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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Arthur and Daniel Miller

There has recently been a stir kicked up by an investigative report in Vanity Fair about Arthur Miller's fourth son, Daniel. This son, from his third marriage, was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. According to Vanity Fair, Miller and Daniel's mother, Inge Morath, made the decision to have Daniel committed not long after his birth in 1962 (or 1966 depending on who is telling the tale.)

Miller is said, essentially, to have cut this son out of his life and of the public record, until his final act, which was to make Daniel a full and direct heir in his will.

The story received further note in the New York Times here.

I find myself with some rather mixed feelings about all of this.

I have an older brother, Michael, who is developmentally disabled and who is a ward of the state of Maryland. He was adopted before I was born. He isn't the sort of person with Down Syndrome you might see in an advertisement for the Special Olympics. Michael can be violent; he can be shockingly embarrassing and inappropriate; he occasionally doesn't seem to know who I am when I do visit him. Those visits, suffice to say, aren't frequent. But he is my brother, and I do love him.

The fact of the matter is, Michael is a part of my life and my family. The way my family and I go about navigating the complex issues therein simply aren't for people outside of my family to judge. I feel the same should be said for Arthur Miller, especially posthumously. It serves no one to bring this obviously incredibly painful issue into the public eye. Suppositions about the meaning of his behavior, interpretations and outside commentary; what purpose do they serve? Shouldn't there be some sense of decency at play? Isn't there any understanding between the difference between the public and the private?

There is a paragraph in the Vanity Fair article I find particularly distasteful.

"It would be easy to judge Arthur Miller harshly, and some do. For them, he was a hypocrite, a weak and narcissistic man who used the press and the power of his celebrity to perpetuate a cruel lie. But Miller's behavior also raises more complicated questions about the relationship between his life and his art. A writer, used to being in control of narratives, Miller excised a central character who didn't fit the plot of his life as he wanted it to be. Whether he was motivated by shame, selfishness, or fear—or, more likely, all three—Miller's failure to tackle the truth created a hole in the heart of his story. What that cost him as a writer is hard to say now, but he never wrote anything approaching greatness after Daniel's birth. One wonders if, in his relationship with Daniel, Miller was sitting on his greatest unwritten play."

This sort of grandiose speculation smacks of the worst kind of journalistic overreaching. To begin with, the judgment of those outside his family should hold no weight whatsoever. His public work consists of his writing. That, in the end, is all that the public has the right to judge. The idea that anyone outside of his life would be appalled by his behavior is, in itself, appalling. The idea that it has been offered forth by Vanity Fair for judgment, despite the clear wishes and intimations of Miller himself during his life, is abhorrent. If his own family or friends took issue with his behavior, what business is it of mine? Or, for that matter, the readers of Vanity Fair?

What's worse, here, is that Ms. Andrews attempts to somehow validate the existence of this muckraking non-story by stretching to connect it to Miller's playwrighting. That doesn't hold a bit of water with me. The story is about Miller's personal choices and his personal life, nothing more. The whole argument is specious: one could just as easily point to the fact that the Soviet Union banned his plays in 1969 as a cause for his change of artistic fortunes.

Arthur Miller was a celebrity. He was a playwright and a public figure. One of the sicknesses of mass media, unfortunately, is a belief that by become achieving celebrity, one surrenders all privacy. Perhaps we're resentful of the famous, and seek ways to humanize them. Perhaps our curiousity gets the best of us. Perhaps we feel we're owed the whole truth for our attention. Perhaps we love a little blood in the water.

Regardless, my hope is that the theater community, and the country at large, will have the good grace and good sense to leave Miller's legacy, and family, alone.


david d. said...

I agree. For the same reasons, I have always found it distasteful that any letter written by a literary great- no matter how personal or private the matter- is somehow automatically deemed open for study or publication after their death as part of their legacy. While I can understand that there are those that want to scrutinize every detail of this now dead, famous brain and therefore would like to read their every written word, I do think that writers and others, no matter how famous or influential, should be allowed the same boundary between their work life and personal life as anyone else. They should be allowed to have some control over what of theirs was meant for public consumption and what was not.

Or, to put it another way, I may love an actor's every performance amd would be first in line to see them interpret any role, but that doesn't mean I should get to peek through their living room window and watch them play with their kids.

Art said...

Thanks for posting about this Matt. I read the article and found it very disturbing on many levels.

Scott Walters said...

Hear hear!

The Playgoer said...

I concur completely, Matt. And I'm glad somebody's said it, so I don't have to. I was sent the Vanity Fair piece a while ago, before the Times article, and struggled with whether to even link to it. On the one hand it was clearly news out there in the major media about a major theatre person. And it's certainly of necessary interest to anyone who's a big Miller scholar, devotee, or just fan... But it's very difficult to handle this kind of story in a context that doesn't seem violating.--AND irrelevant to the work, regardless of the VF' writer's pretentious lame attempt to connect it. (You're right on, Matt, about the painful reach of that "Miller's greatest unwritten play" line.)

Now I'm realistic enough to know that such news about celebrities can probably never be kept quiet forever. And also, as a scholar, I can't deny I'm grateful for the embarassing autobiographical tidbits that emerge about writers in the past long after they're gone.

So my final feeling about all this is it would be invaluable biographical info for researchers at least 30-40 years hence. But right now, so soon after his death, it really doesn't transcend gossip, albeit true gossip.

Does it complicate Miller's stance as a moralist? Sure. But anyone who still valued Miller only on simple idealistic grounds is way out of date anyway. He himself already made much hay of his personal infidelities in his writing (where his leaving his first wife for Marilyn Monroe became his "original sin.")

Anyway, I'm hardly against someone writing and publishing such stuff. And I'm not above being interested. But something about the hyped up tone of the Vanity Fair piece--which had to convince us his would totally reevaluate his status as a dramatist--was more than a bit icky.

Especially given the clear reluctance of family members--like Rebecca Miller--to comment.