Comparing Miller's Play with Sophocles's Oedipus Rex
Last Updated on June 2, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996
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 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 have 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 latter, 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 trusts 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 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 Miller 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. 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.
The Living and the Dead in All My Sons
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2548
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 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.
Arthur Miller: 1947
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1602
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 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. 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.’’ She answers, ‘‘Oh how I'd love to be around when that happens. 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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
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.