Stage to Screen: Theatre, The Misfits and the American Cowboy


The Misfits (1961)

by Medha Singh

European dramatists like Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg had a considerable impact on the modernisation of American theatre. Sexuality, guilt, neuroses, psychoses and a critique of the wholesome American family were subjects of concern to Ibsen, given his love affair with psychological issues. In the plays A Dolls House and Enemy of the People in particular, he sought to portray these subjects artfully on the page and seamlessly on stage. Thus, the bourgeoisie – known for relegating social issues to matters to be dealt with off stage – became something worth confronting in public life. Subjects that were earlier seen as personal were now brought to the dimension of collective existence. In plays like The Dance of Death and The Father, Strindberg transferred his understanding of psychological complexity to the stage, much to the satisfaction of audiences and critics. Of course, there existed a social class in Europe already schooled in Marxism by this time.

The American political consciousness was rather different from that lot around the time that Arthur Miller was writing. Miller was becoming known for his progressive values, for is vehement opposition to McCarthyism and for his brushes with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Indeed, Elia Kazan’s betrayal landed him a jail sentence, for which he was later acquitted. Another influence on American theatre was Anton Chekhov’s perspectival shift from vulgar theatricality and grand exteriority to more subtle, quotidian concerns; this played an important role in the formation of realism and expressionism in American theatre – the idea, for instance, of the subtext, wherein the use of a ‘pause’ or a monosyllabic response to an inquiry would be more expressive than (excessive) dialogue. This is especially seen in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters where love, marriage, infidelity and the failure of ambition in a family of three sisters and a brother are portrayed in the most natural of ways, to say that fidelity and loyalty were an outcome of duty, not desire.

A discussion of American drama in the 19th century begs a perfunctory mention of Eugene O’Neill, who is frequently hailed as the father of American drama and realism. A Stanislavskian ‘public solitude’ had gathered amongst people around this time, when realism began to take a more full bodied form. The term ‘fourth wall’ was coined by Denis Diderot and had come into considerable use, being reiterated by Moliere. Realism took on the assumption that the audience was watching a fictional world from outside, seated in the realm of this fourth wall, while the actors remained absorbed in their own narratorial roles, not acknowledging the presence of the audience, practicing a ‘public solitude’, as it were.

Between 1916 and 1917, the Provincetown Players of Susan Glaspell and O’Neill fame, as well as the Washington Square players, started producing realistic, ‘anti-commercial’ plays. Seeing how realism had been misappropriated by Broadway as it entered America, they sought to give it a new, more authentic, grassroots sort of ‘American flavour’. The group were committed to doing any plays that would obviously not be a consideration for Broadway where the soporific sentimentality took on a  usual routine: washed out family musicals that drew crowds looking merely to be entertained, never challenged or truly provoked to feel. Broadway appealed to an audience seeking theatre as an embalming salve to their tired lives, reaffirming their borrowed aesthetic sensibilities. Theatre going was not an activity that demanded much cerebral engagement.

Normally characterised by farce or melodrama, American drama had little to offer in terms of a realistic critique of society and the problems (or camaraderie) of its working class before O’Neill. Over one hundred years after Beyond the Horizon (1920) was written, he remains amongst the most revered figures in the history of American theatre. Before O’Neill, plays were largely written for actors, in contrast to the actors having to exercise their talent to serve the plot and dialogue. Depending mostly on the charisma and stardom of the players, plays aimed to attract seemingly catatonic audiences, dazzled by special effects and assuaged by bourgeois sentimentality and long-winded, superfluous dialogue. With the Provincetown Players entering the fray, one sees a very clear shift, most obviously in dialogue, as is evidenced by the raunchy sailor speak in The Hairy Ape (1922), but also in matters of theme and politics. Questions dealing with class consciousness, the evaporation of options in a time of emerging rampant capitalism and the stresses of war imposed on the economy, were among some of the important social issues brought forth.

For the first time, characters had considerable psychological complexity, with the portrayal of the inner life of characters on the margins being doubly intense. This came in the wake of a dying commercial trend that struggled to keep up with the evolving identities and problems of the United States. O’Neill’s characters were modelled after the people he met and the roles he performed in his own life, holding odd jobs to make ends meet during his early years. His portrayals of a struggling American masculinity, of frustration, delusion, failure, struggle and delirium were new and, concomitantly, had the quality of always having been there in the minds of the people. It wasn’t the newness of these tropes as much as their omniscience that gave O’Neill’s plays that familiarity. At the same time, he had a transmutative flair that often characterised his narratives. O’Neill had the tendency to bring in many classical devices such as the Elizabethan soliloquy, where the character delves into a full blown monologue to give the spectators a portrait of his psyche, an ‘aside’ which is not necessarily intended for the ears of the other characters on stage but solely for the audience; his use of masks and symbolism harked back to the Greek dramatic tradition, along with as repetition of action and refrain (in speech) to highlight dramatic purpose. These methods were all renewed in a new sort of bricolage.

“Anything’s better than wages”, says Perce Howland in The Misfits (1961). While O’Neill may be characterised as a realist holding a mirror up to American society, Miller’s narratives can be understood as evidence of a sole conscience that perceived the reality of the spectre, one that still holds us accountable, makes us acknowledge the truth that is plain to see, if we’re looking for it. To clarify, one simply means that Miller infuses the realist imagination with the poetic impulse. It absolves the viewer, and her psyche, from delving into plain objectivity, to the point that it ‘no longer remains art’, but turns into reportage. It takes her away from it, without having to lie. Miller takes a turn from O’Neill’s realism, to the mythic imagination that injects life into the narrative, and shows a real story chewed between experience, imagination and political consciousness.

After the First World War, Miller along with Tennessee Williams remained the most prominent figure in American Theatre, followed by David Mamet, until his death in 2005. In their writing, one finds a blend of realism with a generous touch of the poetic lament. This is visible in Miller’s famed Death of a Salesman (1949) and Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1944). In Miller, it isn’t just the character and their pathology that carries the story onward, but also, in Ibsen’s shadow, the psycho-social, that is the political makeup of the characters’ environment and its impact on the inner life of people. In Death of A Salesman, we see a man, Willy Loman, convinced he is out to do the good thing, for his family, for himself, for society, before, suddenly, we are given an aerial view of the whole project of life. There were numerous Willy Lomans peppering American scenery, buying into the American dream and its capitalist ideal of total freedom, convinced that they were free men, yet cognitively dissociated from all that chained them, made them quiet and lonely. The capitalist machinery, after using up his youth, vitality and intelligence, predictably boots him out when he isn’t of much utility anymore. Eventually, he kills himself, remaining convinced of the efficacy of the system until the very end, thinking that at least the insurance will take care of his folks. That becomes his redemptive sacrifice. Loman was a man who gave himself wholly to market forces, nationalism and the nuclear family.

Miller is adept at handling matters that he considers to be worthy of moral scrutiny and, in some cases, even moral repugnance. For example, in The Crucible, the key topic, witch hunts, is reflective of his own entanglements with the American government and Kazan’s betrayal in naming names. Miller had a way of transposing his personal life and unravelling its complications in his plays. After the Fall (1964) is an explicit example of Miller’s deteriorating marriage to Marilyn Monroe, as is Finishing the Picture (2004,) an exposé of the difficulties Miller and Kazan experienced during the filming of The Misfits in the midst of Monroe’s use of recreational drugs, her weakening marriage with Miller and her openly known affair with Yves Montand. She took to sharing barbiturates and vodka on set with Montgomery Clift, especially in the scene where both of them, delirious after their revelrous time at the bar, are sitting out back, with Clift’s head in Monroe’s lap, whose grief at his mother’s betrayal comes alive and one can see Roslyn’s (Monroe’s) disproportionately large sense of empathy, given her own experience with absent parents.

In The Misfits, eventually, we see a faithless Roslyn emerge as an autonomous figure, where she expels her hysteria, condemning the three men as ‘dead men’ when they get together to catch the horses. To her they are caught up in the tension and competition amongst themselves. Vying for her attention is only a pretext, no more important than winning out against the others. All of this in the wake of her divorce with the enigmatic, aloof, handsome, wealthy, self-absorbed and characteristically negligent Mr. Taber. All that they, the three men, eventually win is her disgust, and they have to confront their humiliated masculinities as a consequence of being utterly spurned by her. There is evidence that allows us to speculate that this is Miller’s private way of resolving the fact of Kazan’s affair with Monroe before she married Miller and her flagrant extra-marital affair with Montand at the time. Meanwhile, it sheds light on a time that is past, the cowboys reflecting on how there used to be thousands of horses to hunt, but now there are only about fifteen, where Percy chimes in again with ‘anything’s better than wages’, an instance of repetition in the play, to express dramatic intent. Gay Langland’s character also remarks that ‘the fewer you kill, the worse it looks’, which is reminiscent of Guido’s remark on dropping bombs and telling a lie, with everything being reduced to a statistic, where everything ‘becomes quiet afterwards’.

Though Miller and Williams were contemporaries, Williams’ characters were predominantly women, whose lives reflected an inertia propelled by an evident neurosis. Blanche, in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Laura and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (1944) are some examples of this trope he uses. Juxtaposed with Miller’s minimalistic, often poetic, yet generally terse language, Williams adds a sensuality and lustre to his storytelling. While Miller’s characters are ordinary folk bound up in the social fabric, Williams’ characters are women who are almost – either by will or compulsion – extricated from the collective, spiralling deeper into their own ensnaring. Although this is all in tandem with the general neuroses of the masses, at least to the extent that it reflects the life and times of the forties. So, of course, there is a clean, pure and essential realism resonating that of Ibsen and Chekhov, yet there exists a poetic colouring of narrative with unique Americanisms.

The Misfits: A Brief Study

The development of modern American drama, far from upholding the country’s material progress or its superior political profile in world affairs, primarily critiqued the alienation of its mythic paradigms  and endorsed a universal cleansing and self knowledge. This is well illustrated in the last film of Monroe.

Miller said that The Misfits was intended as a screenplay at the outset, but was written in the form of a novel and does not follow any strict structure. We can see that the way the camera is guided runs very close to the demands of the script and adds a pace that is essential to establishing appropriate shades of mood in the narrative. A sense of collapse runs throughout the thwarted Frontier, in its metaphorical function. The Misfits tries to deliberate on a certain time in America’s economic history and the personas its system once engendered. It re-evaluates the slow death of the ‘Old Frontier’ and the myth upheld in many westerns before: the consciousness of the American Midwest. “The imagination is always at the end of an era”, notes Wallace Stevens and we see this imagination exercised in The Misfits. In Washington, meanwhile, a ‘new frontier’ was claimed by the president. This was a snowball phenomenon initiated by the 1890 census report that declared that ‘abstraction’ in real estate was no longer expedient, and the material outcomes of this were reflected in westerns of the 20th century, such as the range conflicts between cattlemen and settlers. This may also have heralded modernity in the Midwest.

In The Misfits, the chosen location of Reno in Nevada is a suitable choice for “the end of something”, as Ernest Hemingway famously said of this time. All the inhabitants of the place are gamblers, divorcees and passers by. Its gentrified masses still bear ties to the life of the wilderness, where mustangs roam free for them to sport with, especially the character of the vanguard Cowboy, who is slowly becoming an anachronism in the rapidly evolving and modernising state of Nevada. One can rely on a cowboy as much as on ‘jack rabbits’, says Isabel Stears, sitting next to Roslyn, on their way out to Guido’s halfway house. The Misfits was all about the endings of myths, but also of their renewals. It’s almost eerie how this was both Monroe and Clark Gable’s last film, given the former’s failing health and the latter’s injuries, allegedly sustained due to the scene with the wild horses.

Meanwhile, many political changes were taking shape: JFK was assassinated, the ‘high frontier’ was established when the Gemini and Apollo space missions were launched, the Vietnam war was coming to a close and the dissenting wave of the sixties was in momentum. Radicalism was on the rise and this intense feeling demanded that narratives had to re-explore their own dimension, and re-innovate to fit the times. As Daniel G. Hoffman noted “the inherent danger of our unassuaged Prometheanism”, with its proclivity towards casting the American cowboys, frontiersmen, soldiers and businessmen as some sort of nationally representative figures, lionised to the extent that they could tame even the violent, most ‘feminine’, somewhat ‘hysterical’, amorphous and ‘destructive’ whims of nature, with violent actions of their own. Indeed, a subtle critique of war and hyper masculinity surfaces in the portrayals of Gay Langland’s tussle with the horses. Such men don’t show any tendency to ‘need anyone’ as Guido says spitefully, watching Roslyn go into a hysterical fit, contemptuous as midwestern masculinity is towards such displays, his adulation for Roslyn’s ‘gift of life’ reveals Guido’s hypocrisy in this moment. They live off the land, depleting one resourceful place before moving to another, without tending to it, nurturing it, picking up after themselves. All in all, displaying no values that appear feminine and ‘un-American’.

Yet, all of this is laid to waste in their dependency on a truck and the clunky, nearly dilapidated leftover aircraft that belongs to Guido to hunt for the horses. Here, the pure, essential life comes to be ‘contaminated’ by their dependence on modern machines, unlike the old days. There is a radical form of total chaos and alienation in this, wherein Perce and Roslyn get together and cleverly free the horses, trying to outrun Gay and Guido; Gay jumps in and suddenly retreats to the old method of taming the mustang, injuring himself severely, throwing Roslyn’s nurturing femininity into a flux. She no longer knows what to do with her ‘gift for life’ and who to feel the pain and anxiety towards. Whether it is eros or agape that wins out, she no longer knows, nor does she know where her loyalty rests, and in a sudden moment of despair, she and Perce watch helplessly. She yelps ‘Help him!’ as he flounders about like a fish out of water, dragged across the alkaline flats, and Perce interjects, saying ‘He doesn’t want any help’, knowing full well the impulse within himself to reinstate the agency that Gay feels robbed of. Here, he could have been robbed of Roslyn too, this is the paradox.

The men have brought Roslyn along to display their domains of power, an old method of seduction, a dated courtship ritual; though here Gay must also renounce this power by eventually letting the horse free to have Roslyn back. Truly believing that ‘something must die for others to live’, he kills his own impulse towards destruction in order to win her back from what could have been a union between Perce and Roslyn. He extricates her, by a saintly and rational renunciation of his own violence, from Perce, who appears to be her true soulmate throughout the narrative, given how they have so much in common, apart from age, and is the only one who can openly say ‘I love you’.

The Misfits carries in itself the nature of an allegorical tale that throws itself deep into the thick of postmodern demands. Nature, nurture and femininity ultimately win, for Gay has found himself changed, and Roslyn has to compromise nothing, forgiving Gay eventually, of course, with her characteristic kindness.

About the Author

Medha Singh is a poet, translator and editor. She is editor of Berfrois. Her first book is called Ecdysis (Poetrywala, 2017) and her second book is  a work of translation, a collection of love letters that she translated from the French, penned by Indian modernist painter Sayed Haider Raza during his time in France, I Will Bring My Time: Love Letters by S.H. Raza (Vadehra Art Gallery, 2020). Her work has appeared in Almost Island, Indian Quarterly, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Poetry at Sangam, Hotel, 3:AM , The Charles River JournalThe Wire and Scroll among others. Her work has been anthologized in Singing in The Dark (Penguin, 2020), The Gollancz Book of Speculative Writing (Harper Collins, 2021), Contemporary Indian Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi, 2020), Best Indian Poetry 2018 (RLFPA editions) among others.  She has delivered a TEDx  talk on effective arguing, and has been nominated for the TFA award, twice. Her second book of poems is forthcoming.

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