Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642

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.

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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 Malden 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 jigsaw 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.

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