam Books edition from January 1965 (yes, the month is specified), I finally found myself unable to resist any longer.

Arthur Miller writes about his marriage with Marilyn Monroe in an acclaimed play whose intricacies and wider themes I know nothing about? Yes, please!

Of course, I knew the relationship would end badly and that the Monroe-foil would almost certainly end up dead by suicide, but I didn’t know how or what or when or why she would get there. The play was gorgeous, and I read it in two sittings (an act each time) either side of a Friday night sleep. Perfect.

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I think one of the reasons why I’ve never blasted my way through Miller’s oeuvre is due to a lame and almost-teenage sense of snobbery towards his work.

Arthur Miller is someone whose plays were on the syllabus in high school: both The Crucible and A View from the Bridge were texts we read in detail in English literature and/or Theatre Studies classes as a teenager. Though I enjoyed them both very much at the time – and “a bird in the rafters” became a staple reference for my wanky little group of friends – no Arthur Miller texts were included during my undergraduate degree nor during my postgraduate one either (though the second one makes sense as there was no drama, that I can recall. By that I mean there were no scripts, no theatrical texts. There – for me, at least – wasn’t any “drama” either during my MA year, at least none involved with school. My grandmother slowly died of cancer that year and in my non-school time I reentered the hospitality industry and did a lot of partying and met many people who I still consider close friends, but nothing particularly eventful happened in the classroom. I’ve never fucked or dated anyone I met because of my MA and I’m 99% certain I never even kissed anyone either, and none of the “connections” I made there have had any (noticeable!) influence on my literary career to date. I also pretty-much-abandoned fiction as a form afterwards, which was what I’d spent most of my time on the course focused upon, and though my semester spent studying Life Writing was valuable and where I first wrote the essay that forms my 2019 prose chapbook My Father, From A Distance and where I workshopped the essay ‘My Mother, From A Distance’ which forms part of my forthcoming book the pleasure of regret (Broken Sleep Books, late 2020) and wrote some passages that form part of the essay ‘like a pansexual roger moore’ (also in the pleasure of regret) though none of them did I show to anyone until 2019, so- sorry, where was I?) and so I found myself thinking of Arthur Miller as a writer for teenagers.

If Miller could be read and enjoyed by the pretty, provincial, naif that was pre-Manley Scott Hadley, then surely Miller couldn’t be read and enjoyed by the wise, bald-but-beautiful, poet that is Scott Manley Hadley.

This, of course, was absurd.

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After The Fall is set inside the head of Quentin, the Miller-foil. Rather than a playwright, he is a lawyer, and rather than an actor, Maggie (the Monroe-foil) is a singer, a popstar.

Switching between memories of childhood, of a later-life romance with a German woman who takes him on a tour of a concentration camp, of the dissolution of his first marriage as well as of the entirety of his romance with Maggie, Miller uses Quentin to explore, devastatingly, his personal failings not just as a lover, but as a [hu]man.

The parallels between Miller’s personal life and Quentin’s fictional one were well-known when the play was written and performed, and all of the pull quotes and blurbs included on this paperback howl to make the reader cognisant of the parallels.

Miller’s portrayal of Monroe is pretty reductive, to be honest: she’s gorgeous, sexually active, optimistic, talented, depressed, horny, angry, jealous and then suicidal without any scenes where she isn’t displaying any extremes of emotion, but the text isn’t about “her” in as much as it is about Quentin’s (Miller’s) failures as a husband: when their marriage (Quentin’s second) collapses, the language used by Maggie matches that of Louisa (his first wife): their characters are [otherwise] written with clear and complex differences, but what hurts them is the same behaviour.

Miller sees his faults as a human: his self-absorption, his disinterest in his lovers once he’s “got” them (not as in “fucked them once”, but as in “got them to marry him”) and his fear – knowing the toll his poor relationship behaviours had on Maggie (i.e. a contributing factor in her suicide) – that this will repeat with the new lover who takes him to a concentration camp.

Having just (between these paragraphs) done a bit of reading about the real-life marriage the play expands on, both of the real people involved were messier and more at fault than they appear in Miller’s fictionalisation. Quentin, the lawyer, is very articulate though relatively (not entirely) chaste: in real life, both Miller and Monroe were openly fucking other people and openly livid that the other was fucking other people (according to Wikipedia).

I dunno how much an analysis or comparison between real life and After the Fall is of use, particularly when it’s as brief as what I’ve provided, but this play was an incredible piece of literature and I need to stay stronger and less undergraduate snobbish and follow my heart and read more Arthur Miller, and hopefully in texts that are a little less self-involved.

Quentin is very much a flawed character, but, still, it is he the text is about; his lovers and his wives and his friends and family members are objects that intersect with him, not other people. Setting the play explicitly within his mind kinda justifies this, though: this is not meant to be a naturalistic exploration of mid-century lives, this is meant to be an evocation of the thoughts, emotions and memories of a man very very very similar to Arthur Miller. As this, it succeeds.

A great book. A treat.


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