(a) "How do you find your way back in the dark?"
(b) "Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's under it, and it'll take us right home."
With these poignant words, written by Arthur Miller, two screen legends rode off into the sunset in a station wagon, never to return again. It was the last scene — and the last scene shot by director John Huston — in "The Misfits", and, unlike the others that preceded it, it was achieved in one take.
Two tension-free days later, Clark Gable (b), suffered a coronary thrombosis and was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where he expired ten days later of a second heart attack. In between — on Armistice Day, ironically enough, exactly one week after the completion of the film he had custom-written for her — it was announced that Miller and his wife, Marilyn Monroe (a), had separated. They divorced two months later. She died of an overdose of sleeping pills the following August. The "backstory" for the above can be found, in a veiled and fictionalized fashion, in the Roundabout Theatre Company's 40th anniversary revival of After the Fall (American Airlines Theatre), starring Peter Krause and Carla Gugino and directed by Michael Mayer, who helmed 1997's Tony-winning revival of Miller's A View From the Bridge. Then, in the fall (Sept. 21-Oct. 31), at Chicago's Goodman, the other shoe drops: Robert Falls, the driving force behind 1999's Tony-winning revival of Miller's Death of a Salesman, will stage Miller's latest, Finishing the Picture, which reportedly draws deeply on the "Misfits" meshugaas.
And, come Nov. 23, Miller will mark his 60th year on Broadway. He arrived with The Man Who Had All the Luck, which lasted all of four performances but launched the longest career run of any living 20th-century American playwright. That's a pretty staggering statistic, and yet it is sometimes upstaged in the public consciousness by the fact that he spent less than one-twelfth of that time married to an American beauty icon.
Marriage to Monroe didn't make it to the five-year mark, but all of it was spent in the intense glare of public attention, the press banging away with easy beauty-and-the-brain allusions. The fame (or fallout) of this, fanned by her death, has followed Miller throughout his life, but he brushes it away like an annoying gnat and writes on. A year after MM, he began a very successful, low-profile marriage with photographer Inge Morath. It lasted 40 years, until her death in January 2002, and it produced a daughter — actress-director-writer Rebecca Miller — who, married to Oscar-winning Daniel Day-Lewis, gave the playwright two grandsons.
Always and to this day, Miller has been guarded and parsimonious about his celebrated second wife, saving his best words on the subject for plays rather than interviews but always reserving the right to camouflage those with dramatic license rather than tell the literal truth. Finishing the Picture is the first time since After the Fall that he has come up with a character that conceivably could have come from Monroe — i.e., a fragile movie star who jeopardizes the making of her picture with her galloping insecurities. "It's a play about the effects of power on some people," is Miller's cover story.
No doubt Miller's reluctance to return to this well was simple pain-avoidance from the rotten reception of his first quasi-Monroe portrait — Maggie, the pill-and-booze-addicted singer in After the Fall. Critics complained that it was not so much autobiographical as it was confessional — and not a few thought he was ungallant in the extreme for sharing. "People never really saw the play I had written," Miller argues. "They thought they were seeing a play about Marilyn Monroe, and it was received as some sort of scandal. There was no persuading them otherwise. I think often it was because she had died. They had assumed I'd written it after that, but the truth is that I had written it long before she died."
You'd think from the initial hostile reaction that playwrights didn't write about their lives and the people in it. That's what they do — O'Neill drew famously from his own flawed clan. "Everybody does it," says Miller. "Who else are you going to write about?"
Director Mayer has — with Miller's permission and supervision — done "creative editing," reshuffling scenes and eliminating characters, to make it more accessible. "The fractured, nonlinear format Arthur was working with," says Mayer, "was so bold and new at the time it took precedent over the story. Monroe's death was still very present in the consciousness of the American public. People had trouble watching the characters without adding their own real-life scenario to it. Arthur has seen so many different productions of his plays over the decades that he understands that the core of his plays is so sturdy they not only can take new interpretations, they almost demand it."
Of all the major plays in Miller's canon, After the Fall is the least done. There has been only one New York revival — in 1984, Off-Broadway, with Frank Langella and Dianne Wiest in roles originated on Broadway 20 years earlier by Jason Robards and Barbara Loden. Faye Dunaway took the lead, opposite Christopher Plummer, for Miller's TV adaptation. The movie version Carlo Ponti was to produce at MGM with Paul Newman and Sophia Loren never materialized.
Now — 40 years after the fact (and the facts) — After the Fall is finally back on Broadway. "It's time," says Arthur Miller.