Life on the edge of a cliff
All My Sons, Arthur Miller, first published in 1947, published in Penguin Books, 1961, £3.99. Other Books Consulted: Collected Plays, Arthur Miller, Cresset Press, 1958; Timebends, Arthur Miller, Metheun, 2005; The Crucible in History and Other Essays, Arthur Miller, Metheun, 2000.
A play ought to make sense to common-sense people...the only challenge worth the effort is the widest one and the tallest one, which is the people themselves.
Arthur Miller in his Introduction to Collected Plays, 1958
ARTHUR MILLER was the best-known playwright in the last 50 years, probably since Bernard Shaw and, like Shaw, a force of great moral and intellectual stature. "Death of a Salesman", "The Crucible", "A View from the Bridge" and "All My Sons" are among the best plays of the 20th century because they are about something, about issues that lean towards moral values under siege in advanced capitalist societies. The issue that concerned Miller was America's lack of historical sense, the decay in the connective tissue between the past, present and future. "Whoever is writing in the United States is using the American Dream as an ironical pole of his story. People elsewhere tend to accept, to a far greater degree anyway, that the conditions of life are hostile to man's pretensions." Miller always reclaimed the past in his plays as a means to understanding the future and his recurrent subjects were the Depression, betrayal in private and public life, guilt and the loss of innocence. "America,' he said, "was promises and the Crash was a broken promise, in the deepest sense. I think Americans in general live on the edge of a cliff, and they're waiting for the other shoe to drop."
"All My Sons", a play in three acts, is a savage indictment of capitalism gone bonkers the Depression influenced Miller deeply and coloured all his plays with wartime profiteering leading to the loss of innocent human lives. Miller's anti-hero is Joe Keller, a businessman who knowingly dispatches defective airplane parts to the very front where his son is stationed. Though his son never flew the same model of airplane, the audience discovers he is driven to undertake a suicidal mission by the death of his colleagues who did and never returned home, and by the discovery that his own father had shifted all the blame for the situation onto his partner. To top it all, the father tells his son that he did it all for "a business for you".
Chris: "For me! Where do you live, where have you come from? For me! I was dying every day and you were killing my boys and you did it for me? What the hell do you think I was thinking of, the Goddam business? ... What the hell do you mean, you did it for me? Don't you have a country? Don't you live in the world? What the hell are you? You're not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you? I ought to tear the tongue out of your mouth, what must I do? ....What must I do, Jesus God, what must I do?"
Ultimately, Keller's realisation is that his guilt is inescapable and that his public responsibility is indivisible from his personal ones. "Sure, he was my son," runs the last line in Act III. "But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, they were."
It is the straightforwardness of "All My Sons" that hits you. It was conceived in wartime and begun in wartime: the spectacle of human sacrifice in contrast to the aggrandizement is a sharp and heartbreaking one. In his Introduction to the Collected Plays, Miller says, "at a time when all public voices were announcing the arrival of that great day when industry and labour were one, my personal experience was daily demonstrating that beneath the slogans very little had changed. In this sense, the play was a response to what I felt `in the air'. It was an unveiling of what I believed everybody knew and nobody publicly said."
"All My Sons" asks whether we take responsibility for each other: Are we social animals? Joe Keller's problem, Miller said of the protagonist, "is not that he cannot tell right from wrong but his cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with the world, his universe, or his society. He is not a partner in society, but an incorporated member, so to speak." If this sounds like an evangelist speaking, Miller's message was this: there is such a thing as society and art ought to be used to change it. Given the kitsch all around, it is hard to take that art saves lives or feeds the hungry but "All My Sons" (as, too, his other plays) comes as close as any writer can get to making art a balm for social concern.
Nature or nurture?
The question that Miller doesn't quite answer is, what makes the Joe Kellers of the world "incorporated members", insensitive to the world around them? Is it the system that makes us do what we end up doing? Nature or nurture? Unlike "Death of a Salesman", where nothing in life comes "next", where everything exists together and at the same time like a mass of contradictions inside one's head, "All My Sons" throws up "the connections between the present and the past, between events and moral consequences, between the manifest and the hidden."
Arthur Miller had said about Mark Twain that he "somehow managed despite a steady underlying seriousness which few writers have matched to step around the pit of self-importance and to keep his membership in the ordinary human race in front of his mind and his writing." Much the same could be said about Miller himself who may have stretched things a bit in "All My Sons" but mainly, he told the truth.
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