All My Sons
All My Sons
ARTHUR MILLER 1947
All My Sons, Arthur Miller’s first commercially successful play, opened at the Coronet Theatre in New York on January 29, 1947. It ran for 328 performances and garnered important critical acclaim for the dramatist, winning the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
Miller’s earlier play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), had not done well and had quickly closed; therefore, at the time All My Sons opened, Miller’s reputation as a writer was based almost solely on Focus (1945), his lauded novel about anti-Semitism.
All My Sons is now regarded as the first of Miller’s major plays. The work also greatly helped the career of Elia Kazan, who had first won accolades for his direction of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942 and after directing All My Sons would continue to work with the plays of both Miller and Tennessee Williams to produce both legendary stage productions and important films.
In All My Sons Miller evidenced the strong influence of both Henrik Ibsen and Greek tragedy, developing a “formula” that he would brilliantly exploit in his next play, Death of a Salesman (1949), which many regard as his finest work.
Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City. He spent his early years in comfortable circumstances, until his father, Isidore, a prosperous manufacturer, lost his wealth in the economic devastation of the Great Depression. After completing high school, Miller had to take a job in a Manhattan warehouse.
He had not been much of a student, but after reading Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov he decided that he was destined to become a writer. He had trouble getting into college but was eventually accepted at the University of Michigan, where he began his apprenticeship as a writer and won several student awards for his work.
After college he returned to New York and worked briefly as a radio script writer, then tried his hand at writing for the stage commercially. His first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), closed after only four performances, but it did win a Theater Guild award and revealed the young writer’s potential.
He had more success with Focus (1945), a novel dealing with anti-Semitism. In fact, at the time he wrote All My Sons (1947), his first dramatic hit, he was better known as a writer of fiction than as a playwright.
All My Sons established Miller’s standing as a bright and extremely talented dramatist. The play had a good run and won Miller his first New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Even the least favorable commentators recognized the playwright’s great promise.
Miller followed All My Sons with three of his most critically and commercially successful plays: Death of Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), and A View from the Bridge (1955). In these works, Miller attempted to show that tragedy could be written about ordinary people struggling to maintain personal dignity at critical moments in their lives. With these plays, Miller joined Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams in what in the post-World War II years was generally recognized as the great triumvirate of the American theater.
Miller, a political leftist, gained some notoriety in the 1950s when he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and was held in contempt of Congress. From this experience he found thematic material for one of his most famous and controversial plays, The Crucible, which focuses on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
After the 1955 production of A View from the Bridge, Miller took a nine-year hiatus from play-writing. In the interim, Miller married and divorced the famous actress, Marilyn Monroe. He did adapt one of his stories, The Misfits as a screen vehicle for his celebrated wife but did not complete another Broadway play until 1964, when both After the Fall and Incident at Vichy were produced. The former play, considered Miller’s most experimental play, is also his darkest work, with many autobiographical parallels.
His last Broadway success was The Price, produced in 1968. After his next play, The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), failed on Broadway, Miller stopped premiering works in New York. He continued to write plays, and enjoyed some success, but nothing that matched that of his earliest works. Many of his later plays were short one-act plays and works comprised of sketches or vignettes.
His greatest triumphs remain Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Both have been revived with great success. In 1999, for example, the New York production of Death of a Salesman garnered four Tony awards, including one for best revival and one for best direction. At the age of eighty-four, Miller was also presented with a special, lifetime achievement award for his great contributions to the American theater.
The play opens on a Sunday morning in August and is set in the back yard of the Keller home, located on the outskirts of an unidentified American town, a couple of years after the end of World War II. Joe Keller, who has been reading classified ads in a newspaper, banters pleasantly with his neighbors, Dr. Jim Bayliss and Frank Lubey. He explains that the apple tree had split in half during the night.
It is a source of some concern, for the tree is a memorial for Joe’s son, Larry, and its destruction might upset Joe’s wife, Kate. Frank refers to it as Larry’s tree and notes that August is Larry’s birth month. He plans to cast Larry’s horoscope, to see if the date on which he was reported missing in action was a favorable or unfavorable day for him.
The men ask after the Kellers’ visitor, Ann, the daughter of Joe’s former partner, Steve Deever, who once lived in the house now owned by the Baylisses. Sue, Jim’s wife, arrives and sends Jim home to talk on the phone with a patient. She is followed by Frank’s wife, Lydia, who reports a problem with a toaster.
Joe’s son, Chris, comes from the house, and a neighborhood boy, Bert, darts into the yard. Joe amuses Bert in a role-playing game in which Bert is learning to be a police deputy under Joe’s authority. He has shown Bert a gun and they pretend that the basement of the house is actually a jail.
After the others leave, Joe and Chris talk about the tree and the fact that Kate was outside when it fell. She has never stopped hoping that Larry will return, still alive. Her failure to accept his death is a major obstacle for Chris, who hopes to marry Ann. Kate can only think of Ann as Larry’s girl, and she can not accept a marriage of Chris and Ann without first accepting her son’s death. Chris’s proposed solution, much to his father’s chagrin, is to leave the Keller home and business unless his father helps him make Kate accept Larry’s death.
Kate enters and muses over the significance of the fallen tree and Ann’s arrival. She also speaks of a dream in which she saw Larry and expresses her belief that the memorial tree should never have been planted. Exasperated, Chris talks of trying to forget Larry. She sends him off to get an aspirin, then tries to wring from Joe an explanation for Ann’s visit. She also discloses that if she were to lose faith in her belief that Larry was alive, she would kill herself.
Chris returns with Ann, and a tense confrontation almost immediately begins. Ann pointedly rejects Kate’s hope that Larry is still alive. She also divulges that she is unwilling to forgive her father, now in jail, as Joe once was, convicted of providing the Army Air Force with 121 defective cracked cylinder heads. The parts were used in the engines of P-40 fighter planes, twenty-one of which crashed.
Joe, who was later exonerated, attempts to defend his former partner as a confused, somewhat inept “little man” caught in a situation that he did not fully fathom. Ann is unmoved and holds her father responsible for Larry’s death. Yet Kate knows
the truth: Joe ordered his partner to weld the cracked cylinder heads and hide the defect.
After Joe and Kate leave, Chris confesses his love to Ann, and she ardently confirms her own for him. She is mystified by his long delay in disclosing his feelings, and he explains that it took him a long time to shake free from a guilt he felt for his survival in the war. They are interrupted when Ann is told that her brother, George, is on the phone.
As she exits, Joe and Chris discuss the fact that George is in Columbus, visiting his father in jail. Ann is heard talking on the phone, trying to mollify her angry brother, while Joe speculates as to the possibility that George and Ann may be trying to open the criminal case again. Chris placates Joe, who shrugs off his concern and begins talking of Chris’s future and telling him that he will help Chris and Ann make Kate accept their marriage. Ann then comes out to tell them that George is coming to visit that same evening.
It is late afternoon on the same day. Kate enters to find Chris sawing up the fallen apple tree. After telling Chris that Joe is sleeping, she asks Chris to tell Ann to go home with George. She is afraid that Steve Deever’s hatred for Joe has infected his children, and she wants them both to leave.
When Ann appears, Kate returns to the house. Ann wants Chris to tell his mother about their marriage plans, and he promises to do so that evening. As he leaves, Sue enters, looking for her husband. She and Ann discuss Ann’s marriage plans. Sue encourages her to move away after her marriage. She is bitter towards Chris, who, as Jim’s friend, has tried to convince him to pursue work in medical research, a luxury that the Baylisses can not afford.
When Ann defends Chris, Sue suggests that Chris is a phony, given the fact that Chris has greatly benefited from Joe’s ruthless and unethical business practices. She also tells Ann that everyone knows that Joe was as guilty as Steve Deever and merely “pulled a fast one to get out of jail.”
When Chris returns, Sue goes in the house to see if she can calm Kate down. Ann tells Chris that Sue hates him, and that the people of the community believe that Joe should be in jail. Chris believes in his father’s innocence and tells her that he can not put any stock in what the neighbors believe.
Joining them in the backyard, Joe tells the young lovers that he wants to find George a good local job, and then announces that he even wants to hire Steve Deever when he is released from prison. Chris is adamantly opposed, believing that Deever had wrongly implicated his father, and he does not want Joe to give him a job. Joe exits.
Having picked up George at the train station, Jim Bayliss enters quickly from the driveway. Jim warns Chris that George has “blood in his eye,” and that Chris should not let him come into the Keller yard. However, Chris welcomes George as a friend, but from George’s surly behavior it is soon clear that he is angry.
As a result of visiting his father, he is convinced that Joe knew about the cracked cylinder heads but ordered Deever to ship them anyway, and he is now intent on stopping Ann from marrying Chris. He presents his father’s account of the day the cracked cylinder heads were made, but Chris, believing in his father’s innocence, tries to make him leave rather than confront Joe and upset his mother.
The tense situation is defused when Kate and Lydia enter the yard. After some amiable recollections are exchanged, Joe enters and asserts that Steve Deever only blames Joe because Steve, unable to face his faults, could never own up to his mistakes. George seems almost at ease, but when Kate makes a critical blunder, inadvertently disclosing that Joe had not been ill in fifteen years, George is once again upset. Joe’s alibi was that he had been home with pneumonia when the defective parts were doctored up and shipped out by Deever; George realizes that Joe’s alibi was a lie.
Frank Lubey enters with Larry Keller’s horoscope, which speculates that Larry is still alive. Kate wants Ann to leave with George and has even packed her bag. Chris tries to make his mother see that Larry is dead, but Kate, knowing the truth about the defective parts, insists that he must be alive. Otherwise, she believes that Joe is responsible for his death.
Finally realizing the truth, Chris angrily confronts his father, who lamely tries to defend his actions as “business.” Chris, profoundly hurt and disillusioned, beats furiously on his father’s shoulders.
It is 2:00 AM of the following morning. Alone, Kate waits for Chris to return. Jim joins her and asks what has happened; he then reveals that he has known about her husband’s guilt for some time. He contends that he hopes that Chris will go off to find himself before returning.
Jim exits just as Joe comes in. Kate tells him that Jim knows the truth. Meanwhile, he is concerned about Ann, who has stayed in her room since Chris left. He talks, too, of needing Chris’s forgiveness and his intent to take his own life should he not get it.
Ann enters and hesitantly gives Kate a letter that she had received from Larry after Joe and her father were convicted. Chris returns and tells his father that he cannot forgive him. Ann takes the letter from Kate and gives it to Chris, who reads it aloud.
Composed just before Larry’s death, it tells of his plan to take his own life in shame over what his father had done. It suddenly becomes clear to Joe that Larry believed that all the fighter pilots who perished in combat were Joe’s sons. He then withdraws into the house, and Chris confirms his plan to turn Joe over to the authorities.
Suddenly, a shot is heard from the house. Chris enters the house, presumably to find his father’s body. He returns to his mother’s arms, dismayed and crying, and she tells him to forget what has happened and live his life.
See Ann Deever
Dr. Jim Bayliss
Jim Bayliss is a close friend of Chris Keller. He and his wife Sue bought the house formerly owned by Steve Deever and his family; this makes him a neighbor of the Kellers. Although Jim suspects that Joe is as guilty as his former partner is, he likes the Keller family. He even tries to protect Joe from a confrontation with George Deever.
Sue Bayliss, Jim’s wife, reveals that the town knows the truth about Joe Keller, and, unlike her husband, she basically dislikes the family. However, her animus is largely directed against Chris, not Joe. She believes that he knows his father is guilty and has profited from the situation. As a result, she deems him a phony, and she deeply resents his friendship with her husband.
Bert is a neighborhood boy. He plays with Joe in the beginning of the play, pretending to be a policeman. Bert’s gullibility provides a comic counterpoint to the more serious gullibility of Joe’s son, Chris, who believes in his father’s innocence. Joe has also shown Bert the gun with which, at the end, he kills himself.
Ann is the attractive daughter of Steve Deever, Joe’s former partner. She is visiting the Kellers for the first time since her boyfriend, Larry Keller, was reported missing in action. She has been invited by Chris; they are in love, much to the consternation of Kate, Chris’s mother.
Ann believes that her father is guilty and has refused to visit him in jail. She is perhaps blinded by her love for Chris, whom she plans to marry.
- All My Sons was adapted as a film in 1948. Chester Erskine wrote the screenplay. Directed by Irving Reis, the cast included Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller, Burt Lancaster as Chris, Mady Christians as Kate, Louisa Horton as Ann Deever, and Howard Duff as George Deever. The film is available on videocassette.
- The play was also produced as a television play in 1955 and again in 1987. The 1955 version featured Albert Dekker, Patrick McGoohan, and Betta St. John in its cast. It is not, however, extant. The 1987 version, directed by John Power, was a television special produced by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It featured Joan Allen, Zeljko Ivanek, Michael Learned, Joanna Miles, Aidan Quinn, Alan Scarfe, Marlow Vella, and James Whitmore. It is not currently available on videocassette.
However, she carries what is in fact a suicide letter that Larry wrote to her before his final mission. Deeply shamed by his father’s conviction, Larry disclosed his inability to live with the fact of his father’s crime. When Kate continues to refuse to believe that Larry is dead and tries to prevent her marriage to Chris, Ann is forced to show her the letter. With the Larry’s final thoughts revealed, Chris is forced to face his father’s guilt.
George is Steve Deever’s son and brother to Ann Deever. He is a lawyer and a threat to Joe Keller, who fears that he might try to reopen the case that put Joe and his father in prison. After visiting his father in jail, he confronts Joe. George is convinced that Joe destroyed his father and was the real instigator of the crime. When he discovers that Ann is in love with Chris, he tries to persuade her to leave with him.
Kate’s kindness almost placates him, and he even seems ready to accept Joe’s version of what happened; but Kate inadvertently reveals that Joe was not sick when the defective parts were shipped and thereby confirms what his father had told George. He storms off before Chris is forced to face the truth and Joe commits suicide.
Chris, at age thirty-two, is Joe and Kate Keller’s surviving son. He is in love with Ann Deever, the former girlfriend of his deceased brother, Larry. He invites Ann to visit the Keller home so that he might propose to her.
A veteran of World War II, Chris now works for his father, Joe. Since being exonerated and released from prison, Joe has built a very successful company. Chris believes that his father is innocent, as he feels was proved at the pardon hearing before Joe’s release. An idealist, he has a very strong sense of justice and responsibility, and he bears a residual guilt for surviving the war when many of his friends died.
He also believes that one should be guided by the noblest principles, and he tries to encourage his friend, Jim Bayliss, to leave his medical practice to pursue a higher calling in medical research. His influence angers Jim’s wife, Sue, who believes that Joe is guilty and that Chris is a hypocrite.
Although his love for his father blinds him to the truth, when Joe’s guilt is finally revealed, he believes that he has no choice but to see to it that his father is returned to prison.
The Keller family patriarch, Joe is a self-made businessman who started out as a semi-skilled laborer and worked his way up in the business world to become a successful manufacturer. He owns a factory, where he employs his surviving son, Chris.
Initially, Joe seems like a very genial, good-natured man, almost like a surrogate grandfather to the neighborhood kids. He is very outgoing with his neighbors, and has a disarming tendency to engage in some self-deprecation, noting, among other things, that he is not well educated or as articulate as those around him. It is partly a pose, however, for he actually prides himself on his business acumen. His business means a great deal to him, almost as much as his family.
Unfortunately, Joe has sacrificed quite a bit for such success. During the war, he ordered his partner, Steve Deever, to cover cracks in some airplane-engine parts, disguise the welds, and send them on to be used in fighter planes, causing the death of twenty-one pilots. Although convicted, Joe put the blame on Steve and got out of prison.
When the truth is revealed about Larry’s death, Joe is at first unwilling to face the responsibility. Finally realizing the consequences of his actions and his limited course of action, he commits suicide.
Kate is Joe’s wife and the mother of Chris. Although her older son, Larry, was reported missing in action during World War II, she hopes that he has survived and will eventually return home. She hopes for this not only because she loves her son, but also because she knows the truth about Joe: he ordered his partner Steve to cover the cracks in the cylinder heads that eventually resulted in the death of several American fighter pilots. Although Larry never flew a P-40 fighter, Kate believes that Joe must be held accountable as his murderer. She is finally forced to face Larry’s death when confronted with the letter that he sent to Ann Deever announcing his impending suicide.
Her motives are hidden from Chris, who earnestly wants her to face the fact of Larry’s death and move on with life. He wants to marry Larry’s former girl friend, Ann Deever, but he knows he will not be able to obtain his mother’s blessing as long as she continues to hold on to her unrealistic conviction that Larry is still alive.
Kate is a sympathetic character. She is kind and motherly, but the truth of her husband’s guilt tortures her. As the pressure mounts, she develops physical symptoms of her inner agony. At the end, after Joe shoots himself, she tells Chris to live—something she had not been able to do since the death of her other son.
Frank Lubey is Lydia’s husband. A haberdasher, he is perceived as flighty and socially inept. Gracious, intelligent, and attractive, Lydia makes him seem rather silly by comparison. Frank, always missing each draft call-up by being a year too old, did not go to war. He married Lydia when George Deever, her former beau, did not return to his hometown from the war.
Frank’s foolishness extends to his belief in astrology, which would be harmless enough were it not for the fact that he keeps Kate’s hopes of Larry’s survival alive with his insistence that Larry’s horoscope could reveal the truth.
Lydia is Frank’s wife. She is a charming, very pretty woman of twenty-seven, described by Miller as a “robust laughing girl.” Before George went off to war, she was his girlfriend; when he did not return home after his father was imprisoned, she married Frank, a dull alternative. When George does come to confront the Kellers with his father’s accusations, he is reminded of everything he lost. He also knows that Lydia deserved better than she got.
See Kate Keller
In a sense, All My Sons is a critical investigation of the quest to achieve material comfort and an improved social status through hard work and determination. In the Horatio Alger myth, even a disadvantaged, impoverished young man can attain wealth and prestige through personal fortitude, moral integrity, and untiring industry. Joe Keller is that sort of self-made man, one who made his way from blue-collar worker to factory owner. However, Joe sacrifices his integrity to materialism, and he makes a reprehensible decision that sends American pilots to their deaths, something he is finally forced to face.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Paradoxically, Joe Keller’s suicide at the end of All My Sons is both an act of atonement and an escape from guilt. It stems from Joe’s realization that there can be no real forgiveness for what he had done. The alternative is confession and imprisonment. Death offers Joe another alternative.
Forgiveness must come from Kate and Chris. The letter written by Larry reveals that he deliberately destroyed himself during the war, profoundly shamed by his father’s brief imprisonment for fraud and profiteering. It is a devastating irony that Joe’s initial attempt to do right by his family—resulting in fraud and the deaths of twenty-one fighter pilots—leads to destruction of his world.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the problem of profiteering during both World War II and the Cold War. Was it a prevalent phenomenon? What forms did it take (e.g., cost overruns, ridiculous pricing, fraudulent claims)? Describe the worst case you can find from your research.
- Trace the influence of either Henrik Ibsen or Anton Chekhov on All My Sons.
- Investigate Miller’s role in the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), including his contempt conviction and eventual exoneration. Do you agree with Miller’s position? Give reasons for your answer.
- Determine the influence of the politics of the left, including socialism and communism, on the American theater and cinema during the 1930s and 1940s.
Choices and Consequences
All My Sons employs a pattern that is fundamental to most tragedies. Protagonists in tragedy must, in some degree, be held accountable for their actions. When faced with a moral dilemma, they often make a wrong choice. Joe, at a critical moment, elected to place his family’s finances above the lives of courageous American soldiers.
The revelations that lead up to Joe’s tragic recognition of guilt and his suicide, the final consequences of his choice, are essential to All My Sons. There is a sense of anake, or tragic necessity, that moves the work along towards its inevitable moment of truth and awful but final retribution.
The key in the tragic arc of All My Sons is Kate Keller’s refusal to accept the death of her son, Larry. Initially, prone to false hopes, it seems that she is in denial; finally, it is revealed that her need to believe that Larry is alive allows her to avoid the terrible consequences of her husband’s deeds. She realizes that if Larry is dead, then Joe is responsible for his death—something Larry himself confirmed in his letter to Ann. All along, Kate knew her husband’s guilt but desperately avoided it, knowing that it would destroy her family.
Duty and Responsibility
Joe Keller’s sense of duty and responsibility is to the material comfort of his family and the success of his business. At a weak moment, under pressure, he puts these values ahead of what should clearly have been a higher duty, his obligation to human life. His fear of losing lucrative government contracts—essentially his greed—blinded him to the murder he was committing.
Joe’s decision to send defective parts is not merely a result of skewed values, it is a serious breach of ethics. Joe does not fully comprehend how serious a breach it is. To him, success is more important than anything else, including human life and the good of his country. By setting up this ethical situation, Miller clearly questions the implications of a value system that puts material success above moral responsibilities to others.
Guilt and Innocence
In All My Sons, there are hints that Joe is troubled by his guilt—even before his eventual suicide. His suspicions of Ann and George Deever reveal his fears of being forced to face the truth. Even when he attempts to atone for his guilt by helping his former partner, Steve Deever as well as Deever’s son, George, his offer seems rather lame given the enormity of his guilt. There is no way he can atone for the deaths of the American fighter pilots, however, something that he finally realizes.
Joe’s death at the end of All My Sons is paradoxically both punishment and escape. In one sense, Joe can do no less than pay for his crime with his life. It is not an empty gesture. It is made abundantly clear from the play’s beginning that Joe is a man who is full of life and cherishes his roles as both husband and father.
When the truth comes out, Joe has to face not only a return to prison but also the alienation of his remaining son and the destruction his family. Death offers the only escape from that pain. It may also be seen as a sacrificial act, one which saves Joe’s son, Chris, from further humiliation.
Fueled by his anger over Joe’s guilt, George Deever comes to the Keller’s house seeking revenge and retribution. He is a major catalyst and intensifies the emotional tension of the play. For a moment, Kate’s friendliness and warmth placate him. When, towards the end of the second act, Kate inadvertently confirms the probable truth of his father’s accusations, George’s anger returns. Joe is then forced to reveal his fraudulent and deceitful actions.
All My Sons has a very traditional dramatic structure, with carefully orchestrated action that reaches a climax. Although it may be argued that each act has its own climax, with a particularly powerful one in the second act, the final climax occurs in the last act, when Joe finally realizes that he was responsible for the deaths of the American fighter pilots, his “sons.”
Tension in drama evolves from conflict. In fact, conflict is virtually mandatory in what is termed the dramatic moment, whether in a play or in fiction. A good play generally evinces a sense of a deepening conflict that heightens the emotional tension as the play works towards its climactic moment. Conflict arises as a character strives toward a goal and is met by an obstacle to that goal.
The key conflict in All My Sons develops as a result of Chris’s desire to marry Ann Deever. Standing in the way of his desire is his mother’s ability to block the marriage; she opposes the union because she cannot accept the death of her son, Larry. If she accepts his death, then she must also face Joe’s role in it.
Ironically, Chris tries to enlist his father’s help in this matter. On account of his love for Ann, Chris pushes his family into facing truths that have tragic and destructive consequences.
Exposition in drama is often more of a problem than it is for writers of fiction. Somehow, information about past events and relationships must be conveyed to an audience so that the action in the present can be fully understood. Because All My Sons is a realistic play in which all the action occurs on the day in which the family crisis is met and tragically resolved, Miller has few options for revealing Joe’s fraudulent past. The action strictly adheres to a normal chronological order, allowing nothing like a flashback or the hallucinatory reveries of the main character so brilliantly used by Miller in his next play, Death of Salesman.
Miller’s chief device is the reunion, the introduction of a character who needs to be told what has transpired since that character’s former estrangement. That character is Ann Deever; inadvertently, she opens old wounds because of her familial relationship with Joe’s former partner, Larry. She also bears the truth of Larry’s death in a letter that he had written to her. In this way she is like the messenger of Greek tragedy whose task it is to bear in the pain of truth that will force the tragic recognition in the main character.
Fore shadowing s of an impending disaster appear in the first act of All My Sons. The memorial apple tree planted for Larry is destroyed during a storm in the early morning hours, suggesting a dark force that has the power to destroy the Keller family.
Kate’s response to the tree’s felling at first seems odd. She says that it should never have been planted in the first place. However, it is soon learned that she has desperately held on to the hope that Larry, reported missing in action during the war, is still alive. That she suffers from the emotional burden of her hope is revealed by her sleeplessness and physical pain.
In its way, even Joe’s role-playing game is a foreshadowing. Playing with Bert, they pretend that the Keller home is a jail. This game suggests that Keller views his home as a kind of jail. On account of what he has done, he can not really be free.
Even the play’s setting foreshadows events. The backyard of the Kellers is pleasant and, initially, a happy place; but it is also rather insular, hidden from its neighbors by the poplar trees that grow on both sides. The trees stand like sentinels, protecting Joe from the suspicions of his neighbors, most of whom believe that he was at least as guilty as Steve Deever.
All My Sons strictly adheres to the tenets of realistic drama as first put in practice by such early modern playwrights as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. Fundamental to such drama is faithfulness to real life in both character and action. Characters speak and act very much like real people. Nothing happens that could not happen in reality.
However, like the realism of most plays in the Ibsen tradition, the realism of All My Sons is of a selective variety, deliberately controlled to advance a particular thesis. Matters are rather conveniently drawn to a climactic head on a single day with the visit of the two Deever siblings, a coincidence that is nevertheless wholly within the realm of plausibility.
The setting of All My Sons, the Keller’s backyard in a small Midwestern town shortly after World War II, has a significant role in the play. The setting suggests comfort and isolation from the community. Isolation is necessary because the townspeople suspect the truth about Joe, that he did what he had been convicted of doing during the war. Yet because he is so successful and provides jobs in the community, they do not openly reproach him for it.
Destructive forces threaten the setting. Nature first invades, destroying the apple tree planted in memory of Larry. It is followed by the “messengers,” Ann and George. At the end of the play, the yard is engulfed in the darkness of night, the destructive truth that leaves Kate and Chris alone in the grim aftermath of Joe’s suicide.
All My Sons is a thesis play that focuses on a problem that Arthur Miller believed was eating at the fabric of American democracy: material greed. Miller’s protagonist, Joe Keller, is an affable and pleasant man with a strong sense of family loyalty, but his values have been shaped by a prevalent American belief that human success and worth can best be measured by how many things a person owns.
Joe believes that his son’s love is based on material concerns. The fact that Chris wants Joe to atone for his crime finally forces him to recognize his guilt.
Joe lets a love of materialism and fear cloud his moral compass. He sets in motion events that have tragic consequences. Joe fears failure in business, as if, somehow, failure would threaten the love and respect of his family. Under pressure, that fear leads him to make an ill-considered decision to put the lives of American pilots at risk by disguising cracked cylinder heads and shipping them to assembly plants.
In addition to being a realistic play, All My Sons has some characteristics of classical drama, notably an adherence to the so-called dramatic unities of time, place, and action. First, it basically observes the Aristotelian notion that the action should all occur within a twenty-four-hour time period. The action opens in the morning and ends in the early hours on the morning of the next day.
Second, the action all occurs in one locale, the backyard of the Keller home. Third, although the action is not continuous, within each of the three acts the action is continuous, and the three acts are arranged chronologically, as is the standard practice in most realistic plays. Breaks between acts are in part used to indicate the passage of time in the play’s action.
In March of 1947, President Harry S. Truman presented the Truman Doctrine to the U. S. Congress. The Truman Doctrine was an anti-Communist declaration that would shape American foreign policy for over four decades. With the Cold War heating up, fears of an international communist conspiracy were rapidly growing. The Truman Doctrine was meant to alleviate some of those very fears.
The now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its very visible investigations of alleged communist influence in Hollywood, resulting in the jailing and blacklisting of witnesses who refused to cooperate with investigators. The FBI, meanwhile, looked for evidence of communist infiltration in America; for example, they concluded that Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was little more than insidious communist propaganda.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: In the aftermath of World War II, the industrialized world divided into two armed superpowers: the Soviet bloc of communist nations and the Western democracies. In the West, the threat of communism led to suspicion and paranoia at the highest levels of government. Nuclear war seemed imminent.
Today: The threat of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and United States dissipated with the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Instead, the threat of terrorism reigns as well as the growing nuclear capabilities of rogue states such as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Iraq.
- 1940s: The Nuremberg Trials for war crimes and atrocities, which began soon after World War II, continued into 1949. The trials resulted in the imprisonment or execution of many high-ranking Nazis, particularly those involved in the running the concentration camps, which exterminated millions of victims.
Today: Reaction to genocide in several countries has led to a new call for tribunals to indict and condemn war criminals. A notable example of a modern war criminal is Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who in 1999 was charged with the mass murder of ethnic Albanians and indicted by the World Court. Such “ethnic cleansing” has also occurred in other states, including Iraq, Burundi, and Rwanda.
- 1940s: In the wake of World War II, concerns about wartime profiteering and unethical practices were widespread. In the 1950s such concerns would eventually compel President Dwight D. Eisenhower to warn America about what he called “the industrial-military complex.” War profits also took the form of stealing the assets of the war’s victims.
Today: In light of charges by several Jewish families that Swiss banks cooperated with Nazis during World War II and expropriated gold stolen from war victims, the whole issue of wartime profiteering has once more emerged. New concerns have emerged over the role some American industrialists may have played in the rise of Germany’s military in the 1930s.
- 1940s: Professional sports, with some rare exceptions (boxing, for example) were largely segregated. It was not until 1947 that the color line in Major League baseball was broken when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League. Until that time, African Americans could play only in the segregated Negro League.
Today: African Americans successfully compete in professional sports that seemed almost the exclusive domain of white athletes, notably tennis and golf.
positive steps to help rebuild the war-torn countries of both its allies and its former enemies, including Germany and Japan. On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall announced his plan for the economic recovery of Europe. With the Brussels Treaty of March 17, 1948, the Western European Union, the forerunner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was formed.
Meanwhile, King Michael of Romania abdicated, bringing another European country into the Soviet bloc. India and Pakistan were granted independence from Great Britain. In that same year, Mother Teresa left her Loreto order to move into the slums of Calcutta to establish her first school.
In Roswell, New Mexico, in July, 1947, there was a rash of UFO sightings and the reported crash of an alien space ship, the basis for what many still consider a lame government cover-up of the truth. Also that summer, Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player to play in the Major Leagues, had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and was on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year award.
In cinema, Elia Kazan, the director of All My Sons, won an Oscar for his direction of Gentlemen’s Agreement, a film about anti-Semitism. Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier in October, 1947. Breaking a different kind of barrier, Bell Telephone Laboratories introduced the transistor, the first important Postwar breakthrough in the evolution of microelectronics, fundamental in the development of the post-industrial, information-age technology of the late twentieth century.
All My Sons was Arthur Miller’s first successful play on Broadway. In hindsight, it may seem that the work lacks the great imaginative force of his next play, Death of Salesman (1949), still widely regarded as his masterpiece, but in All My Sons Miller certainly showed that he could both use dialogue very well and construct a riveting drama in the tradition of social realism.
Miller was fortunate to have as his director Elia Kazan, whose mercurial career was then rapidly rising, and an excellent cast, headed by Ed Begley as Joe Keller, Beth Merrill as Kate, Arthur Kennedy as Chris, Lois Wheeler as Ann Deever, and Karl Maiden as her brother, George. In most reviews, the quality of the production was recognized and applauded. The play chalked up a run of 328 performances and garnered the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. It was an impressive achievement for a new and virtually unknown playwright.
The work did not receive uniform raves, but it did win the approval of some influential critics, notably Brooks Atkinson of the The New York Times, the city’s most distinguished newspaper. In his autobiography, Timebends Miller says “it was Brooks Atkinson’s campaign for All My Sons that was responsible for its long run and my recognition as a playwright.”
Among other things, Atkinson defended the play against those who took umbrage with Miller’s depiction of an American businessman as one who puts material comfort and success above moral responsibility. For Atkinson, the play was “the most talented work by a new author in some time,” and though he recognized the important contribution of Kazan and the cast to the play’s power, he credited Miller with devising a “pitiless analysis of characters that gathers momentum all evening and concludes with both logic and dramatic impact.”
Most reviewers recognized Miller’s great promise even while finding flaws in the work. For Joseph Wood Krutch, the plot of the drama was “almost too neat.” “The pieces,” Krutch argued, “fit together with the artificial, interlocking perfection of a jig-saw puzzle, and toward the end one begins to feel a little uncomfortable to find all the implicit ironies so patly illustrated and poetic justice working with such mechanical perfection.” Moreover, Krutch took issue with Miller’s “warm respect for all the leftist pieties” and complained that the playwright’s “intellectual convictions” are “more stereotyped than his dramatic imagination.”
That Miller imposed a classical structure on a social problem play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov was recognized by his reviewers, whether leftist in sympathies, like Atkinson, or conservative, like Krutch. The influence of both Ibsen and Chekhov is noted by John Mason Brown, who views Dr. Bayliss as a Chekhovian interloper, and in the “spiritual stripteasing” of his main character, the use of symbolism, and his digging into the past to reveal the present and “rush forward to a new climax” the abiding and persistent influence of Ibsen.
To some critics, All My Sons also reflected the influence of classical tragedy. In the play, Kappo Phelan wrote, Miller “attempted and delivered a tragedy,” and the play is, in fact, the playwright’s first successful attempt to create what he would later call “a tragedy of the common man.” There are clear parallels to such Sophoclean tragedies as Oedipus Rex, both in structure and technique.
Both leftist ideology and the classical influence would keep All My Sons in the limelight until Death of a Salesman replaced it as the cynosure of critical attention. With that play, Miller came as close as any playwright before or since to demonstrate the validity of his assertion that tragedy is possible in a modern, egalitarian democracy. For that play, as well as The Crucible and View from the Bridge, All My Sons provided a firm foundation in both its theme of guilt and expiation and its tragic elements and structure.
John W. Fiero
Fiero is a Ph.D., now retired, who formerly taught drama and playwriting at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and is now a freelance writer and consultant. In this essay he considers All My Sons as Miller’s first attempt to write what he would call a tragedy of the common man, comparing it with Sophocles’s great tragedy, Oedipus Rex.
Writing in 1929, almost two full decades before All My Sons opened on Broadway, critic Joseph Wood Krutch wrote a celebrated essay entitled “The Tragic Fallacy.” His thesis was that modern audiences could not fully participate in the experience of tragedy because the tragic spirit, so vital and alive in the past, had simply stopped haunting the human landscape. Modern man no longer had tragedy’s requisite belief, if not in God or some other power greater than man, then at least in man.
Tragedy, opined Krutch, depended on what he termed the “tragic fallacy,” the “assumption which man so readily makes that something outside his own being, some ‘spirit not himself’—be it God, Nature, or that still vaguer thing called a Moral Order—joins him in the emphasis which he places upon this or that and confirms him in his feelings that his passions and his opinions are important.” Because of the “universally modern incapacity to conceive man as noble,” Krutch maintained that dramatists could no longer create tragedies, only “those distressing modern works sometimes called by its [tragedy’s] name,” works that, rather than celebrate a “triumph over despair” while exhibiting a “confidence in the value of human life,” simply depicted man’s haplessness and insignificance.
For Krutch, modern man’s diminished stature makes a character like Oswald Alving of Ibsen’s Ghosts a far more “relevant” character than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Krutch essentially indicts his contemporaries for allowing the tragic light to fade from the universe.
Arthur Miller, as he makes clear in his early plays All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge, was unwilling to admit that the light was gone. For him, a tragic consciousness still existed, even in the most ordinary sort of people. As he wrote in his piece called “Tragedy and the Common Man,” he believed that “the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing his sense of personal dignity.”
Moreover, Miller claimed, “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were,” a heretical view for those critics whose definition of tragedy was largely delimited by Aristotle’s Poetics.
Orrin Klapp, pondering what he called Americans’ “armor against tragic experience,” found a partial explanation for it in the “actual shrinkage in the stature of the heroes being presented,” a reduction in human significance that made it almost impossible “to see them as having the dignity necessary to be tragic.”
For Miller, nobility of soul is not contingent upon rank at all; it rather rests on an individual’s moral integrity and, at the last, a willingness to face the consequence of a fateful decision and shoulder its attendant guilt.
All My Sons was Miller’s first attempt to write such a tragedy of the common man, and although with Death of a Salesman, his next play, he made almost a quantum leap forward in technique, in the former work he created a prototype for all his common-man, familial tragedies, including the latter. In it he welded features of classical tragedy to the realistic thesis play in the tradition of Ibsen, maintaining a surface verisimilitude while advancing a plot designed in accordance with the logic of causality and plausible human motives.
Academically at least, Sophocles seems to haunt All My Sons. As more than one critic has noted, the parallels between Miller’s play and the Greek tragedian’s masterpiece, Oedipus Rex, are readily apparent. W. Arthur Boggs maintains, for example, that like Oedipus Rex, Miller’s play is a “tragedy of recognition.”
There is, of course, one major and obvious difference: the works do not share a commensurate tragic scope. The hamartia of Oedipus, the killing of his father, has consequences not just for his family but for the entire city state of Thebes; Keller’s hamartia, his transgression against a clear moral imperative, has primary consequences, at least among the living, only for his family and close associates.
However, both Oedipus and Joe Keller are patriarchs. Both are asked to solve a problem, which, unknowingly or unconsciously, they have themselves created. And both must confront the
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Aristotle’s Poetics offers a descriptive definition of ancient Greek tragedy. For some theorists, it is the ultimate critical authority on the nature of tragedy.
- Eugene O’Neill, in Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), comes as close as Miller does to writing a modern, family tragedy.
- An important sociological study, The Lonely Crowd (1969), by David Reisman, suggests that modern America has lost the capacity for guilt (necessary to tragedy).
- Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1991, revised edition), by Christopher Lasch, a more recent look at American culture, examines the changing cultural landscape.
- Stuart D. Brandes’s study, Warhogs: A History of War Profits in America (1997), is a thorough history of wartime profiteering in the United States, both before and since World War II.
truth, shoulder their terrible guilt, and respond by inflicting punishment upon themselves—Oedipus by blinding himself and exiling himself from Thebes, and Joe Keller by taking his own life.
Oedipus Rex and All My Sons share a similar pattern and structure, a common tragic rhythm. As Robert Hogan notes, both works involve “the revelation of a criminal whose crimes has occurred years earlier” and which has become “the crux of the present action.” In other words, both plays deal with untying the knot of a devastating and destructive truth that has been the source of a sickness that cannot be cured until it is recognized and faced by the protagonist. The sickness in Oedipus Rex, a plague, afflicts the entire community of Thebes; in All My Sons, it takes the form of a family’s failure to deal with the death of a son.
Furthermore, both Oedipus Rex and All My Sons deal with the transgression of one or more universal taboos and thus have strong moral focus. In the former, Oedipus violates taboos against incest and parricide; in the later, Joe Keller “kills” his son, Larry, and his spiritual sons, the twenty-one fighter pilots who die as a result of his actions.
Oedipus must first discover the truth of what he has done, while Joe must own up to the consequences of what he knows he has done and accept responsibility and guilt. Both protagonists in some sense lack knowledge, sharing a blindness to truth that is only cured when their ignorance, in a tragic recognition or epiphany, is sloughed off and they finally see clearly for the first time—even as their understanding destroys them. Ironically, their insight is the necessary recompense without which tragedy has no positive meaning and no power to elate rather than simply depress an audience.
Oedipus Rex comes from an age that accepted one premise alien to the modern mind: the victimization of “innocent” offspring used against their parents as instruments of divine justice. It is Oedipus’s unavoidable destiny that he should murder his father and marry his mother, atoning for their affront to the gods. A raw deal, perhaps, but Oedipus, who learns of his fate from the Oracle at Delphi as a young man, tries to defy the will of the gods by averting his fate. Not knowing that he is only the foster child of the king and queen of Corinth, he flees that city and, ironically, runs headlong into his fate. His defiance and resulting conviction that he has escaped his fate are evidence of his tragic flaw, his hubris, which, paradoxically, is also the source of his greatness.
Although Miller could hardly incorporate such a view of divine justice into All My Sons, he employs a modern parallel of sorts. Joe’s actions
victimize his innocent sons, Larry and Chris, both of whom have ethical principles that could never condone what their father has done.
Joe also shares some of Oedipus’s pride and arrogance. After leaving Corinth, Oedipus had struggled to regain the princely stature he sacrificed in his attempt to escape his divinely-ordained fate. By virtue of his strength, he survives a fateful encounter on the road, unwittingly committing parricide, and, through his intelligence, he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, becoming king of Thebes and unwittingly marrying Joscasta, his own mother.
As depicted by Sophocles, he repeatedly displays pride in his accomplishments, his rise to the throne of Thebes by merit rather than influence, and displays almost paranoid suspicions towards his uncle and brother-in-law, Creon, who, he believes, is jealous and resents him. In his mocking of the blind prophet, Tiresias, who, he suspects, is part of Creon’s conspiracy to usurp the throne, he is nearly blasphemous in his arrogance.
Joe Keller is also a proud man. Through hard work, he has made his way up in the world, from semi-skilled laborer to factory owner and become one of the richest men in town. He is confident in Chris’s faith and trust in him and cares little about what neighbors like Sue Bayliss believe about his culpability in the matter of the cracked cylinder heads.
However, his equanimity and affability dissolve with the arrival of Ann Deever, and then her brother, George. Like Oedipus, Joe suspects the motives of others. He mistrusts Ann, daughter to a man he left in prison to pay for what was his own crime. The Deevers, ghosts from the past, are a threat to Joe, not just because of what their father might have told them but because they can and do force a familial showdown, something that Joe has assiduously avoided. Ann and Chris want to marry, but they will not as long as Kate Keller clings to her hope that Larry Keller is still alive. If she must accept Larry’s death, then she will hold Joe responsible for it, something that neither Kate nor Joe can face.
The Deevers are like the Sophoclean messengers who bear fateful information. They confirm that Joe ordered the welding of the cracked cylinder heads and that he was the cause of his son’s death. Ann even bears a letter from Larry, in which, shamed by his father, Larry confides that he is setting out on a suicidal mission.
George, on the other hand, is an interesting parallel to the messenger from Corinth in Oedipus
“OEDIPUS REX AND ALL MY SONS SHARE A SIMILAR PATTERN AND STRUCTURE, A COMMON TRAGIC RHYTHM”
Rex, the one who comes to announce the deaths of the king and queen of that city, temporarily allaying Oedipus’s fears and, thereby, briefly turning the tide against the tragic direction of the play. There is a similar reversal in All My Sons, when George, disarmed by the amiability of Kate Keller, begins to accept Joe’s account of his father as a weak man, the one who made the sole decision to send on the defective airplane parts. Only when Kate inadvertently lets slip the fact that Joe was not sick on the fateful day does George begin to confront Joe again.
The influence of classical tragedy on All My Sons also resonates in other ways. For example, the idea of destiny or fate is introduced by Frank Lubey, the amateur and inept astrologer. He tries to convince Kate that there is hope that Larry is still alive because the day he was lost in action was, according to his horoscope, a propitious and fortunate day for him. There is also the virtual observance of the unities of time, place, and, to a degree, action, and a set that suggests the standard skene of Greek tragedy.
For some of the critics of the play, Miller seemed to be crowding such devices of tragedy into the somewhat unreceptive frame of realistic drama, jamming them into a confused situation made more confused by their inclusion or, as in the case of the letter in Ann’s possession, making them a bit too convenient and coincidental to pass muster as a device suited to the probability demanded by realism. To Boggs, for example, All My Sons lacks the precision and simple and direct focus of Oedipus Rex and, therefore, fails.
Still, All My Sons is the first effort by one of America’s major post-World War II dramatists, albeit unconsciously, to contest Krutch’s thesis of the impossibility of modern tragedy. Although in All My Sons he may not have succeeded according to critics, he at least succeeded in raising expectations. In fact, many commentators came to believe that the playwright was just one work shy of a masterpiece, which, two years later, graced the American theater in the guise of Death of a Salesman.
Source: John W. Fiero, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Arvin R. Wells
Wells discusses the merits of Miller’s play as a work of social thesis, but the critic also contends that the play offers a greater wealth of themes than that simple assessment—including the playwright’s probing insights into human nature.
Looked at superficially, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons may appear to be simply a social thesis play. Such classification—a valid one if severely qualified—is suggested both by the timeliness of the story and by the presence of considerable overt social criticism. The story itself is obviously calculated to engage the so-called social conscience. Stated in the simplest terms, the play dramatizes the process by which Joe Keller, a small manufacturer, is forced to accept individual social responsibility and, consequently, to accept his personal guilt for having sold, on one occasion during World War II, fatally defective airplane parts to the government.
However, while this bare-bone synopsis is essentially accurate, it does, in fact, do violence to the actual complexity of the play. In his well-known essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Miller comments,
Our lack of tragedy may be partially accounted for by the turn which modern literature has taken toward the purely psychiatric, or purely sociological.... From neither of these views can tragedy derive, simply because neither represents a balanced concept of life.
What is reflected here is Miller’s own careful avoidance of the “purely” this or that. And it might similarly be said that no satisfactory understanding of Miller’s All My Sons may be derived from a criticism which commits itself to a “purely” or even predominantly sociological or psychiatric view. The sociological view is particularly limiting in that it carries with it the temptation to approach the dramatic action from the level of broad socio-cultural generalizations and, consequently, to oversimplify character and action and, stumbling among subtleties of characterization, to accuse the playwright of a confusion of values which belongs appropriately to the characters in their situations.
Actually, like most of Miller’s plays, All My Sons demands of the reader an awareness of the deviousness of human motivation, an understanding of the way in which a man’s best qualities may be involved in his worst actions and cheapest ideas, and, in general, a peculiarly fine perception of cause and effect. Nowhere is it suggested that the social realities and attitudes that are brought within the critical focus of the play can be honestly considered outside of some such context of human aspirations and weaknesses as is provided by the play; and nowhere is it suggested that the characters are or can be judged strictly on the basis of some simple social ethic or ideal that might be deduced from the action. The characters do not simply reflect the values and attitudes of a particular society; they use those values and attitudes in their attempt to realize themselves. And it is these characteristics that give All My Sons, and other Miller plays, a density of texture so much greater than that of the typical social thesis play, which seeks not only to direct but to facilitate ethical judgments upon matters of topical importance.
For most of us there is no difficulty in assenting to the abstract proposition which Chris puts to his mother at the end of the play:
You can be better! Once and for all you can know now that the whole earth comes through those fences; there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible to it.
And there is no problem either in giving general intellectual assent to the morality of brotherhood for which Chris speaks. There is, however, considerable difficulty in assenting to the actual situation at the end of the play, in accepting it as a simple triumph of right over wrong. For the play in its entirety makes clear that Joe Keller has committed his crimes not out of cowardice, callousness, or pure self-interest, but out of a too-exclusive regard for real though limited values, and that Chris, the idealist, is far from acting disinterestedly as he harrows his father to repentance.
Joe Keller is a successful small manufacturer, but he is also “a man whose judgment must be dredged out of experience and a peasant-like common sense.” Like many uneducated, self-made men, he has no capacity for abstract considerations; whatever is not personal or at least immediate has no reality for him. He has the peasant’s insular loyalty to family which excludes more generalized responsibility to society at large or to mankind in general. At the moment of decision, when his business seemed threatened, the question for him was not basically one of profit and loss; what concerned him was a conflict of responsibilities—his responsibility to his family, particularly his sons to whom the business was to be a legacy of security and joy, versus his responsibility to the unknown men, engaged
“BECAUSE IT FORCES UPON THE READER AN AWARENESS OF THE INTRICACIES OF HUMAN MOTIVATION AND OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS, ALL MY SONS LEAVES A DUAL IMPRESSION: THE ACTION AFFIRMS THE THEME OF THE INDIVIDUAL’S RESPONSIBILITY TO HUMANITY, BUT, AT THE SAME TIME, IT SUGGESTS THAT THE STANDPOINT OF EVEN SO FINE AN IDEAL IS NOT AN ALTOGETHER ADEQUATE ONE FROM WHICH TO EVALUATE HUMAN BEINGS”
in the social action of war, who might as a remote consequence suffer for his dishonesty. For such a man as Joe Keller such a conflict could scarcely exist and, given its existence, could have only one probable resolution.
When the worst imaginable consequence follows—twenty-two pilots killed in Australia—Keller is nonetheless able to presume upon his innocence as established before the law. For in his ethical insularity—an insularity stressed in the play by the hedged-in backyard setting—he is safe from any serious assault of conscience so long as he can believe that the family is the most important thing and that what is done in the name of the family has its own justification. Yet, he is not perfectly secure within his sanctuary. His apparently thick skin has its sensitive spots: in his unwillingness to oppose his wife’s unhealthy refusal to accept her son Larry’s death, in his protest against Ann Deever’s rejection of her father, in his insistence that he does not believe in “crucifying a man,” and in his insistence that Chris should use what he, the father, has earned, “with joy... without shame... with joy,” he betrays a deep-seated fear. His appeal on behalf of Herb Deever (Act I) is in fact, partly a covert appeal on his own behalf, an appeal for merciful understanding called forth by the shocked realization that some considerations may override and even destroy the ties of family upon which his own security rests.
It is Chris Keller who, in reaching out for love and a life of his own, first undermines and then destroys this security altogether. Chris has brought out of the war an idealistic morality of brotherhood based on what he has seen of mutual self-sacrifice among the men whom he commanded. But he has not survived the war unwounded; he bears a still festering psychological wound, a sense of inadequacy and guilt. He has survived to enjoy the fruits of a wartime economy, and he fears that in enjoying them he becomes unworthy, condemned by his own idealism. Even his love for Ann Deever, the sweetheart of his dead brother, has seemed to him a guilty desire to take advantage of the dead to whom he somehow owes his life.
As the play opens, however, he has decided to assert himself, to claim the things in life and the position in life which he feels should rightfully be his, and as the initial step he has invited Ann to his family home. His decision brings him into immediate conflict with his mother, Kate Keller, who looks upon the possible marriage between Chris and Ann as a public confirmation of Larry’s death. At first Joe Keller seems only peripherally involved in this conflict; his attempt to evade Chris’s demand that Kate be forced to accept Larry’s death carries only ambiguous suggestions of insecurity. However, at the end of Act II, Kate, emotionally exhausted by the fruitless effort to use George Deever’s accusations as a means of driving out Ann, and opposed for the first time by the declared disbelief of both husband and son, breaks down and reveals the actual basis of her refusal: if Chris lets Larry go, then he must let his father go as well. What is revealed here is that Kate is fundamentally like her husband; only what is personal or immediate is real for her. If Larry is alive, then, in a sense, the war has no reality, and Joe’s crimes do not mean anything; their consequences are merely distant echoes in an unreal world. But if Larry is dead, then the war is real, and Joe is guilty of murder, even, by an act of association, guilty of murdering his own son. Her own desperate need to reject Larry’s death against all odds and upon whatever flimsy scrap of hope has been the reflex of her need to defend her relation to her husband against whatever in herself might be outraged by the truth about him. Actually, however, Kate has “an overwhelming capacity for love” and an ultimate commitment to the living which makes it possible for her to “let Larry go” and rise again to the defense of her husband at the end. It is Larry living not Larry dead that she clings to, and she does this because to admit his death would make both life and love more difficult. Moreover, as is generally true of Miller’s important women, Kate’s final loyalty is to her husband; to him as a living, substantial being, she, like Linda in Death of a Salesman, has made an irrevocable commitment in love and sympathy which no knowledge about him can destroy.
Chris, on the other hand, is incapable of any such surrender of the letter of morality in the name of love or mercy; he cannot, as his father would have him, “see it human.” At the rise of the curtain in Act II, Chris is seen dragging away the remains of Larry’s memorial tree. The action is clearly symbolic; Chris, because of his own needs, has determined to free the family of the shadow of self-deception and guilt cast over it by the memory of Larry, to let in the light of truth. Yet, when the light comes, he is less able to bear it than the others. Ann, in the hope of love and marriage, rejects the seeds of hatred and remorse which her brother, George, offers her, and Kate sacrifices the dead son to the living father. But Chris has too much at stake; his life must vindicate the deaths of those who died in the war, which means that he must maintain an ideal image of himself or else be overwhelmed by his own sense of guilt. Because he is closely identified with his father, his necessary sense of personal dignity and worthiness depends upon his belief in the ideal image of his father; consequently, he can only accept the father’s exposure as a personal defeat.
It becomes clear in the exchange between Chris and George Deever (Act II) that Chris has suspected his father but has suppressed his suspicions because he could not face the consequences—the condemnation of the father, whom he loves, and the condemnation of himself as polluted by sharing in the illicit spoils of war. Yet, this is precisely what the exposure of Joe Keller forces upon him, and Joe’s arguments in self-defense—that he had expected the defective parts to be rejected, that what he did was done for the family, that business is business and none of it is “clean”—all shatter upon the hard shell of Chris’s idealism not simply because they are, in fact, evasions and irrelevant half-truths, but because they cannot satisfy Chris’s conscience. Consequently, even after Larry’s suicide letter has finally brought to Joe a realization of his personal responsibility, Chris must go on to insist upon a public act of penance. The father becomes, indeed, a kind of scapegoat for the son; that is, if Joe expiates his crimes through the acceptance of a just punishment, then Chris will be relieved of his own burden of paralyzing guilt. His love of his father and his complicity with his father will then no longer imply his own unworthiness. In insisting that Joe must go to prison, Chris is, in effect, asking Joe to give him back his self-respect, so that he may be free to marry Ann and assume the life which is rightfully his. But Chris’s inability to accept his father “as a man” leads Joe to believe that not only have his defenses crumbled but that the whole basis of his life is gone, and he kills himself.
Because it forces upon the reader an awareness of the intricacies of human motivation and of human relationships, All My Sons leaves a dual impression: the action affirms the theme of the individual’s responsibility to humanity, but, at the same time, it suggests that the standpoint of even so fine an ideal is not an altogether adequate one from which to evaluate human beings, and that a rigid idealism operating in the actual world of men entails suffering and waste, especially when the idealist is hagridden by his own ideals. There is no simple opposition here between those “who know” and those who “must learn,” between those who possess the truth and those who have failed to grasp it, between the spiritually well and the spiritually sick. Moreover, the corruption and destruction of a man like Joe Keller, who is struggling to preserve what he conceives to be a just evaluation of himself in the eyes of his son, implies, in the context of the play, a deficiency not only in Keller’s character but in the social environment in which he exists. Keller’s appeal to the general ethics of the business community—
If my money’s dirty there ain’t a clean nickel in the United States. Who worked for nothin’ in that war?... Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price?... It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?
—is irrelevant to his personal defense; yet, it is an indictment of that community nonetheless. For it indicates that the business community failed to provide any substantial values which might have supplemented and counter-balanced Keller’s own limited, family-based ethics. From the business community came only the impulse to which Chris also responds when he feels prompted to express his love for Ann by saying, “I’m going to make a fortune for you!”
Furthermore, there is a sense in which Kate’s words, “We were all struck by the same lightning,” are true; the lightning was the experience of the second World War—a massive social action in which they were all, willy-nilly, involved. It was the war that made it possible for some to profit by the suffering and death of others and that created the special occasion of Joe Keller’s temptation, which led in turn to his son Larry’s suicide and his wife’s morbid obsession. Chris Keller and George Deever brought something positive out of the war—an ideal of brotherhood and a firmer, more broadly based ethic—but George, as he appears in the play, is paying in remorse for the principles that led him to reject his father, and Chris’s idealism is poisoned at the source by shame and guilt, which are also products of his war experience and which make it impossible for him to temper justice with mercy either for himself or anyone else.
Source: Arvin R. Wells. “The Living and the Dead in All My Sons” in Modern Drama, Vol. 7, no. 1, May, 1964, pp. 46–51.
One of the most highly regarded drama critics of the twentieth century, Clurman examines All My Sons in the context of the other plays of 1947, finding that the work “rouses and moves.”
A dramatic critic eminent among dramatic critics recently wrote an article which suggested that plays “about something” were generally duds. The article was either very sly or very stupid. It was very sly insofar as it is unarguable that most plays the premise and sentiment of which we do not accept cannot please us. What was stupid in the article was to isolate “plays about something” into a special category of plays that are topical, political or, in some over-all manner, propaganda. Propaganda in the theatre may be defined as the other fellow’s point of view or any position with which we disagree.
All plays are about something, whether or not they have an explicit thesis. Peter Pan is as much about something as Candida. Cyrano de Bergerac is as clear an expression of something as Bury the Dead. The Iceman Cometh is as much “propaganda” as Deep Are the Roots. St. Joan is as definitely a preachment as any play ever presented on Fourteenth Street by the old Theatre Union.
The critic’s first job is to make clear what a play is about. Many reviewers are signally inept in the performance of this simple duty. The reason for this is that they mistake a play’s materials for its meaning. It is as if an art critic were to say that Cézanne’s painting is about apples, or to suppose that because religious subjects were used in many classic paintings
“WHAT MAKES THE THEME OF ALL MY SONS INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT IS THAT WE CONSTANTLY TALK OF ‘SERVICE’ AND REPEAT OTHER RESIDUAL PHRASES FROM THE RELIGIONS WE INHERIT WHILE WE ACTUALLY LIVE A DAILY LIFE DEVOTED TO THE PURSUIT OF POWER OR SUCCESS, THE MOST UNQUESTIONED SYMBOL OF WHICH IS MONEY”
all these paintings were necessarily inspired by religious feeling.
An artist generally finds it convenient to use the material he finds closest at hand. What he says with his material always reveals something personal and distinct that cannot be described comprehensively merely by stating the materials he has employed. One play about a strike may convey some intimate frustration, another may be a lyric outburst of youthful aspiration. A slight comedy like Noel Coward’s Present Laughter is not so much a play about the affairs of a successful playwright as a demonstration of a state of mind in which contempt and indifference to the world have been accepted as a sort of aristocratic privilege.
In the Simonov comedy The Whole World Over, which I directed, the subjects of the housing shortage and the rehabilitation of the veteran are brought into play, but they are not at all the essence of the matter. This comedy is essentially an image of faith and joy in everyday living, told in the folk tradition of those gay and sentimental songs which establish the continuity between what is universal in the spirit of the old and the new Russia.
Another play that has been variously characterized as a war play or as a play about the returned GI or as an attack on war profiteers is Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. The central character of All My Sons is a small businessman who during the war sent out defective airplane parts which he hoped would not be used in actual combat but which he would not recall for fear his army contracts would be canceled and his business and his family ruined as a result. The play presents the gradual disclosure of these facts to the businessman’s younger son, a former army officer. The revelation brings with it not only a realization that twenty-one boys were killed as a consequence of the use of the defective material but that the manufacturer’s older son—an army pilot—committed suicide because of his father’s crime. The younger son tries to make his father and mother understand that nothing—not business necessity nor devotion to family—can mitigate the father’s guilt. A man must be responsible not alone to his wife and children but, ultimately, to all men. Failure to act on this fundamental tenet must inevitably lead to crime.
Contrary to what some reviewers have suggested, the author does not exonerate the central character by making the “system” responsible for his guilt. Such an explanation is the cogent but desperate excuse that the guilty man offers, but his son (and the author) emphatically deny his right to use it. There can be no evasion of the burden of individual human responsibility.
The distorted “individualism” of our day that makes the private good of the individual the final criterion for human action is shown to be inhuman and destructive, whereas the true individualism of our early American prophets made the individual responsible to the community. The man who blames society for his betrayal of it is a weakling and a coward. The individual of Arthur Miller’s ethic is the guarantor in his own person of society’s health. The difference between Arthur Miller’s individualist and the believer in “rugged individualism” today is that the latter narrows his sense of self so that it extends no further than the family circle, while the former gives himself the scope of humanity.
What makes the theme of All My Sons increasingly important is that we constantly talk of “service” and repeat other residual phrases from the religions we inherit while we actually live a daily life devoted to the pursuit of Power or Success, the most unquestioned symbol of which is money. The real war in modern life is between a memory of morality and the pressure of “practicality.” We live in a schizoid society. This is an open secret, but everybody pretends not to see it or condemns as “idealism” any attempt to remedy the condition. To understand that our double standard is a fatal disease is, as a matter of fact, the first step in a realistic attitude toward life. We shall see—at a later point of the present article—that it is this realism which a part of our society at the moment wishes to resist.
Some reviewers complain that the plot of All My Sons is too complicated. For a while I failed to understand what was meant by this criticism. Then I realized that the whole aspect of the mother’s insistence that her son, reported missing, is alive—her clinging to every prop of belief, including the solace of astrological assurance—was what struck some of the reviewers as irrelevant. This is a misunderstanding that derives from thinking of the play as an exposé of war profiteering.
The war-profiteering aspect of the play, I repeat, represents the play’s material, not its meaning. What Arthur Miller is dramatizing is a universal not a local situation. The mother, whose role in the explicit plot of the play is incidental, is the center of the play’s meaning. She embodies the status quo or norm of our present-day ethic and behavior pattern. It is on her behalf that the husband has committed his crime. She, as well as what she represents, is his defense. But she cannot consciously accept the consequence of the morality she lives by, for in the end it is a morality that kills her children and even her husband. In order to retain her strength she cannot abandon her position—everything must be done for one’s own—and yet it is this position that has destroyed what she hopes to protect. She is a “normal” woman, yet she is sick. She suffers from severe headaches; she is subject to anxiety dreams. She believes in the stars and with fervid complacency maintains that “some superstitions are very nice.”
If there is a “villain” in the piece, it is the mother—the kindly, loving mother who wants her brood to be safe and her home undisturbed. When her husband, who believes too slavishly in her doctrine—it is the world’s doctrine, and so there can be no fault with it—when her husband breaks down under the logic of her doctrine, which has made him a murderer, she has no better advice than, “Be smart!...” Yet she, too, is innocent. When her son’s friend, the doctor, mumbles: “How many people walking around loose, and they’re crazy as coconuts. Money, money, money, money; you say it long enough, it doesn’t mean anything. Oh how I’d love to be around when that happens,” she answers, “You’re so childish, Jim!...” She is innocent because she cannot understand. Not even in the extremity of her grief does she understand. When her son tells her: “I’m like everybody else now. I’m practical now. You made me practical,” she answers, “But you have to be.” To her dying day, she will remain with this her only wisdom, her only conviction.
Her son cries out: “The cats in the alley are practical. The bums who ran away when we were fighting were practical. Only the dead ones weren’t practical. But now I’m practical and I spit on myself. I’m going away.” This is the essence of the playwright’s meaning: “This is the land of the great big dogs. You don’t love a man here, you eat him! That’s the principle; the only one we live by... This is a zoo, a zoo!...” The mother is sorry... deeply sorry. “What more can we be?” she asks. “You can be better!” her son answers, and it is the dramatist’s answer as well.
Arthur Miller’s talent is a moral talent with a passionate persistence that resembles that of the New England preacher who fashioned our first American rhetoric. All My Sons rouses and moves us even though it lacks the supreme fire of poetic vision. The determined thrust of its author’s mind is not yet enough to melt or transfigure us, but in a theatre that has grown slothful it will have to do. Yes, it will do.
Source: Harold Clurman. “Arthur Miller: 1947” in his Lies Like Truth, Macmillan, 1958, pp. 64–68.
In this review of the original stage production, Fleming assesses Miller’s play as a thought-provoking and entertaining theatrical experience.
During the war Joe Keller allowed a batch of defective cylinder heads to be incorporated in the aircraft engines made by his factory. It was a deliberately irresponsible act, but Keller never saw it in that light. To him, because he accepted no responsibilities outside the circle of his own family and his own business, it seemed the prudent, the natural, thing to do; to hold up production by declaring the parts defective might in those frantic urgent times have lost him his Government contract and thus damaged his business and reduced the size of his sons’ inheritance. So the cylinder heads went out to the South West Pacific and caused the death of twenty-one pilots to whose number (we learn at the end of the play) must be added Keller’s elder son.
All this happened two years before the play begins. Keller has almost lived down the scandal caused by a judicial enquiry at which he contrived to shift the blame on to an associate, who as a consequence is still in gaol. The associate’s daughter, Ann, was the sweetheart of Keller’s dead son and now wants to marry the brother who survived him. This is opposed both by Mrs. Keller, who insists on believing that Larry, whose death has never been officially confirmed, will turn up again one day, and by Ann’s brother, George, who knows that Keller framed their father and has understandably little use for the family. Bit by bit the full measure of Keller’s guilt becomes apparent to the other characters, and at last even Keller himself is shocked into the realisation that what he has done amounts, not to an astute though unfortunate trick, but to a major crime against his fellow-men. The burden of this knowledge is more than he can bear, and he shoots himself.
This play—sincere, deft, at times distinguished—is well worth seeing. Its fault is a tendency, not uncommon on the American stage and screen, to moralise a shade too explicitly; but its virtues—good dialogue, confident characterisation and strong situations—more than compensate for the undertone of uplift. Its production by the Company of Four marks an achievement which is painfully rare in London; the cast—only two of whom, I think, are American—manage to give the impression that they all are. They also act very well. Mr. Joseph Calleia makes Keller a man whose past villainies, until in a flash of revelation he acknowledges them as such, cause him only the same sort of mild, embarrassed uneasiness as he might feel if he had a hole in his sock; it is a very good performance, and so is Miss Margalo Gillmore’s as his wife. The others do admirably, too, and my only criticism of the production is that the tree, alleged to have been blown down in a storm and much discussed during the first act, had so obviously been the victim of some sharp instrument that distracting and erroneous suspicions of vandalism obtrude themselves.
Source: Peter Fleming. “The Theatre” in the Spectator, May 21, 1948, p. 612.
Atkinson, Brooks. “The Play in Review,” New York Times, January 30, 1947, p. 21.
Atkinson, Brooks. “Welcome Stranger,” New York Times, February 9, 1947, sec. 2, p. 1.
Boggs, W. Arthur. “Oedipus and All My Sons” in the Personalist, Vol. 42, 1961, pp. 555-60.
Brown, John Mason. “New Talents and Arthur Miller,” Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 30, March 1, 1947, pp. 22-4.
Hewes, Henry. “Introduction” in Famous American Plays of the 1940s. Dell Publishing, 1960, p. 15.
Hogan, Robert. Arthur Miller, University of Minnesota Press, 1964, p. 17.
Klapp, Orrin E. “Tragedy and the American Climate of Opinion,” in Tragedy: Vision and Form, edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 2nd edition. Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 252- 62.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Drama,” Nation, Vol. 164, February 15, 1947, pp. 191,193.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. “The Tragic Fallacy,” in Tragedy: Vision and Form, edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 2nd edition. Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 227-37.
Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man,” in Tragedy: Vision and Form, edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 2nd edition. Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 168-70.
Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life, Grove Press, 1987, p. 138.
Phelan, Kappo. “The Stage and Screen: All My Sons,” Commonweal, Vol. 45, February 14, 1947, pp. 445-46.
Adam, Julie. Versions of Heroism in Modern American Drama: Redefinitions by Miller, Williams, O’Neill and Anderson, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Examining and comparing the protagonists of major American playwrights who attempted to write tragedy, Adam finds that their heroism can fit into distinct categories: idealism, martyrdom, self-reflection, and survival.
Gross, Barry. “All My Sons and the Larger Context,” Modern Drama, Vol. 18, 1975, pp. 15-27.
Gross examines Joe Keller and his son Chris in light of Miller’s aim to create a play functioning as “legislation,” exhibiting a strong social purpose, and examines the generation gap between the father and son.
Hayman, Ronald. Arthur Miller, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1972.
In this brief monograph, Hayman offers a good critical introduction to Miller’s earliest plays. Hayman, concludes that Miller’s principal concern is with cause and effect.
Hogan, Robert. Arthur Miller, University of Minnesota Press, 1964.
A brief work in the pamphlet series on American writers, Hogan’s study is a critical overview of Miller’s early works up to and including After the Fall. It notes the similarity of structure between All My Sons and Oedipus Rex.
Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life, Grove Press, 1987.
Miller’s autobiography offers insights to all his work written into the 1980s. He offers personal reflections on his plays.
Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller, Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Moss examines Miller’s “technical resources,” his “dialogue styles, narrative conventions, symbolic devices, and structural principles.”
Moss, Leonard. “Arthur Miller and the Common Man’s Language,” Modern Drama, 7 (1964), pp. 52-9.
Moss’s article explores Miller’s tendency to use ordinary speech for the expression of ethical abstractions. It uses All My Sons to illustrate some of its points.
Wells, Arvin R. “The Living and the Dead in All My Sons,” Modern Drama, Vol. 7, 1964, pp. 46-51.
This article argues that All My Sons and other Miller plays have a “density of texture” that is much greater than that of a “typical social thesis play.”