The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe

Writer Elton Townend Jones searches for new angles

Marilyn Monroe exercises a continuing hold on the public imagination, so Elton Townend Jones faced a challenging task in writing The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe.

No other screen actress has prompted so many plays, films, television series, songs and biographies. One thinks of Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ and Andy Warhol’s ‘pop’ portrait. What is there new to say about the 36-year-old ‘sex goddess’ and her final hours in August 1962?

Townend Jones doesn’t quite meet this challenge, but nevertheless the result is a sympathetic portrait of Monroe, played with verve and tireless energy by Lizzie Wort in Derry~Londonderry's Playhouse. If anything, in the earlier stages of the play, the restless energy – both physical and vocal – of Wort’s performance is exhausting and puts strains on the audience’s attention. A little more light and shade would have helped.

Perhaps Marilyn’s hyper-activity was intended to hint at the effects of her constant ‘pill-popping’. However, overall Wort gives a convincing and emotive performance. Her realistic American accent, combined with her uncanny facial resemblance to Monroe, is alone worth the admission for this Dyad Productions show.

Monroe’s death is still the subject of countless conspiracy theories. Townend Jones’ play deliberately eschews these. Hence the stress in the title on the actress's ‘unremarkable’ death. But this presents a problem of a different kind: how to make the unremarkable dramatically interesting?

We first see Monroe lying face down on a single bed, apparently asleep. Around her is the evidence of the ordinary messiness of her life: high-heeled shoes kicked off, discarded odds and ends of clothing, perfume bottles by her bedside, and paper bags, unopened, of new clothes.

She is woken by the ringing of the telephone. Throughout the play, whenever it rings, she snatches it up, as if desperately waiting for a call that never comes. From whom? The suggestion is Bobby Kennedy. But with resignation rather than bitterness, she says of the Kennedy brothers: ‘It is all about them.' They are ‘cowards with women’.

The play takes the form of Monroe recalling in reverse order the key events in her life, her three marriages, and her relations with the big names of Hollywood: Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, John Huston, Groucho Marx, Yves Montand and Howard Hughes et al. Wort is at her best here, her mimicry of their accents and vocal tics providing a welcome relief.

Marx had wandering hands and liked Monroe to ‘wiggle her bum’ for him. Tony Curtis, on the other hand, compared kissing her to kissing Hitler. Monroe’s stories of Hollywood’s stars and starlets are amusing, but there is intrinsically nothing new in this. As she says: ‘You can’t make movies without breaking hearts’, and she – the ultimate sex goddess, as she confidently sees herself – says that she too has had her own share of heartbreak.

Monroe’s three husbands figure prominently in the disappointments of her life, Joe Di Maggio for his dullness and Arthur Miller for his inability to express affection. For all the celebrity marriages and affairs, however, this portrait of Monroe does dwell significantly on the ‘little girl lost’ strands of her life, encapsulated in Wort’s constant twiddling with her hair, as would a child.

This emotional vulnerability is seldom far from the surface. Likewise Monroe's medical problems: heavy periods, inability to bear a child (she had two miscarriages whilst married to Miller), and her disillusion with sex. Her relationship with her mother is presented as having been strained and dysfunctional, seldom happy.

Monroe’s memory of being sexually abused as an eight-year-old provides the climax of the play, and a possible clue to her later insecurities. Wort excels in these few minutes of agonized disclosure.

Finally, perhaps overcome by the sleeping pills she has been taking throughout the play, Monroe lies down again on the bed. We, the audience, know that this is to be for the last time. But Townend Jones has Monroe say, not sadly – or even unsteadily – but resolutely, asserting that she knows that she has finally found self-reliance: ‘Life starts now.'

Not the final words of a determined suicide, rather the determination of a survivor. These three words perhaps justify Townend Jones’ account of Monroe’s death as ‘unremarkable’ in its intrinsically accidental nature.

The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe returns to The MAC, Belfast on May 19 and the Market Place Theatre, Armagh on May 23.