'Fall' Examines Playwright Arthur Miller's Secret Son

Jun 14, 2018
Originally published on June 14, 2018 6:54 pm

Playwright Arthur Miller was a giant of American theater and a champion of social justice. On stage, his iconic plays Death of a Salesman and All My Sons portrayed the American family with tight bonds and searing discord. Much of the tension he wrote about was between fathers and sons.

As it turns out, Arthur Miller was wracked by family turmoil of his own: He had a son with Down syndrome, and he and his wife kept the boy's existence a secret. That story is now a play, called Fall, that's having its world premiere at Boston's Huntington Theatre.

Fall begins in 1966; Arthur Miller is the toast of high society, he's married to photographer Inge Morath and they're living with their little girl in a rambling home in Connecticut when Morath gives birth to their son Daniel. 27-year-old Nolan James Tierce plays Daniel — and like Daniel, Tierce himself has Down syndrome.

"My name is Daniel Miller," he says in the play. "Everyone calls me Danny. I'm a Yankees fan. I know every lyric to every Beatles song. I have Down syndrome."

Miller never got to know those aspects of his son. In the play, a doctor advises Miller and Morath to put Daniel in an institution. At first, Morath cajoles her husband to ignore doctor's advice and raise their son at home — "He's your son and my son!" she implores him. But instead, they find an institution close to their home.

In the play and in real life, Morath visited Daniel in the institution. Miller did not. (Years later, the institution — the Southbury Training School in central Connecticut — was cited for dangerous living conditions.) Vanity Fair magazine revealed the story of Arthur Miller's secret son in 2007; both Miller and Morath had died by then.

Bernard Weinraub wrote Fall, and he says it was important to him to not demonize the couple. "You can't say their motives were evil or anything like that. They did what they felt they had to do. And to demonize him would diminish the play, because I think you have to understand and try to get to the complexity of motives and marriage and what happened between them."

Weinraub based parts of the script on interviews he did with social workers at the institution. When he told Huntington Theatre Artistic Director Peter DuBois about the play, DuBois was enthusiastic. "I thought this is an incredibly important story to tell," he says. "This was someone who lectured us on right and wrong. And I felt this real deep passion about telling this story of human fallibility."

But when DuBois tried to partner with other theaters on the production, there were no takers. "There have been a lot of people that have said, 'I don't want to be the one to be launching this narrative in the theater' — that, you know, Arthur is too respected a writer." As it happened, Arthur Miller never wrote another masterpiece after Daniel was born.

The real Daniel Miller is now 51 years old, thriving, and living with a foster family in Connecticut. Actor Nolan James Tierce has never met Daniel, but considers him an idol — in part for surviving in a now-notorious facility. And Tierce is well aware of that period in America, when it was common to house children with disabilities in institutions. "That history was, actually, at that time, barbaric. I feel so bad for those people who've been institutionalized for many years like Daniel," he says. And, he adds, he feels for Miller and Morath, "because of they didn't really get to know Daniel that well, except for Inge. She was there at the sidelines, and Arthur just completely shunned him out of his life ... It is their loss — and a tragedy."

DuBois says he's proud to direct the world premiere of the play about Arthur Miller. "But I won't beat around the bush, I mean, I think this is about a hero who falls ... I think he took a huge fall in his life when he decided not to make Daniel a part of it ... I feel like he would have found something in his relationship with Daniel that I think would have affected his writing — in a good way."

The playwright and his son did meet, when Daniel was grown. And when Miller died, he left Daniel and his three other children equal portions of his estate.

This story was edited by Andrea de Leon, produced for radio by Andrea Hsu and Chad Campbell, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Playwright Arthur Miller was a giant of American theater and a champion of social justice. His plays "Death Of A Salesman" and "All My Sons" portrayed the American family with tight bonds and searing discord. He laid open the tensions between fathers and sons. Offstage, Arthur Miller was wracked by family turmoil of his own. He had a son with Down syndrome. He and his wife kept the boy's existence a secret. That story is now a play making its world premiere in Boston. From member station WBUR, Lisa Mullins reports.

LISA MULLINS, BYLINE: The play begins in 1966. Arthur Miller is the toast of high society, married to photographer Inge Morath. They're living with their little girl in a rambling home in Connecticut when Morath gives birth to their son Daniel. The play is called "Fall". It's being produced by the Huntington Theatre in Boston. The theater cast 27-year-old Nolan James Tierce in the role of Daniel. Like the character he plays, Tierce has Down syndrome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FALL")

NOLAN JAMES TIERCE: (As Daniel Miller) My name is Daniel Miller. Everyone calls me Danny. I'm a Yankees fan. I know every lyrics to every Beatles song. I have Down syndrome.

MULLINS: Arthur Miller never got to know those aspects of his son. In the play, a doctor advises Miller and Morath to put Daniel in an institution. Actor Josh Stamberg plays the part of Arthur Miller.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FALL")

JOSH STAMBERG: (As Arthur Miller) When Inge became pregnant last year, I thought, oh, my God, what if I actually raised a son in the twilight of my life?

MULLINS: Joanne Kelly performs the role of Inge Morath. At first, Morath cajoles her husband to ignore the doctor's advice and raise their son at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FALL")

JOANNE KELLY: (As Inge Morath) He's damaged, but we can love him - try to love him. Whatever the sacrifice, he's your son and my son.

MULLINS: Instead, they find an institution close to their home. In the play and in real life, Morath visited their son. Miller did not. Years later, the institution was cited for dangerous living conditions. The story of Arthur Miller's secret son was revealed in a Vanity Fair article in 2007. Both Miller and Morath had died by then. Bernard Weinraub wrote the play "Fall". He says it was important to him to not demonize the couple.

BERNARD WEINRAUB: You can't say their motives were evil or anything like that. They did what they felt they had to do. And to demonize him would diminish the play because I think you have to understand and try to get to the complexity of motives and marriage and what happened between them.

MULLINS: Weinraub based parts of the script on interviews he did with social workers at the institution. When he told Huntington Theatre artistic director Peter DuBois about the play, DuBois was enthusiastic.

PETER DUBOIS: I thought, this is an incredibly important story to tell. This was someone who'd lectured us on right and wrong, and I felt this real deep passion about telling the story of human fallibility.

MULLINS: But when DuBois tried to partner with other theaters on the production, there were no takers.

DUBOIS: There have been a lot of people that have said, I don't want to be the one to be launching this narrative in the theater, that, you know, Arthur is too respected a writer.

MULLINS: As it happened, Arthur Miller never wrote another masterpiece after Daniel was born. The real Daniel Miller is now 51 years old, thriving and living with a foster family in Connecticut. Actor Nolan James Tierce has never met Daniel but considers him an idol in part for surviving in a now-notorious facility. The actor is well aware of that period in America when it was common to house children with disabilities in institutions.

TIERCE: History was actually at that time barbaric. I feel so bad for those people who had been institutionalized for many years like Daniel.

MULLINS: Arthur Miller and his wife, Inge Morath - do you feel for them at all? I think it might be hard to, but do you?

TIERCE: I do 'cause of - they didn't really get to know Daniel that well, except for Inge. She was there at the sidelines, and Arthur just completely shunned him out of his life.

MULLINS: So you feel bad for them because it was their loss.

TIERCE: It is their loss and a tragedy.

MULLINS: Peter DuBois says he's proud to direct the world premiere of the play about Arthur Miller.

DUBOIS: But I won't beat around the bush. I mean, I think this is about a hero who falls. I mean, I think he took a huge fall in his life when he decided not to make Daniel a part of it. I feel like he would have found something in his relationship with Daniel that I think would have affected his writing in a good way.

MULLINS: The playwright Arthur Miller and his son did meet when Daniel was grown. When Miller died, he left Daniel and his three other children equal portions of his estate. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Mullins in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.