The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
The first act of All My Sons takes place in the backyard of the Keller home early one Sunday morning in August. The yard is both secluded and comfortable, and its contents suggest a normal upper-middle-class American home: a small trellised arbor, some garden chairs, a table, a garbage pail, and a wire leaf-burner. A slender apple tree, cut in half by a violent wind, is the only other noticeable piece of stage property.
As the play begins, Joe Keller is bemusedly reading the classified adds in the Sunday paper. Jim Bayliss, his physician neighbor, has joined him. They are soon joined by another neighbor, Frank Lubey. Noticing the tree, Frank remembers that this is the month of Larry’s birthday. Larry was Joe’s eldest son and, as a pilot in the war, was shot down three years ago. Because his body was never recovered, Kate, his mother, hysterically clings to the belief that he is still alive. Joe informs the two men that Ann, who had been Larry’s girlfriend, has returned to the neighborhood and is sleeping in the guest room.
After Frank and Jim leave, Chris, Joe’s younger son, enters. Joe wonders if Kate has seen the damaged tree, but his musing is cut short by the excited entrance of Bert, a young boy. During a comic scene, it becomes clear that Joe has “deputized” Bert to monitor the behavior of the neighborhood children. Further, he has shown Bert a gun and convinced the impressionable young boy that the basement of the house is, in reality, a jail. The boy leaves, and Chris confronts his father. First, he argues that they should not have allowed his mother’s romantic belief that Larry is still alive to continue for so long. Second, he announces that he plans to marry Ann, that he is tired of working in his father’s business, and that if his mother refuses to accept his marriage and Larry’s death he will leave. Joe promises to help, but their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Kate.
Kate, who suspects that Ann’s arrival has some deeper significance, says that she has seen Larry in a dream. She points to the felled tree as proof that her son is still alive. Chris exits into the house. Kate immediately turns on Joe, demanding to know why Ann has arrived. Further, she threatens that if Larry fails to come home she will kill herself. She is interrupted, however, when Chris comes into the yard with Ann.
In the tense scene that follows, Ann flatly dismisses Kate’s belief that Larry is still alive. Further, she refuses to forgive her imprisoned father: Her father, Joe’s business partner, has been convicted of knowingly supplying cracked cylinder heads to the Army Air Force. As a result, twenty-one planes crashed, killing twenty-one pilots. Joe, who was found innocent of the same charge, defends her father as a “little man” caught in a situation beyond his control. After his parents have left, Chris and Ann confess their love for each other. She asks him why he waited so long to reveal his love; Chris replies that, after the war, he could find no meaning in life, feeling guilty that he was alive when so many had died. Their intimacy is broken by the news that Ann’s brother George is on the phone. George, a lawyer, has seen his father in prison and wants to talk to Ann immediately. As Chris and Ann leave, Joe...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
All My Sons is a carefully crafted realist play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen, and it contains many of the elements that would become the familiar hallmarks of his most successful plays: the strained language, the minimal and delicate use of symbolism, the use of a small cast of characters, the tight structure, and the depiction of a “little man” caught between a fraudulent present and a wasted past.
One of the most successful features of the play is its sharp and realistic dialogue. In the opening scene, the leisurely talk between Joe Keller and Jim quickly becomes strained and tense when Frank enters. Frank’s comments about Larry force Joe out of his bemused mood, and his changed speech and behavior begin to reveal his inner tension. At other times, Miller’s dialogue achieves a remarkable naturalness. The scene between Joe and Bert, the young boy, illustrates Miller’s skill at writing natural, witty dialogue. The language creates an immediately recognizable real world, while providing glimpses of the hidden forces which threaten to erupt at any moment.
Another feature of the play is Miller’s use of symbolism. The spare set economically conveys the relaxed atmosphere of a secure family, yet within this normal scene Miller has placed a felled apple tree. A symbol of the dead son, the ever-present tree becomes a metaphor for the eventual destruction not only of the myth of the son’s survival but also of the entire...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Keller’s backyard. This setting represents a family having achieved the American Dream, but the dream is realized by unethical profiteering during the context of the recently completed World War II. Keller’s backyard is a place where members of the family socialize, recall pleasant memories of younger innocent days, and interact with neighbors. However, it is also a place where secrets are revealed, such as Larry’s suicide, Annie’s desire to marry Chris, and Joe Keller’s guilt about manufacturing faulty airplane parts. A broken tree in the backyard symbolizes the breaking of the family.
This setting underscores the typical upper-middle-class home in which American affluence presumes American moral superiority. However, in this place the truths that are revealed transform it from a haven of moralization to the place of Keller’s demise. Thus it fulfills playwright Arthur Miller’s intention of suggesting that all Americans who put business above personal integrity demonstrate a lack of moral integrity.
Keller’s house. Throughout the play, characters enter the house to avoid the intensity of the discussions and potential revelations occurring in the backyard. The interior of the house thereby becomes a place in which secrets are nourished, while the backyard is a place of revelation.
Prison. Offstage location. Annie’s father, a former business associate of Joe Keller, is in prison for his role in making faulty airplane parts. Though offstage, the prison exists prominently in the minds of the characters, prompting justification on the part of Joe Keller and denial on the part of his wife. It also represents the place to which Joe Keller will go, once the truth about his own complicity is discovered and he is expelled from his comfortable house and yard.
*New York City
*New York City. The American city suggesting wealth and business, it is seven hundred miles from the setting of the play. Its distance and prominence as a great center of American business contrast with the suburban life of the Kellers. It is also the place in which Annie and her brother choose to live after their father goes to prison, so it serves as a temporary escape from the scrutiny of the neighbors in their former neighborhood.
Act One Questions and Answers
1. Which signs are connected to Larry’s disappearance, and how are they important in this act?
2. How does Kate approach motherhood, and what is the effect of this approach on her family?
3. Why does Kate object to the possible marriage of Chris and Ann?
4. How is the (former) friendship between Steve Deever and Joe Keller important to the plot?
5. What is the mood by the end of this act, and what does it portend for act two?
1. Several signs suggest that Larry is in danger or has died: the destruction of the apple tree (a memorial to him planted in the backyard), the vision of his fall from the sky...
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Act Two Questions and Answers
1. Who is George, and what is the significance of his role in this act?
2. Which key conflict is most important to the development of the plot in act two, and what does this conflict emphasize or reveal?
3. How are the values and practices associated with market capitalism depicted?
4. What is the relationship between Joe’s defense for his crime and the key themes of the play?
5. What is the primary moral problem in this act, and how does it impact the Kellers?
1. George is a lawyer and Ann Deever’s brother. His repeated questioning of the Kellers and their role in the crime blamed on his father...
(The entire section is 334 words.)
Act Three Questions and Answers
1. Why is the confirmation of Larry’s death understood and accepted so quickly by his family, especially by Kate?
2. What is the significance of the comparisons made between war and business in this act?
3. Why does Joe Keller decide to commit suicide?
4. How does the play end, and how is that ending tragic?
5. To what extent does the final scene resolve the primary conflict(s) of the play?
1. Ann confirms Larry’s death by sharing a letter with the Kellers that reveals his intention to commit suicide; the details of the letter match the circumstances of his death exactly and cannot be denied. Kate...
(The entire section is 307 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bigsby, C. W. E. “Drama from a Living Center.” In Arthur Miller, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Initially discusses All My Sons as a play of moral didacticism and then probes a subtext that explores the guilt of the idealist. Maintains that the play has a well-constructed plot development and contrivances.
Blumberg, Paul. “Sociology and Social Literature: Work Alienation in the Plays of Arthur Miller,” in American Quarterly. XXI (1969), pp. 291-310.
Corrigan, Robert W. “The Achievement of Arthur Miller,” in Comparative Drama. II (1968), pp. 141-160....
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