All My Sons is the name of a 1947 play by Arthur Miller, a 1948 movie based on the play, and a 1986 made-for-TV movie, also based on the play.
The play, which opened on Broadway at the Coronet Theatre in New York City on January 29, 1947 and ran for 328 performances, was awarded the 1947 Tony Award for Best Play. It was directed by Elia Kazan (to whom it is dedicated) and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. The movie stars Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Mady Christians, Louisa Horton, Howard Duff, and Frank Conroy. The supporting cast includes Arlene Francis and Harry Morgan. This version was directed by Irving Reis. The TV movie stars James Whitmore, Aidan Quinn, Michael Learned, Joan Allen, and Željko Ivanek, and was directed by Jack O'Brien.
The play is used for study at A-level in the UK. The 1993 Penguin edition of All My Sons is accompanied by Miller's work A View from the Bridge.
All My Sons is based upon a true story, which Arthur Miller's then mother-in-law pointed out in an Ohio newspaper. The story described how a woman informed on her father who had sold faulty parts to the U.S. military during World War II.
The criticism of the American Dream, which lies at the heart of All My Sons was one reason why Arthur Miller had to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s as America was gripped by anti-communist hysteria.
From Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘The Wild Duck' Arthur Miller took the idea of two partners in a business where one is forced to take moral and legal responsibility for the other. This is mirrored in ‘All My Sons’. He also borrows the idea of a character’s idealism being the source of a problem.
Characters of the play
Joe Keller - Joe Keller lives in denial knowing that he is responsible for allowing cracked cylinder heads to be shipped. He justifies his actions in terms of his family, to whom he acknowledges his responsibility.
Kate Keller (Mother) - Kate knows but denies Joe's guilt. She also denies that her son Larry is dead as this would mean acknowledging that Keller is responsible for Larry's death.
Chris Keller – Chris is an idealist, having returned home from World War II he is angry that back home the world is going on as if nothing had ever happened. His idolisation of his father can be seen as a reason that Keller feels the need to ship the cracked cylinder heads.
Ann Deever - Ann’s intentions in the play are to declare that Larry is dead and to marry Chris, Larry’s brother. Ann brings a letter stating that Larry committed suicide on hearing of his father’s imprisonment.
George Deever – George is Ann’s brother, he initially believes in his father’s guilt but then feels that he has been deceived. He and Chris were soul-mates as children. He is cynical having served in World War II he returns to stop the marriage of his sister and Chris and to inform Ann that he belives his father is innocent.
Frank Lubey – Frank was always one year ahead of the draft and so never served in World War II. It is his horoscopes, which lends support to the belief that Larry is somehow still alive.
Lydia Lubey - Lydia is a minor character and rather stereotypical in that modern electrical appliances confuse her. She has three children and shows Chris and George what they have missed out on (a family) because they served in the war.
Jim Bayliss – Jim initially shared in Chris’ idealism. He is frustrated in his job as a Doctor; he wants to become a medical researcher but continues in his job as it pays the bills. His wife Sue Bayliss resents Chris’ idealism for affecting Jim.
Sue Bayliss - Jim's wife. A minor character who is only described as resenting Chris' idealism and the effect that this is having on her husband Jim.
Bert – Another minor character, he could be seen to represent innocence as he mentions prison to Keller. This reference is prophetic as prison is later mentioned in the play, it is the reason that George visits the Keller household.
Steve Deever - A character that does not have a spoken part but is referred to in the play. He is imprisoned for a crime that he did commit but only because he was ordered to by Joe Keller. This is what prompts George’s visit to Columbus.
The play begins on a Sunday in August. Joe Keller is reading the Sunday paper and is talking to his neighbours Jim Bayliss and Frank Lubey. Frank is talking about a horoscope that he is compiling for Kate Keller, Joe’s wife. Ann Deever has come to visit the family and is asleep upstairs, while waiting for her Joe Keller and Chris talk about the tree, which has blown down in the night. The tree is a memorial for Larry, Joe and Kate’s son who was reported missing during World War II and is presumed dead. Chris feels that it is wrong to keep up the pretence that Larry may still come back, which is the hope, which Kate Keller still clings to.
Chris admits to his father that he wishes to marry Ann; however, Ann was Larry’s girlfriend before he served in World War II. By marrying Ann, Chris is effectively pronouncing Larry dead, which is why Kate objects to the marriage. She is able to guess this is why Ann has travelled from New York to visit.
On the night that the tree blows down Kate is having a dream about Larry as a pilot. She believes that they planted the tree too soon. Kate tells Joe that he must keep up the pretense that Larry is alive.
When Ann finally comes down Kate asks her if she thinks Larry is still alive. It is also revealed at this time that Kate has kept all of Larry’s clothes. Ann admits that she believes that Larry is dead.
It is revealed that Steve Deever, Ann’s father, is serving time for the deaths of the 21 pilots that flew the P-40s that crashed over Australia. Keller keeps up the pretense that it was Steve’s crime and recalls how he successfully appealed against his conviction for the crime while Steve remained in prison. However, it is evident that Joe feels some guilt when Ann states she believes her father is guilty.
As Chris and Ann talk alone on the porch of the house, Chris talks about his experience serving during the war. He is angry that although the men in his company sacrificed themselves in the war, at home, life has continued as normal. The act ends with the news that George is coming back to the house after visiting his father in prison for the first time, and Joe is clearly worried.
Chris is sawing the tree that was a memorial for Larry in the garden. Kate confides in Chris that Keller is worried that George may bring up the case again.
Sue Bayliss and Ann talk in the garden. Sue asks Ann to move away from the area if she and Chris marry because Chris’ idealism is affecting Jim and making him want to quit his job and go into medical research. There is a hint that Sue knows about Joe’s crime as Ann says Chris wouldn’t take money out off the plant if their was anything wrong with it.
Chris is still ignorant of his father’s crime as he admits he wouldn’t be able to forgive his father if he was responsible for the deaths of the 21 pilots. Joe offers Steve a job for when he gets out. There is then a hint that Jim Bayliss knows of Keller’s crime as he is apprehensive of George’s visit.
When George enters the house he soon explains how he believes that Keller didn’t take responsibility for the cracked cylinder heads and allowed his father to take the blame. Chris admits the thought of his father’s guilt did cross his mind. Kate enters the room causing Chris and George to halt their argument. Keller then enters the room shortly followed by Lydia. Lydia has had three children and shows George the life he has been missing while he was serving in World War II.
Keller asks about Steve and then argues that throughout Steve’s life he never took responsibility for his own actions. However, Kate the says that Keller has never had a day off work in fifteen years. Keller has earlier said that he had influenza on the day that he said that Steve should allow the cracked cylinder heads to be shipped. George latches on to this slip of the tongue as Frank returns with his horoscope saying that Larry couldn’t have died on “his favourable day”.
Keller finally admits his guilt but justifies his actions saying that the factory would have been shut down and he would have lost money needed to support his family.
Kate is waiting at two o’clock in the morning for Chris’ return who has left having heard his father’s admission of guilt. Ann has stayed in her room and having seen Chris leave from her window she now knows the truth of Keller’s guilt. Keller says that Chris doesn’t understand how difficult it is to earn money and support his family.
Chris returns, saying that he can’t bear to live any longer knowing of his father’s crime. Ann produces a letter from Larry written before he died. It describes how, upon hearing of his father’s imprisonment, he decided to crash his plane in a suicide. This parallels the crashing of the P-40s with the cracked cylinder heads. On hearing this news, Keller commits suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Links to Greek Tragedy
Arthur Miller’s writing in All My Sons often shows great respect for the great Grecian tragedies of the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In these plays the tragic hero or protagonist will commit an offence, often unknowingly which will return to haunt him, sometimes many years later. Also, when his offence catches up to him, the events of the play all occur within the time span of one 24 hour day. The protagonist must then learn his fault and suffer as a result, and perhaps even die. In this way the gods are shown to be just and moral order is restored. Other examples of links between 'All My Sons' and Greek tragedy is the fact that 'All My Sons' takes place in 24 hours and exploration of the father-son relationship. Ann Deever could also be seen to parallel a messenger as her letter is proof of Larry's death.
The Greek plays, and those of Shakespeare two thousand years later, are about kings, dukes or great generals, because at that time 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 fictional “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 son, Chris, to live free from guilt and persecution. Arthur Miller later uses the everyman in a criticism of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman, which is in many ways similar to All My Sons.
The play focuses on Joe Keller’s conflict of responsibilities, his responsibility to his family and that to wider society. He believes that he is justified in sending cracked cylinder heads as this allows his family to make money and allows his son Chris to inherit the family business. The major theme of ‘All My Sons’ is Arthur Miller’s belief that people have a wider responsibility to the society in which they live. This is where the play's title comes from as Joe Keller eventually realises that "they were all my sons".
‘All My Sons’ is a criticism of the American Dream. Joe Keller a representative type who would be considered an ordinary American has lived through the Depression and despite a lack of education he has been able to own a factory, which he hopes his son will inherit. However, Keller’s quest for money leads to his responsibility for the deaths of 21 American pilots. Keller has apparently achieved the 'American Dream' - he lives in a 'comfortable' house despite being an 'uneducated man.' Miller is emphasising the hollowness of the American Dream and that one should 'think about the consequences of our actions.' However, this material comfort which Keller has worked for to provide his family with the very best is of little consequence. His strong family unit is an illusion - his wife is ill, Chris is discontent and Larry has committed suicide as a result of his father's narrow-minded and reprehensible decision. It is through the letter from Larry that Keller realises that he has not only killed one son but all of his sons, a theme which is reiterated by the title of the play. In conclusion, the American Dream has become more like an American Nightmare. Chris shows moral responsibility while his father Joe shows intense family responsibility.
Another theme of ‘All my Sons’ is wartime profiteering. As there were large contracts when America entered the war on two fronts, the conditions were created for what Arthur Miller described as profiteering on a vast scale. Chris Keller is particularly angry that his selflessness in fighting in the war is contrasted by the selfishness of those making money off the war.
Arthur Miller quote on 'All My Sons'
At the start of Arthur Miller's Collected Plays he commented on his feelings on watching an audience's reaction to a performance of his first play:
The success of a play, especially one's first success, is somewhat like pushing against a door which is suddenly opened from the other side. One may fall on one's face or not, but certainly a new room is opened that was always securely shut until then. For myself, the experience was invigorating. It made it possible to dream of daring more and risking more. The audience sat in silence before the unwinding of All My Sons and gasped when they should have, and I tasted that power which is reserved, I imagine, for playwrights, which is to know that by one's invention a mass of strangers has been publicly transfixed.
In the book Steve is actually Herbert.