Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Miller, O'Neill, Moral Despair, and Tragedy

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Miller, O'Neill, Moral Despair, and Tragedy

Article excerpt

There is a shift in Arthur Miller's moral vision and his vision of tragedy after his marriage to Marilyn Monroe ended in divorce in 1961. In his plays of the 1940s and early 1950s, Miller expresses a Kantian, objectivist, highly moralistic vision of the human condition. His characters in those plays are depicted as having fallen into tragedy because they in some way have violated this objective moral order of the universe. During his marriage to Monroe in the late 1950s, however, Miller tried hard to actualize his own moral vision of a supportive and loving husband, but he failed to make that ideal real. As a result, he comes out of this marriage less moralistic and more forgiving of the ways in which people fail to actualize their moral ideals but also more in despair about the possibility of living a moral life. His plays of the 1960s-in particular After the Fall- explore this despair in a way that brings Miller closer to the dark moral vision of Eugene O'Neill's later plays, such as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

There are also, however, significant differences between Miller and O'Neill. In his late plays, O'Neill depicts his characters as being crippled by their sense of universal moral failure endemic to the human condition; as a result, these characters become unable to engage with their lives in any fulfilling way. Miller's characters, on the other hand, as Brenda Murphy (315-16) has pointed out, confront this same endemic moral failure but see it as something like Hannah Arendt's concept of the pervasiveness of the banality of evil ("Thinking" 159) and find a way to re-engage in their lives with a new, more attentive humility.

The change in Miller's moral vision after his marriage to Monroe affected the structure of the tragedies he wrote. In the plays before the marriage, tragedy results from some moral mistake a character has made, what Aristotle called hamartia. But in all three of Miller's plays in the 1960s, moral failure of some kind is not a personal mistake but rather a pervasive part of being human. In each of Miller's plays from the 60s, there is an accuser and an accused, and the vision of tragedy emerges from their dialogue exploring their relationship.

Let us begin to look at this connection between changes in Miller's moral vision and his vision of tragedy by considering his plays of the 1940s and 50s. One key assumption in his moral vision in this early work is expressed in the central theme of his first Broadway play: The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944). This play concerns David Beeves, who is financially successful during the Depression but worries that his success may be fragile because it is based on luck rather his own actions. Ultimately, Beeves narrowly avoids financial disaster through his own diligence and determination, and as a result, he finally begins to be convinced that he deserves his own success. The theme of being able to earn and deserve success is expressed most vividly in the play in Beeves lament in the middle of Act 2. Beeves wife, Hester, says, "Isn't it good to be lucky." Beeves replies:

Isn't it better to feel that what you have come to you because of something special you can do? Something, something ... inside you. ... Damn it all, if everything drops on you like fruit from a tree, for no reason, why can't it break away for no reason? Everything you have ... suddenly. ... A man has a right to get what he deserves. He does, damn it! (Collected 1944 50)

The idea of people "getting what they deserve" is fundamental to Miller's vision of ethics and of tragedy in these early plays. The people who suffer here all are guilty of having made some particular, personal mistake or of having indulged in some self-serving delusional reasoning about who they are and how they are related to other people. This moral failure leads them to tragedy

Joe Keller in All My Sons (1947), for example, tries to believe that his role as a businessman excuses him from moral obligations to the people who use his products. …

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