|Studying Arthur Miller's All My Sons|
This guide is written for teachers and students who are studying Arthur Miller's play All My Sons. The guide is written specifically for students in the UK, but I hope it may be helpful to users from other parts of the world. All My Sons is sometimes set as a text for assessed work in drama for English and English literature exams.
The action of the play is set in August 1947, in the mid-west of the U.S.A. The events depicted occur between Sunday morning and a little after two o'clock the following morning.
Joe Keller, the chief character, is a man who loves his family above all else, and has sacrificed everything, including his honour, in his struggle to make the family prosperous. He is now sixty-one. He has lost one son in the war, and is keen to see his remaining son, Chris, marry. Chris wishes to marry Ann, the former fiancée of his brother, Larry. Their mother, Kate, believes Larry still to be alive. It is this belief which has enabled her, for three and a half years, to support Joe by concealing her knowledge of a dreadful crime he has committed.
Arthur Miller, the playwright, found the idea for Joe's crime in a true story, which occurred during the second world war: a manufacturer knowingly shipped out defective parts for tanks. These had suffered mechanical failures which had led to the deaths of many soldiers. The fault was discovered, and the manufacturer convicted. In All My Sons, Miller examines the morality of the man who places his narrow responsibility to his immediate family above his wider responsibility to the men who rely on the integrity of his work.
The background to the action
Three and a half years before the events of the play, Larry Keller was reported missing in action, while flying a mission off the coast of China.
His father, Joe Keller, was head of a business which made aero engine parts. When, one night, the production line began to turn out cracked cylinder heads, the night foreman alerted Joe's deputy manager, Steve Deever as he arrived at work. Steve telephoned Joe at home, to ask what to do. Worried by the lost production and not seeing the consequences of his decision, Joe told Steve to weld over the cracks. He said that he would take responsibility for this, but could not come in to work, as he had influenza. Several weeks later twenty-one aeroplanes crashed on the same day, killing the pilots.
Investigation revealed the fault in the cylinder heads, and Steve and Joe were arrested and convicted. On appeal, Joe denied Steve's (true) version of events, convinced the court he knew nothing of what had happened, and was released from prison. Before his last flight, Larry wrote to his fiancée, Ann, Steve's daughter. He had read of his father's and Steve's arrest. Now he was planning suicide.
Three and a half years later, Ann has told no-one of this letter. Kate Keller knows her husband to be guilty of the deaths of the pilots and has convinced herself that Larry is alive. She will not believe him dead, as this involves the further belief that Joe has caused his own son's death, an intolerable thought. She expects Larry to return, and keeps his room exactly as it was when he left home. She supports Joe's deception. In return she demands his support for her hope that Larry will come back. Ann and her brother, George, have disowned their father, believing him guilty. But George has gone at last to visit his father in jail, and Steve has persuaded him of the true course of events.
The play opens on the following (Sunday) morning; by sheer coincidence, Ann has come to visit the Kellers. For two years, Larry's brother, Chris, has written to her. Now he intends to propose to her, hence the invitation. She is in love with him and has guessed his intention. On the Saturday night there is a storm; a tree, planted as a memorial to Larry, is snapped by the wind. Kate wakes from a dream of Larry and, in the small hours, enters the garden to find the tree broken.
Joe Keller - an ordinary Joe or representative type
Western drama originates in the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, all of whom wrote in Athens in the 5th century B.C. In these plays the tragic hero or protagonist ( = first or most important actor) commits an offence, often unknowingly. He (occasionallly she) must then learn his fault, suffer and perhaps die. In this way, the gods are vindicated (shown to be just) and the moral order of the universe restored. (This is a gross simplification of an enormous subject.)
These plays, and those of Shakespeare two thousand years later, are about kings, dukes or great generals. Why? Because in their day, these individuals were thought to embody or represent the whole people. Nowadays, we do not see even kings in this way. When writers want to show a person who represents a nation or class, they typically invent a fictitious ordinary person, the Man in the Street or Joe Public. In Joe Keller, Arthur Miller creates just such a representative type. Joe is a very ordinary man, decent, hard-working and charitable, a man no-one could dislike. But, like the protagonist of the ancient drama, he has a flaw or weakness. This, in turn, causes him to act wrongly. He is forced to accept responsibility - his suicide is necessary to restore the moral order of the universe, and allow his beloved son, Chris, to live, free from guilt.
Outline of events
The structure of the play
The play has two narrative strands which finally meet. These are:
A slip of Kate's tongue tells George of Joe's guilt, but he leaves without persuading Chris. Chris and Ann insist on marrying and Joe supports them. This drives Kate (who sees this as a betrayal) to tell Chris the truth. Ann's showing Larry's letter to her convinces Kate that Larry is dead. The letter also answers Joe's repeated question about what he must do, to atone for his crime. He cannot restore life to the dead, but he can give life (free from a sense of moral surrender) back to his living son, Chris.
Notes on some characters
Joe Keller is not a very bad man. He loves his family but does not see the universal human "family" which has a higher claim on his duty. He may think he has got away with his crime, but is troubled by the thought of it. He relies on his wife, Kate, not to betray his guilt.
Chris Keller has been changed by his experience of war, where he has seen men laying down their lives for their friends. He is angry that the world has not been changed, that the selflessness of his fellow soldiers counts for nothing. He feels guilty to make money out of a business which does not value the men on whose labour it relies.
Kate Keller is a woman of enormous maternal love, which extends to her neighbours' children, notably George. Despite her instinctive warmth, she is capable of supporting Joe in his deceit. To believe Larry is dead would (for her) be to believe his death was a punishment of Joe's crime (an intolerable thought), so she must persuade herself that Larry still lives. Joe sees this idea to be ridiculous, but must tolerate it to secure Kate's support for his own deception.
Ann Deever shares Chris's high ideals but believes he should not feel ashamed by his wealth. She disowns her father whom she believes to be guilty. She has no wish to hurt Kate but will show her Larry's letter if she (Kate) remains opposed to Ann's marrying Chris.
Dr. Jim Bayliss is a man who, in his youth, shared Chris's ideals, but has been forced to compromise to pay the bills. He is fair to his wife, but she knows how frustrated Jim feels. Jim's is the voice of disillusioned experience. If any character speaks for the playwright (Arthur Miller), it is Jim.
Sue Bayliss is an utterly cynical woman. Believing Joe has pulled a fast one, she does not mind his awful crime, yet she dislikes Chris because his idealism, which she calls phoney, makes Jim feel restless. She is an embittered, rather grasping woman, whose ambitions are material wealth and social acceptance. She does not at all understand the moral values which her husband shares with Chris.
George Deever is a soul-mate of Chris. When younger, he greatly admired him. In the war, like Chris, he has been decorated for bravery. He follows Chris in accepting that Steve is guilty. Now he reproaches Chris for (as he sees it) deceiving him. He is bitter because he has grown cynical about the ideals for which he sacrificed his own opportunities for happiness.
Lydia Lubey is a rather one-dimensional character: she is chiefly in the play to show what George and Chris (so far) have gone without. She is simple, warm and affectionate, rather a stereotype of femininity (she is confused by electrical appliances). Her meeting with George is painful to observe: she has the happy home life which he has forfeited. We understand why George declines her well-meant but tactless invitation to see her babies.
Frank Lubey (unlike George, Larry, Chris and Jim) is a materialist. He lacks culture, education and real intelligence, but has made money in business, and has courted Lydia while the slightly younger men were fighting in the war. His dabbling in quack astrology (horoscopes) lends support to Kate's wild belief that Larry is still alive.
The quotations which appear below contain important references to the principal themes of the play. For the context of the quotation, two page references are given. The first refers to the Penguin paperback edition, in which All My Sons follows A View from the Bridge. The second refers to the Hereford Plays (Heinemann) edition.
Several long speeches are worthy of close study. The page references below are to the Penguin edition and the Hereford Plays (Heinemann) editions respectively. The speaker's name appears in brackets.
Writing about the play for GCSE coursework
At all levels you are required to consider drama under four headings: character, action, dramatic devices and dramatic structures. You are not required to keep these separate, but it may help an examiner to see that you have covered them all in your work.
The play in performance
Overview and close-up
You cannot possibly write in great detail about everything in this play. Life (yours and your teachers') is too short. Try to balance general comment about the whole of the play, its broad themes, characters and relationships, with detailed and specific explanations of short episodes.
Finally, make a judgement
All My Sons is not a very pleasant play. In it Arthur Miller tries to show us how we can be better. The date of its first performance (1947) is clearly significant. Why would Miller write such a play then? Give your opinion of the play - what you like or dislike about it. Try to be positive and to relate your comments closely to the detail of the play.
A title for your work
There is no one perfect title, but the title you use should indicate what you have written about. At the most basic level, you might write about Character, Action, Dramatic Devices and Structures in All My Sons. If you were more ambitious, you might take as your title something like: How does Miller present Joe Keller as a tragic hero in All My Sons? If you concentrate on how to present the play for performance, your title could reflect this - All My Sons in performance.
Presenting your work
Theatre is a practical art - your work should recognize this. You may want to include illustrations, sketches, diagrams and plans, to show your ideas about the set, costume, lighting and so on.
It's a play. Refer to the audience not the reader. Do not refer to the book but to the play, performance or production. Make sure you spell Arthur and author in standard forms - and don't mix them up. Set out quotations conventionally, using quotation marks.
Chris's relationship with Joe
This section of the study guide suggests some ways in which to study what is perhaps the central or most important relationship in the play.
How does Chris see Joe:
What does Joe think of Chris's outlook on life and his values generally, before and after he hears Chris reading Larry's letter?
How do other characters or incidents in the play contribute to the audience's view of the central relationship?
Incidents in the play
Consider the significance
The stage set
Show how the set of the play (the exterior of the Keller house) works as a symbol of Joe's values.
Examine the difference between Chris's and Joe's ideals and values. Look, especially, at Chris's speech beginning ...It takes a little time... and ending ...and that included you. What does this tell us about Chris's outlook?
Before hearing Larry's letter read, Joe says (of Larry) ...for him the world had a forty-foot front. It ended at the building line. After the letter is read, Joe says, Sure he (Larry) was my son but I think to him they were all my sons, and I guess they were.
If Joe confessed to the police, he would be jailed for manslaughter and would receive a short sentence (relatively). Yet he chooses to kill himself.
Consider Joe's speech, beginning, Nothing's bigger than that.... Look, too, at Kate's final words to Chris: Forget now. Live. What has Joe tried to do for Chris by his suicide?
A final judgement
© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me