• U.S.

Theater: Scenes from A Marriage, Part 2

4 minute read
Richard Zoglin/Chicago

Before Charles and Di or Tom and Nicole or Britney and that guy standing next to her in all the wedding photos, there were Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, the real celebrity couple of the past century. America’s best-known egghead playwright married Hollywood’s leading sex symbol in 1956, accompanied by a media frenzy. The public couldn’t get enough of this owl-and- the-pussycat marriage, which seemed to unravel in all the predictable ways. Miller’s creative output dried up as he tended to Monroe’s career; she grew increasingly depressed and dependent on drugs. They split up in 1961. A year later, she was dead of a drug overdose, leaving Miller alone to write the history of the marriage. Which hasn’t necessarily been good for Miller.

He first tackled the subject in his 1964 autobiographical play After the Fall. Critics savaged it (“A shameless piece of tabloid gossip,” wrote Robert Brustein in the New Republic), particularly its scorching portrayal of the sexy, unstable singer so clearly modeled after Monroe. A Broadway revival earlier this year was almost equally reviled. You’d think Miller would let sleeping sex symbols lie. But now, 40 years later, he has revisited his marriage in yet another play, Finishing the Picture, an account of the making of The Misfits, the 1961 movie Miller wrote for his wife, which turned out to be Monroe’s and co-star Clark Gable’s last film.

The play (having its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, directed by Robert Falls) takes place in a hotel on the trouble-plagued Nevada set. The female star (here named Kitty) is too zonked on drugs to make it to work one day, sending the producer, the director and assorted crew members into crisis mode. Should they try to rouse her and see if they can struggle through another day? Give her a week off to see whether she can pull herself together? Or simply shut down the picture, dealing what could be a fatal blow to her film career?

Miller’s behind-the-scenes portrait of the filmmaking process is surprisingly evenhanded and convincing. He avoids two common pitfalls–no cheesy impersonations (Gable, wisely, is kept offstage) and no easy potshots at Hollywood. The film’s producer (Stacy Keach) is a trucking magnate who confesses he knows little about movies. Yet he’s not the usual power-hungry philistine but a sensitive, level-headed decision maker. The director (Harris Yulin, as a veiled John Huston) has to spout some of Miller’s windiest metaphors, but his gruff philosophizing is dead serious. The only real figures of ridicule are the pompous husband-and-wife acting coaches (modeled on Lee and Paula Strasberg) who hold Kitty in their sway. But even those caricatures (entertainingly acted by Stephen Lang and Linda Lavin) seem to grow out of Miller’s genuine animosity, not plucked from a shelf of prefab Hollywood clichés.

People who were offended at the way Miller treated Monroe in After the Fall won’t like Finishing the Picture any better. Kitty (Heather Prete) is mostly offstage (and when onstage, mostly mute), the object of everyone else’s analysis. They romanticize her fragility (“She’s been stepping on broken glass since she could walk”). They lament the burden of fame (“Everyone wants something from her; we’re no exceptions”). In After the Fall the Marilyn character (especially as played by the magnetic Carla Gugino in the recent revival) was an alternately charming and infuriating force of nature. Here she’s the wreckage from a storm, with the survivors left to pick through the rubble.

Miller views himself with the same brutal candor. The screenwriter, Kitty’s husband (Matthew Modine), is just one of many satellites orbiting Kitty’s imploding star, wanly resigned to a marriage all but over–and to the screams Kitty emits the minute he enters her room. Together with After the Fall, Finishing the Picture completes a portrait of a marriage that can take its place beside Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as one of the most ruthless and revealing in American theater history. For this celebrated, embattled playwright just turned 89, Marilyn is still an inspiration.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com