Bigamy in Miller's the Ride Down Mt. Morgan

Article excerpt

In Plato's Symposium Aristophanes explains Love by supposing that "the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces"--and was subsequently cleaved in two by the jealous gods (Plato, The Symposium, trans. Benjamin Jowett, The Portable Plato, ed. Scott Buchanan,[N.Y.: Viking, 1948,]: 144). After the division, the two parts of this being, each desiring the other half, came together, and threw their arms about one another, eager to grow into one. Plato's idea is appealing because it explains the phenomenon of sexual attraction. The myth suggests that love is the union of two people, and only two. The Ride Down Mt. Morgan runs counter to this dominant idea in Western thought.

Miller's play is a moral fable--part comedy, part tragedy--with some sensual elements. Lyman is in the insurance business, and bigamy for him is a kind of insurance. As the main beneficiary of the arrangement, he gets two women; but the women get only half a man. Lyman is fulfilling the male fantasy of having two women at once--though not in the same bed. The plot, though improbable, is possible and the challenge is to make it convincing on stage. The man who wants, and has, everything is caught out after a reckless car accident. The dramatic point of the play is how the revelation of bigamy affects the three main characters.

The wives, who've never met, now find themselves in entirely new roles as they gather round his hospital bed. Though they are very different, and naturally quite hostile, they discover that they have a strong bond and, in their common plight, a certain sympathy for each other. They also, unlike Lyman, accept some responsibility for the situation. The cold, intellectual Theodora acknowledges that she was too critical and too cynical. Like many wives, she asks (ungrammatically): "Why does anybody stay together, once they've realized who they're with?" (Arthur Miller, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, 1991; [N.Y.: Penguin, 1992]: 69). The younger, warmer Leah, eager to protect her unborn child and accepting Lyman's word that he'd got divorced, realizes that she was too unrealistic about the possibility of a happy marriage.

Lyman--who wants both wives and had married Leah in order to keep her--tries to justify bigamy. But, as his daughter Bessie screams, he never once in his life thinks of another human being. Reversing the need of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock to wear a mask and "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," Lyman wants to be faithful to his own selfish character and "wear my own face on my face every day till I die" (29). …