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When his first Broadway show closed after four performances, Arthur Miller determined that he would try “to write one more, and if again it turned out to be unrealizable, I would go into another line of work.” We can be grateful for Miller’s persistence and for the friend who, in 1945, told the playwright the true story of a mid-western family destroyed when the daughter turned her father in for selling faulty machinery to the Army. This incident became the basis for All My Sons, a “Tragedy of the Common Man[TJ1] ,” which came to Broadway in 1947 and perfectly captured the dark underbelly of American prosperity in the post-war years.
When the revelation of Joe Keller’s war profiteering shatters the comfortable, peacetime contentment of his family, Miller’s cosmic concerns with the nature of justice and the connection between actions and consequences are brought to life in the dramatic conflict between Joe and his idealistic son Chris. Joe is convinced that “nothin’s bigger” than the family, but Chris returned from World War II believing that “one new thing was made” out of that horror and destruction: “A kind of–responsibility. Man for man.” As the family begins to unravel Joe’s public deceit, their own private denials are also brought to light. The resulting drama is a powerful classic of the American stage and a penetrating examination of the nature of one man’s responsibility to his fellows.
Arthur Miller was born in Manhattan in 1915. When he was thirteen, the family moved to Brooklyn, where they struggled through the Great Depression. He went to work for the Federal Theatre Project[TJ2] right out of college and wrote for radio in the early Forties. When the Group Theatre[TJ3] showed interest in his future work despite the failure of his first Broadway show, Miller wrote All My Sons, his first successful realization of a form he called the “social play[TJ4] .” The play was a hit, winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1947 and launching a distinguished career highlighted by plays like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and moments of less literary fame as the husband of movie legend Marilyn Monroe.
Perhaps the defining event of Miller’s public life away from the stage began in 1954, when
he was refused a passport to attend the opening ofThe Crucible in Brussels because of his alleged sympathy for the Communist movement. Miller’s supporters claimed he was being persecuted for the parallels between the McCarthy-era tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee[TJ5] and the Salem witch trials depicted in his play. Two years later, in his testimony before the Committee, Miller refused to “name names” of others attending meetings organized by Communist sympathizers. He was convicted of contempt of Congress for this refusal, but pursued the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where the conviction was reversed in 1958. Today, Miller remains active in the international struggle against censorship and continues to write for the stage and screen. His most recent success is the film version of his 1953 play, The Crucible, which was released in 1996 and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Joan Allen.
While Miller wrote All My Sons:
- As World War II draws to a close, President Franklin Roosevelt dies in office.
- Vice-president Harry S Truman becomes president.
- Germany surrenders to the Allies.
- After atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan announces its unconditional surrender.
- The first atomic bomb, code-named Trinity, is exploded near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
- Richard Wright publishes his autobiography Black Boy.
- Dizzy Gillespie, trumpeter and composer, organizes a jazz orchestra.
- George Orwell publishes his allegorical novel Animal Farm.
- Winston Churchill, wartime Prime Minister of Great Britain, makes a speech at Fulton, Missouri, warning of Soviet expansionism and coining the phrase the “Iron Curtain.” This marks the beginning of the Cold War between the U.S.S.R and the Western Allies.
- The International Tribunal at Nuremberg convicts 22 Nazi leaders of war crimes.
- ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer is developed.
- Eugene O’Neill publishes The Iceman Cometh.
- Robert Penn Warren publishes his novel All the King’s Men.
- Irving Berlin’s scores the hit show Annie Get Your Gun.
- Secretary of State George Marshall proposes the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) to give economic aid to certain war-torn European nations. The U.S.S.R. and her satellite nations in Eastern Europe refuse Marshall Plan aid.
- President Truman initiates a loyalty program for civil servants when the federal government is attacked for loose security in the face of the “communist threat.”
- Science: Printed circuits are developed.
- Tennessee Williams publishes the Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
- James Michener publishes Tales of the South Pacific, the basis for the Broadway show South Pacific.
- Wallace Harrison, architect, designs the United Nations building in New York City.
Clare (Ann) McFadden and Brian (Chris) Dietzen talk about this production of All My Sons.
Clare, where are you from and how did you get started in theatre?
I was born in Denver, but moved to England with my mom when I was really young. I moved back to the States when I was eleven and went to high school in Phoenix and in Washington state. I did my first theatre when I was about nine….this summer drama camp in Denver, when I was visiting my dad. We did, like, a little medley of Cinderella and kind of went on from there. But I guess it started at home. My dad is a real thespian at heart. We used to have these huge parties. All the kids would be told to go to bed like at 8:30 and we would sneak downstairs and spy on the parental units. We would hear a dirty joke out of a bathroom window or something, so we’d go and recite the joke. So that was like the beginnings of theatre. When I was a freshman in high school in Phoenix, I was cast as the mother in Brighton Beach Memoirs and I thought that was really strange and that would be really hard I could never play a mother, but I had so much fun and the directors were so great and just said, “This is what I want to do with my life.”
Brian, when did you get the acting bug?
Second grade. I was so happy. I was the lead elf in our Christmas musical. I was kind of an evil elf–I made Santa feel guilty about giving out bad toys and I loved it and it was absolutely great. I just got to be there and do my thing. Obviously it started before then, I mean, just playing. You know, kids are great actors whether they want to be or not. Some of the exercises we do in our [acting classes] now remind me of when I was four, because it’s “pretend you’re little and that you’re all having fun time playing in an imaginary cave.” And we go do it and they [the professors] are impressed and all we’re doing is having fun like when we were four.
When I was a freshman at Niwot High School, I wanted to get in this play so bad, it was Annie Get Your Gun and I wanted to be Charlie Davenport, the little guy who orders everybody around like a production manager. I didn’t get it, but I got into the show and I was really excited. Then the guy who was supposed to [play Charlie] got really bad grades and his parents yanked him out of the play and I took over his part. I absolutely loved it. I decided that was what I wanted to do.
Let’s talk about All My Sons. Clare, I remember talking to you during the casting process–were you surprised by your casting as Ann Deever, which is a really important role?
Yeah, I was really surprised. Just because it’s hard coming from knowing nobody–I just transferred from University of Washington in Seattle [as a Junior]. I mean, I knew nobody. I came in and these directors had never seen me before and I got a really great part in a really great show with a really great director and I appreciate so much that Sean [CU theatre professor and All My Sons director Sean Kelley] put his trust in somebody he doesn’t even know at all.
It’s hard work, but I like it a lot. Sean is really great. I think he just understood that I didn’t sort of have a bond with anybody else in the cast. It’s like that a lot when you do professional work in theatre. You can go in and know nobody, so you have to just continue to fall back on what you know and do your thing. Sean…just makes the whole atmosphere so easy it’s very easy to work. You don’t feel self-conscious, you don’t feel as though you have eighty judgmental eyes on you. me
Brian, you’re a junior this year. The part of Chris Keller is a big part for you. How do you feel about it?
I was so psyched to do this! This is my favorite Arthur Miller play. This role in particular I’ve wanted to do for a while. The father-son conflict which is in most Miller plays intrigued me big time, but part of my interest [in playing Chris] comes from just hearing stories about my grandfather going to war. He was in all these really large battles in World War II. Just trying to connect with what he must have gone through is really intense. And then the chance to work with Sean again. I was in Comedy of Errors [which Sean Kelley directed in 1996]. I had this little five line part and they would just push me around on stage. My character got kicked and tripped and thrown. I’m looking forward to working with him a little more seriously this time. The cast is so great. Jim [Zeiger, who plays Joe Keller] is awesome. And Eve [Lindberg, the actress playing Kate Keller] and, like, Jason, Andrew, Kathryn and Michelle [who play George Deever, Jim and Sue Bayliss and Lydia Lubey, respectively] are quite wonderful. I really like Ian, too. He’s playing Frank and he’s a freshman. It’s so cool…Sean did that with Fences last season and with Comedy of Errors. He just tries to give people a chance.
Anything to add, Clare?
It’s interesting what Brian brought up about his grandfather, ‘cause I spoke with my grandmother who was dating somebody who went off to the war and never came back. So I listened to her talk about that. It’s interesting when you delve into your own family and find stuff for characters, but I never would have thought to ask her that.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
- Miller has said of the structural principle that guides his playwriting process, “the structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” How does this statement find form in All My Sons? What are “the birds” in this play, how do they “come home to roost”?
- If you’ve studied plays like Oedipus Rex by Sophocles: What comparisons can you draw between a tragic character like Oedipus and the character of Joe Keller? What are the differences? What changes in society since the time of Sophocles might account for these differences? Does All My Sons meet Aristotle’s definition of tragedy?
- Arthur Miller has called All My Sons a “social play.” Why? What are the “social” aspects of this play? Are they more important than the more personal aspects, like the conflict between Joe and Chris or Kate’s struggle against the idea of Larry’s death?
- Miller once wrote: “The plays are my autobiography. I can’t write plays that don’t sum up where I am. I’m in all of them. I don’t know how else to go about writing.” How else CAN you go about writing? Is all writing autobiographical? What elements of Miller’s play might be autobiographical?
- Is what Joe Keller did wrong? Was the sale of defective cylinder heads itself wrong, or was the cover up wrong? Or both? Why or why not?
- Does Joe accept responsibility for his actions at the end of the play? Does he really believe they are “all my sons” or is his final act an attempt to escape, rather than face, theconsequences.
- CU actors Clare McFadden and Brian Dietzen both talk about connecting with the life experience of their grandparents in researching their roles in this play. What other resources could you, as an actor, bring to such a role? Are there other resources besides the personal–relatives, friends of the family, etc. that might be useful?
- What would be the difficulties involved in staging this play?
- Acting and Directing
References used in compiling this work:
- Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997
- Carson, Neil. Arthur Miller (Grove Press Modern Dramatists Series). New York: Grove Press,1982.
- Martin, Robert A., ed. Arthur Miller: New Perspectives.New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
- Urdang, Laurence. The Timetables of American History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
- Watt, Stephen and Richardson, Gary A. American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Other resources for your consideration:
Timebends. Arthur Miller’s autobiography, published in 1987.
Two film versions of All My Sons:
- 1987–an American Playhouse production on video, starring Aidan Quinn, James Whitmore, Joan Allen, Michael Learned.
- 1948–the Hollywood version, starring Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster.
The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller, a 1971 collection of Miller’s writings on playwriting and the nature of modern tragedy. “The closest thing to a complete ‘poetics’ yet written by an American playwright” (Bigsby)