Act One Summary and Analysis
Joe Keller/Keller: a businessman about sixty years old, who rose from humble beginnings to a career in industrial manufacturing
Kate Keller/Mother: Joe’s wife and Chris’s mother, who is about fifty years old
Chris Keller: the oldest Keller son, who is already a war veteran and partial owner of his father’s business at the age of thirty-two
Ann/Annie Deever: the beautiful, former girl next door, who is twenty-six years old and still single.
Doctor Jim Bayliss: the current next-door neighbor to the Kellers, who is a physician
Sue Bayliss: Jim’s wife
Frank Lubey: a neighbor who grew up with the Keller boys
Lydia Lubey: Frank’s wife and mother of their three children
The play consists of three acts only; the device of subdividing each act into scenes is not used. This straightforward structure extends to the plot and setting; the action begins and ends in less than twenty-four hours—from a Sunday to a Monday morning—and takes place in the sole setting of the Keller family home and backyard. We are in post-World War II America. The Keller home is large and newly painted, symbolizing middle-class success and respectability. The backyard, on the other hand, is littered with lawn furniture, household items, and even debris from an apple tree. The discontinuity between the respectable house and the disheveled yard hints at several of the play’s prevalent thematic contrasts—between success and failure, order and disorder, harmony and conflict.
In fact, multiple sources of conflict within the Keller home are revealed in act one. Larry, Joe Keller’s youngest son, disappeared during service in WWII and has been missing in action for three years. The act opens with small talk between Joe and his neighbors, Frank and Jim, that quickly turns from the daily news to Larry. The attention of the group is focused on an ominous portent of trouble: an apple tree intended to be a memorial to Larry has been downed by a windstorm during the previous night. Joe worries that this event, which occurs in the same month as Larry’s birthday, will upset his wife, Kate. Moreover, Ann Deever, Larry’s former girlfriend, has returned for a surprise visit to the Keller home. Her visit will serve only as another painful reminder of Larry’s absence for Kate. The action shifts as sparring between the two neighbors and their respective wives interrupts the conversation and takes them away from the yard.
A short interlude between Chris, the Kellers’ oldest son; Bert, a neighborhood boy; and Joe introduces new problems and complications into the storyline. Joe teases Bert about his role in a game of “policing” (the neighborhood) that the older man has started with the local children. A sinister undertone emerges in the mostly humorous dialogue when Joe insists that he will jail any offenders “arrested” by Bert (the mock policeman of the block) in his basement; he refers to his hunting gun as proof of his serious intent. The gun, in addition to the fallen tree, is the second portent of trouble in this act.
While Joe sends Bert off to detect trouble, he need look no farther than his own conversation with his son, Chris. Chris, who has survived the war to become a partner in, and eventual inheritor of, his father’s business, admits that he has summoned Ann to the family home in order to propose to her. Chris and Joe both understand that this plan will be devastating to Kate, for she clings to the slim chance that Larry will return and that he and Ann will marry. In Joe’s words, the union of Chris and Ann would be like “pronouncing Larry dead” to Kate. Although father and son agree that this pronouncement is inevitable, neither man can risk it at this time.
Unbeknownst to Chris, however, Kate already suspects his intentions. This fact, as well as her unflagging resistance to the plan, is revealed in the next segment when Kate joins the conversation. Her resistance relies on the belief that both she and Ann possess an...
(The entire section is 2,168 words.)