No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
–John Donne, Meditation 17
The world of All My Sons may seem as far away from us as the Seventeenth Century England of John Donne, but the commonplaces of today were born in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of World War II; Communism in China, faster-than-sound jets, printed circuits and digital computers followed close on the heels of the atomic bomb that brought the United States a victory tinged with dread. During the Truman years, the changes in American society brought about by the Great Depression and the war itself were cemented into place by an emerging mass media and the most powerful industrial economy the world had ever known. How is it, then, that Arthur Miller chose to advance that most ancient of dramatic forms, the tragedy, as a valid commentary on America at mid-century? From that question comes its natural corollary, why produce All My Sons now, at the end of the American Century?
Perhaps Miller’s own words are the best starting point for a response. In his 1949 essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Miller argued that the particular problems of tragedy were not exclusive to monarchs and their families. “The quality in such plays that does shake us, however, derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best.” When Joe Keller asserts that his absent son, Larry, understood “the world had a forty-foot front, it ended at the building line,” he is describing a world that is gone–for him, his family, his country and the whole world. Chris Keller’s despairing recognition that he is now living “in the land of the great big dogs, you don’t love a man here, you eat him!” is a further step into the emerging post-war world of Superpower conflict and global competition. Given only these revelations, All My Sons would remain a play of its time with little to say to an audience today. But Miller uses this timely tale of a family ripped apart by public deceit and private denial to forcibly remind us that our world no longer has “ a forty-foot front,” that our responsibility extends beyond the boundaries of self, of race, of creed and of country to that larger territory in which we are our brother’s keeper. At the end of the millennium, in an age in which the locus of fear has shifted from Communism and the Bomb to Terrorism, AIDS and Global Warming it is, perhaps, useful to remember that there is more to globalization than cars from Japan and stock market tremors from Russia. Sweatshops and child labor, deforestation, chaos and collapse in Eastern Europe, persistent poverty, racism and homophobia closer to home are not merely the consequences of an Emerging Global Capitalism or the Culture Wars. Each abstract evil is compounded of millions of individual actions and inactions. We are involved in humankind. All of us. At the risk of being “torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world,” it is a recognition Arthur Miller calls upon us to make, a responsibility his play asks us to shoulder.
–Tom Joyner, production dramaturg