The following post was written by our Literary Intern and Associate Dramaturg on AFTER THE FALL, Emily Edmond. Emily is a recent graduate of Carlton College, where she majored in English and served as a dramaturg, director, and producer on numerous projects.
Playwright Arthur Miller and political philospher Hannah Arendt were both Jewish intellectuals in the 20th Century. Miller read Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem –he mentions it in an article he wrote for LIFE Magazine, which we’ve featured in the program for AFTER THE FALL. Arendt’s essay (notably subtitled, A Report on the Banality of Evil) was serialised in The New Yorker, so presumably a lot of people read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Beyond that, however, we don’t how well-versed they were with each other’s work. But by coincidence or intention, some of Arendt’s most compelling theories have ended up in Miller’s most personal work.
Promises: “Islands of Security”
Quentin and Arendt both believe in the power of promises. Quentin asks “how else do you touch the world — except with a promise?” (62.) Arendt states that “binding oneself through promises serves to set up, in the ocean of future uncertainty, islands of security…” Which is another way of saying that promises allow people to stabilize an essentially unstable world. No one can guarantee that tomorrow will be like today. Humans are particularly unpredictable. No one can guarantee that I will be the same tomorrow as I am today. That the way I acted yesterday is any guarantee of how I will act today. Most of the time we ignore this fact of life. It’s too scary to wake up everyday not certain of anything. But promises make it so we don’t have to wake up uncertain: they are guarantees that we can know today what will happen tomorrow.
If any lawyers are reading this, this talk of promises and certainty must sound familiar. In law this is how contracts work. Contracts are basically promises which say that the future–within certain guidelines and for a certain period of time–is…certain. Quentin is a lawyer–although it’s not clear what kind of lawyer he is (Trial? Estate?)–so it makes sense that he is attracted to the language of promises. Promises, or covenants, also feature prominently in Judaism–as Miller was surely aware.
Dutch, Rotterdam, Ketubah, 1648, on parchment, Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Actions: Unknowable, Irreversible
But promises are not enough. Promises take care of the future, but they don’t have much to say about the past. Quentin, on the other hand, has a lot to say about the past. The past is always with him. When he talks about “two divorces in my safety-deposit box,” he is talking about his past. Specifically, he is talking about actions that he took in the past. There are two problems with actions: 1) the ultimate effects of actions are unknowable. We don’t know how our actions will affect someone years down the road. Many mediocre movies have been built on this premise. 2) They can’t be undone. This means that should we–even unintentionally–act in such a way that hurts someone, there is no way to undo that action. Quentin hears Maggie screaming “Liar! Judge!” at him in the middle of airport, proving that his actions towards her will always be there.
But that’s where forgiveness comes in. Quentin never mentions forgiveness directly. He talks a lot about guilt and innocence, but forgiveness, which comes after guilt, is never spoken of. But Quentin does mention the person probably most associated with forgiveness: Jesus. He mimes a crucifixion in act I, and he and Maggie have a conversation about Jesus and Lazarus in act II. Quentin interprets the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead as an allegory for “the power of faith,” but it also underlines Quentin’s powerlessness in the scene. He, unlike Jesus, cannot raise Maggie from the dead. He can’t even stop her from destroying herself.
But while Quentin may not have the power of Jesus to resurrect the dead, he does have Jesus’ power to forgive.
Jesus of Nazareth
Hannah Arendt saw Jesus as an important political figure. His theories are relevant even in the godless world in which Quentin lives. They are theories about the power people hold over each other.
One of these theories is about forgiveness. Forgiveness allows us to undo actions. “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would…be confined to one single deed from which we would never recover; we would remain victims of its consequences forever.” Forgiveness allows people to move forward, and not be forever condemned by “one single deed.”
Arendt interprets Jesus’ theory on forgiveness as 1) that humans have the power to forgive, 2) that this power is not derived from God, 3) that humans must forgive each other in order to be forgiven by God and finally, 4) that God learns forgiveness from humans, not the other way around.
For Quentin there is no God so points 3 and 4 might be moot. But he does have the power to forgive, and although the word is never mentioned, I think it is possible to interpret AFTEE THE FALL as being about forgiveness. Mickey seeks forgiveness by naming names. Lou tries, but fails, to be forgiven by not naming names. When Holga talks about “kissing one’s life,” she is talking about forgiveness.