Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan: Miller's Critique of Libido through Ibsen's Method of Causation

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan: Miller's Critique of Libido through Ibsen's Method of Causation

Article excerpt

To understand Arthur Miller's plays of the nineties, I propose that we see these plays as excavations looking backward to explore Miller's emotional turbulence experienced during the fifties. That was the decade when, for the only time in his life, Miller stopped writing, a daily activity that for him usually had the force of necessity. We can speculate that this period of block, this pen-to-paper paralysis, may issue from two causes. During the fifties Miller had to undergo two sustained moments of crisis: McCarthy, his public ordeal, and Marilyn, his private maelstrom. These experiences form a psychic dialectic whose affective antitheses ranged from exhaustive entropy to explosive turmoil-or what Miller sometimes called "chaos." The plays of the nineties, for all their apparent surface departure from earlier Miller works, are in actuality a continuation of the basic human problem that Miller had always dramatized: the search to discover "the unbroken tissue that was man and society, a single unit rather than two" (Timebends 182). Miller was idealistically in search of what at one time was called a unified sensibility-a quest that for many reasons would prove futile during the nineties, but one that Miller did not abandon. Miller continued to mine the warring oppositions within divided subjectivity between paralysis, his public world, and "chaos," his private life. These two ways of being-inthe-world would not align; the center would not hold. In the plays of the nineties, at one extreme in Broken Glass, we find Phillip Gellburg, a character who embodies the exhaustive entropy of a libido repressed; and at the other extreme in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, we find Lyman Felt, a character who epitomizes the excessive "chaos" of a libido unbound. This article focuses mainly on the latter of these two plays. Many critics read Ride as an experimental and open-ended work-with even Robert Brustein shockingly putting aside what Christopher Bigsby has called his "vendetta" against Miller to praise what he took to be an unexpected turn in Miller's dramaturgy. Brustein praised Ride for being "loosely structured" with a "fantastical style" (30). By contrast, I would contend that all of Miller's plays in the nineties conform to traditional and closed structures incorporating a critique of a value system on which a character has built his existence. My critical inclination subscribes to the view that Miller never leaves anything in the air, so to speak, as he is not a playwright who would be inclined to resolve issues in a playful spirit of deconstructive, fantastical, open-ended undecidability. My thesis argues that The Ride Down Mt. Morgan presents a clear and definitive critique of a character who plunges into the destructive element of his libido. Lyman, the bigamist, is described by Theo, his first wife, as "craving" (78), and he is described by Leah, his second wife, as "hunger" (32). In Heart of Darkness, Marlow says that for Kurtz, "there were no external checks" (Conrad 42). While Lyman impales no heads on sticks to build a fence around his abode, he disdainfully treats the other as an object to satisfy his deepest, darkest, unrestrained desires. He pays no heed to social codes that caution against excess. What Ride finally reflects back to us is how intemperate passion blinds and how it proves no substitute for respectful perception and treatment of the other. No matter how real and intense the passion, we can never use it as a defense for saying that the end justifies the means. In Miller's dramaturgy, the logic of causation will not permit.

During the fifties, as reported in Timebends, Miller wrestled back and forth with both Sisyphean stasis and Faustian narcissism. The key section in the autobiography that provides a gloss for The Ride Down Mt. Morgan covers less than twenty gut-wrenching pages from 312 to 330. Following his success in the late forties with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, Miller began to feel confined as an artist by a first marriage that made him feel trapped and cut off from himself. …

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