Magazine article The New Yorker

Talkers and Togas; the Theatre

Magazine article The New Yorker

Talkers and Togas; the Theatre

Article excerpt

"After the Fall" (a Roundabout production at the American Airlines Theatre) is Arthur Miller's Eugene O'Neill moment--not the O'Neill of the lesser plays, "Dynamo," "The Rope," and so on, but the turgid, self-consciously grand O'Neill of "Strange Interlude," with a little of "Mourning Becomes Electra" 's fraught familial pull thrown in for good measure. The play was regarded as something of an event when it premiered, in 1964. Not only was it directed by Elia Kazan but Jason Robards played the lead. "After the Fall" was also Miller's theatrical comeback after an absence of nine years, opening three years after the end of his troubled marriage to Marilyn Monroe and two years after her spectacular flameout and death. It marked a departure for Miller. A sprawling, less conventionally structured work than the plays that had come before it--"All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible"--"After the Fall," most of which is set "in the mind, thought, and memory" of its protagonist, Quentin, stretched Miller's technical and intellectual boundaries. He was searching for a new form to fit the new developments of his mind. Not everything about it was new, of course. Miller has always been a moralist of sorts, never more at ease than when contemplating domestic dilemmas that resonate with global significance. Urban, Jewish, and leftist, his best writing examines the work of the individual conscience when pitted against the uniform thinking of the mob. In "After the Fall," however, the mob is composed almost entirely of women. And Quentin is almost pure conscience--the problem being that he lacks the flesh and bone to make an audience identify with his joy or pain.

The time is 1962; the place, the transit lounge of the old Idlewild Airport. The seats, walls, and floor, as rendered by the gifted set designer, Richard Hoover, are almost all the same shade of gray; against this neutral tone, the characters' hair, makeup, and clothes pop out like nasty symbols in a dream. Miller's set direction reads, "Except for one chair there is no furniture in the conventional sense; there are no walls or substantial boundaries. . . . The mind has no color but its memories are brilliant against the grayness of its landscape." It takes a director with exceptional interpretive skills to render this description into something that an audience can both see and believe, and Michael Mayer is a great director. Not only does he give the set form, he gives the play form, too. (He apparently chopped out a significant portion of the text, making the running time at the American Airlines about two hours and thirty minutes.)

As the play begins, Quentin (Peter Krause), a lawyer, enters the lounge in a hurry. He's there to pick up Holga (Vivienne Benesch), a German archeologist whom he met abroad a few months before and who is on her way to a conference at Columbia University. "I never thought it could happen again," Quentin says to the audience--the lion's share of his comments are addressed to the house--with a sad, wistful smile. He has been married and divorced twice: first to the dry, witty Louise (the perfectly cast Jessica Hecht), and then to Maggie (Carla Gugino, making a phenomenal Broadway debut). Now he has a third chance at happiness. But first he must explore, in emotional flashback, the mistakes of the past. Already Mayer has substantially improved the text, by working with Miller to pare away at Quentin's opening speech. Quentin addresses an absent "Listener," whom we assume is God, or some other patient deity--he has to be patient, because Quentin just talks and talks. By way of introducing us to his "tortured" consciousness, for example, he says (in a passage that remains intact in the current production):

You know, more and more I think that for many years I looked at life like a case at law, a series of proofs. When you're young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful, or what-the-hell-ever. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.