Themes and Meanings
In his introduction to the first edition of The Portable Arthur Miller (1971), Harold Clurman made an observation about Miller’s plays that still holds. “All his ideas are parts of one Idea,” he wrote, and that idea is that “[w]e are all part of one another; all responsible to one another.” This idea appears in Miller’s plays as a moral conflict between the visions of English poet John Donne and English naturalist Charles Darwin: Donne’s view that existence means “no man is an island” and Darwin’s belief that existence is fundamentally about “survival of the fittest.” In play after play, Miller expresses this conflict through acts of betrayal—of a spouse, a parent or child, a sibling, a friend, a group, or a principle. At times the betrayal is primarily domestic—for example, in Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), A View from the Bridge (pr., pb. 1955), The Price (pr., pb. 1968), and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. At other times it is social and political—such as Incident at Vichy (pr. 1964, pb. 1965). Most often it is both, as in All My Sons (pr., pb. 1947), The Crucible (pr., pb. 1953), or After the Fall (pr., pb. 1965).
Much of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan consists of conversations in which Lyman tries to justify his betrayals and charge the others with complicity; at times, he seems to make some convincing points against them. However, his rationalizations, his charges against Theo and Leah, his claims of having gone beyond guilt, and the play’s frequent humor do not alter his status in the conflict that the play explores. Lyman’s place on Miller’s moral spectrum is clear in numerous instances: When he defends himself by claiming that “a man can be faithful to himself or to other people—but not to both” and “the first law of life is betrayal”; when he boasts that “what I wish I do!”; when Theo tells him that he seems like some kind of giant clam “[w]aiting on the bottom for whatever happens to fall from the ocean into your mouth”; when he claims that the only thing that matters is for a man to be true to himself and Leah answers “Even if he has to betray the whole world to do it?”; and, finally, when Miller gives Bessie the last word after Lyman begs her to help him know “what should I understand!” and Bessie answers, “There are other people.” “Lie-man” wants to be excused because he did what was right for him, but the play does not support his defense.