Arthur Miller failed a profound moral test. What should we now think of his plays?
By Steve Tisch, Opinion contributor
His plays prodded many to examine their moral fiber, yet Arthur Miller abandoned a Down syndrome son. Much like today’s #MeToo revelations, that failure colors his art.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1949, Arthur Miller was more than just a playwright — he became “a voice of conscience” for our nation. But “Fall,” a new play I co-produced with Todd Black, challenges audiences to ask whether Miller lived up to the moral character he celebrated in his own literature.
Miller was arguably the most influential American playwright of the 20th century. In “Death of a Salesman,” with its iconic portrayal of Willy Loman, he showed the downside of the American Dream. “The Crucible” was a parable about the scourge of McCarthyism. After refusing to name names before the House Committee on un-American Activities, Miller was a leading opponent of the Vietnam War. He fashioned himself a stand-up guy — and many Americans loved him for it.
But as enterprising journalists discovered soon after Miller died in 2005, the famous playwright harbored a terrible secret. In 1966, his third wife, Inge Morath, delivered his fourth child, a boy named Daniel. When doctors revealed that Daniel had Down syndrome, America’s great moralist was faced with a profound moral dilemma.
In the 1960s, many doctors still recommended that children like Daniel be institutionalized. But Miller went to an unusual extreme. He decided not only to leave Daniel as a ward of the state — he also decided to paint his son out of his life completely. Few of Millers’ close friends and family even knew Daniel existed. In 2005, when Miller died, Daniel was not mentioned in most of Miller’s obituaries.
Some suggest that Miller did what he did to save his marriage and the heartache he feared was in store for his wife. As a child, Miller saw an aunt overwhelmed by the stress of raising a boy with Down syndrome. Miller’s writing career had also stalled during his previous marriage to Marilyn Monroe — in which he often had to act as his troubled wife’s caregiver — and he might have been hesitant to reprise a similar role with Daniel. By the end of his life, Miller did secretly visit Daniel, and he revised his will to ensure Daniel would share an equal portion of his father’s estate.
Even so, Miller’s actions are surprising when you consider that many of his most notable plays explored the damage fathers could inflict upon sons. It is hard to square Miller the father abandoning Daniel with Miller the playwright writing about Willy Loman, whose insecurities, illusions and infidelities destroyed his son Biff.
Complaining that his boss has been insufficiently loyal, Willy Loman famously says, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit.” But the man who wrote that line threw away a chance for a relationship with his son.
Art is such an important part of our lives. It makes us think, feel and ask uncomfortable questions. But Miller’s secret life forces us to rethink the artists behind the art. Should we separate the art from the life of the artist? Can we take seriously moral lessons from artists who are morally compromised?
This is a broad question as America navigates a wrenching cultural moment, in which we are learning — or being reminded — that many great artists have done very bad things. From the predations of Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey to Pablo Picasso’s serial philandering, the stories just keep coming.
I first read the script for “Fall” four years ago, thinking it was a story of remarkable resilience. Despite being abandoned by his father — and stuck for 13 years in an abusive institution — Daniel Miller has lived a fulfilling life. But now Miller’s secret life seems even more consequential.
Like most everyone else, I read Arthur Miller’s plays in high school. They spoke to me then. They still do now. But what I hear just isn’t the same.
Steve Tisch is a co-founder of Escape Artists, an independent production company, and the recipient of the Best Motion Picture Academy Award for producing “Forrest Gump.” He is the co-producer of the play “Fall,” which premiered last month at the Boston Center for the Arts.
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