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    All My Sons — the play

    SUBJECTS — U.S./1941 - 1991; Drama/U.S.;
    SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Crime; Marriage; Father/Son; Suicide;
    MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Citizenship.

    This play is a classic of American theater. It explores themes that are interesting to teenagers and it was written to be read as well as performed. TeachWithMovies.com recommends reading the play or seeing it on stage. It does not recommend the 1948 version of the movie. See sidebar comment. This Guide is designed to assist in preparing a lesson plan for reading the play or watching a performance.

    "All My Sons" is not considered Arthur Miller's best work but it's a great work of art nonetheless. It captivates audience and reader alike. It has multiple layers of meaning dealing with universal themes. It provides social perspectives and psychological insights. It poses interesting ethical questions.

    Description:     Joe Keller spent his life building his company so that his two sons wouldn't have to start at the bottom and his family would have a comfortable life. During World War II he obtained lucrative contracts from the Army to build cylinder heads for fighter plane engines, but one batch turned out defective. It was too late to make new ones. He would lose his military contracts and the company if he didn't deliver the engine parts on time. The play explores the results of his decision about shipping the defective cylinder heads.

    More Benefits of the Play:     In addition to the benefits described above, "All My Sons" illustrates many dramatic and literary devices, including irony, foreshadowing, character development, and the tragic form. Its universal themes are listed at the beginning of the Helpful Background Section. The play allows children to work through the moral issues of cheating and taking responsibility for your actions. It can be used to show the futility and tragedy of suicide as an escape from problems.

    Possible Problems:     MODERATE. Two suicides are referred to but not shown. Turn this problem into a strength. See Discussion Questions on suicide.

    Parenting Points:     Should your child be assigned to read Henry Miller's play which is considered one of his finest literary works, do not suggest this film. It is substantially different than the play and much inferior. If your child is studying the play in school, TWM suggests talking to your child about the American Dream and whether the experience of your family has reflected its promise. After your child has seen or read the play, ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. If your child was interested in the play, ask a few of the other Discussion Questions.

Arthur Miller: Collected Plays
1944-1961 (Library of America)

Benefits of the Movie
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
Selected Awards & Cast
Suggestions for Using This Movie in Class
Helpful Background
      Universal Themes
      A Social Drama
      A Modern Tragedy
      Literary & Dramatic Devices
Discussion Questions:
      Curriculum Related
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)
Bridges to Reading
Links to the Internet
Assignments, Projects & Activities

    Suggestions for Using "All My Sons" in Class

    Before the class has read or seen the play, give the following introduction:
    The three years and eight months of the Second World War were probably the most glorious period in U.S. history. This was December, 1941 through August, 1945. In that war the U.S. and its allies destroyed German Nazism and Japanese Imperialism. Not only did the U.S. provide millions of soldiers and sailors for the effort but it became the arsenal of democracy. U.S. business emerged from the doldrums of the Great Depression and produced armaments that overwhelmed its enemies. The generation of Americans that won the Second World War has been called "the Great Generation".

    During the Second World War, millions of men and thousands of women left their jobs and disrupted their lives to join the military. They put themselves in harm's way for their country. The Second World War was violent and lethal. Death and injury rates were much higher than anything imagined in Vietnam or Iraq. At home, the general population submitted to rationing and did more with less. There was a strong sense of national purpose and national unity. Idealism grew as Americans worked together to win the war. (Our major allies, the British and the Russians, also made great contributions to the war effort. In addition, the England had to endure a massive German bombing campaign and the Russians suffered horribly when much of European Russia was occupied by the Nazis.)

    While most of the country pulled together to win the war, "everybody knew that a lot of hanky-panky was going on . . . that a lot of illicit fortunes were being made, a lot of junk was being sold to the armed services, we all knew that. The average person was violating rationing. All the rules were being violated every day but you wanted not to mention it." Arthur Miller in a 1993 interview reported by Christopher Bigsby in his introduction to All My Sons: A Drama in Three Acts, Penguin Classics. As to the illicit fortunes being made and the junk being sold, the productive capacity of the country had to be focused on the output of arms and munitions. Businesses owned that productive capacity and made sure that they profited from the war. The government was so desperate for increased production that sometimes it built plants and handed them over to businesses for free. Often contracts were "cost plus", where the government paid for the costs of production plus a guaranteed profit. There were serious problems with the production of shoddy goods but overall, the tremendous output of American factories was a major factor in the Allies winning the war. In this process, many businesses, particularly large corporations, made a lot of money. Small businesses like Joe Keller's company, profited, too.

    And so there was a disconnect between sacrifice of the soldiers, sailors, fliers and many people on the home front, and violating the rules to escape that sacrifice or to make money on the war. Soldiers coming home from the war felt it more acutely than anyone else. During the war, Arthur Miller had interviewed soldiers who returning home from combat. Their voice is found in Chris Keller. This conflict between the idealism and the grab for wealth, both of which characterized the Second World War, is expressed in "All My Sons".

    Since the Second World War, a "military-industrial" complex has become entrenched in the economy, politics and government of the United States. The conflict between those who make money from war and the sacrifice of the soldiers who fight is still with us today.
    Then briefly discuss the American Dream:
    The American Dream has three important aspects. One is to live free from government oppression. Another is to improve the financial situation of the family through intelligence and hard work. The third is to give the children in the family a better start in life than the parents had. The American Dream is based on people coming from the old countries of Europe or Asia where they were oppressed and desperately poor. In America they were able to prosper in relative freedom. The American Dream has also applied to poor native born Americans who were able to improve their situations, provide a better life for their families, and give their children a better start in life.
    Finally, pose the following questions to the class. After the class has read or seen the play, these points should be discussed.

    • What does this play tell us about the limits of the American Dream?" (See the Quick Discussion Question in the sidebar.)
    • Joe, Chris and Kate each have different flaws in their character. What are they? (See the first Discussion Question under the topic Characters.)
    • This play explores the relationship between a father and a child. What happened to that relationship through the course of the play? (See the first Discussion Question under the topic Parent/Child Conflict).
    • This play explores the relationship between a husband and a wife. What happened to that relationship through the course of the play? (See the first Discussion Question under the SEL topic Marriage).

QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:   Define the American Dream and describe how this play shows the limits of the American Dream.

Suggested Response: Click here for one definition of the American Dream. The definition is not set and there are assuredly other valid definitions. Whatever the definition, the American Dream does not include cheating or hurting others in order to become wealthy. Joe Keller believed that he could keep his American Dream if he sold defective aircraft engine cylinder heads to the Army. However, in doing this he lost his sons, which were the most important thing to him, and a vital part of his realization of the American Dream.

The play ran for 347 performances on Broadway. It received the New York Drama Critics Award and a Special Award at the 1947 Tony Awards. Since that time, the play has been performed in many countries and in many venues in the U.S.

The American Dream is a complicated topic. There is no one definition that is accepted by everyone. Entire books have been written about it. Desires for freedom from oppression and economic advancement are not unique to the United States. However, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, there were so many more people realizing this dream in the U.S. than in any other country, that upward mobility in a free society became identified with the United States.

For a brief introduction to the nature of dramatic presentations for the stage, see TWM's The Nature of Drama -- A Brief Introduction. For a form of the article suitable to be modified or printed as a student handout, click here.

BUILDING VOCABULARY: "On the rise", "blood in his eye" Drummer, Guernica, D.A.R., cavalier, Don Amici, loathsome, anti-social, peevishness, trigger finger, settee, haberdashing, chivalric, aspersions, roue, patsy. solicitude.

    Helpful Background:

    Literary Analysis of the Play


    Summary List of Themes
    "The Full Loathsomeness of Anti-social Action":  Arthur Miller has said that one of the purposes of this play is to describe "the full loathsomeness of anti-social action". "Introduction" by Arthur Miller in Arthur Miller's Collected Plays, 1957, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., hereinafter "1957 Introduction" No one ever thought of Joe Keller as an evil man and in fact, if he were evil, the play wouldn't work. But by any measure, Joe Keller committed a monstrous crime. He knowingly sent out defective engine parts that he knew could cause airplane engines to fail. He caused the deaths of 21 men. After he was caught, he committed another serious crime by denying responsibility and lying under oath to shift the blame to Steve Deever.

    Assaulting the "Fortress of Unrelatedness" -- The Limits of the American Dream -- Pursuing Profit at the Expense of Society:  Joe Keller knew that it was wrong to ship the defective engine parts and then to throw the blame onto Steve Deever. Joe claimed that his duties to his family (to keep Kate living in the style she wanted and to give his boys a head start so that they would not have to begin at the bottom) justified what he had done. By the end of the play Joe's actions have been condemned by both of his sons. Larry committed suicide and Chris says, "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?" Act II, pp. 146 & 147.

    The playwright said that "The fortress which All My Sons lays siege to is the fortress of unrelatedness. It is an assertion not so much of a morality in terms of right and wrong, but of a moral world's being such because men cannot walk away from certain of their deeds." 1957 Introduction

    The story of Joe Keller and his family shows the limits of the American Dream and the moral bankruptcy of making a profit at the expense of society as a whole. For other ways to describe this theme, see the description of Joe Keller's fatal flaw in the section on "All My Sons" as a Modern Tragedy.

    Parent/Child Conflict (in this case father/son):   The structure of the modern family sets the stage for conflicts of power and values between parents and children. When children are young, parents are all powerful. Parents control everything and set standards of competency and ethics. As children grow into late adolescence and adulthood, they begin to exercise power and to set their own standards, leading to potential conflicts in several areas. Normal growth and emotional maturation require that children separate from their parents and see themselves as important actors in their own lives with power and moral responsibility.

    In modern Western society, potential conflicts between parents and children are usually resolved when children move out of the house to go to school, to get married, or to get a job. Children will start their own families at some distance from their parents' home. However, when there is a family business, there can be conflicts if the children seek to exercise power which the parents want to retain. [In the Keller family this isn't a problem. Chris is not anxious to take over the plant and his father wants to bring him into the company as an owner.]

    Then there are expectations of ability and success. In many families, the parents' success will be the benchmark by which children will be measured. This could be in terms of success in business, levels of education, professional achievement, athletic achievement and many other areas of human endeavor. If either the parent or the child doesn't feel that the child measures up, there will be feelings of disappointment. Often, to avoid this type of competition, the child will go into a completely different field of endeavor from that of the parents. Sometimes, feelings of failure or inadequacy by a child can lead to risky or illegal behavior as the child is driven to equal or better the parent's achievements. An example of this can be found in the film Quiz Show. [Again, this is not a problem in the Keller family.]

    When children are young, it is the parents who set the standards for conduct in the family. Beginning when they are teenagers kids can develop their own ethical concepts. Often, these are absorbed from the outside community. When parents don't live up to ideals their children have learned at home or which the children have acquired from the outside world, there can be conflict. Usually, the resolution is separation or just not discussing those issues. "All My Sons" presents a situation in which the conflict in values deals with issues of life and death. Larry's suicide is perhaps the most radical rejection of his father's family-obsessed ideals that anyone could design. Larry wrote "I tell you, Ann, if I had him here now I could kill him --" Act III, p. 157. One way for Larry to strike back at his father was his own death. If Joe Keller worked all his life to give a business to his sons it would hurt deeply if there was no son to give it to. Chris also rejects his father once he knows that Joe was responsible for shipping the defective engine parts. He decides to leave the family and pursue a separate life.

    Parent/child conflicts often involve differences among generations; what is called a "generation gap". In this play, Larry, Chris and Ann, represent the younger generation. They have adopted the idealism of those who sacrificed to help the U.S. and its allies win the Second World War and believe that people have obligations to their community and their nation. Joe believes that the obligations of family are paramount and can justify betraying the community and the nation. He does not understand the younger generation. Joe says to Chris "I don't understand you, do I?" Act I, p. 98. This is repeated by Kate Keller later in the play.

    Appearances vs. Reality -- How Refusing to Acknowledge the Truth Warps People and Relationships:    In this play, Miller is sending a strong message that people who close their eyes to the consequences of their actions and to the reality of life suffer for their blindness. A major theme of this play is the perniciousness of the psychological defense mechanism called "denial". This applies to both Kate Keller and Chris Keller.

    Kate Keller, referred to as "Mother" in the stage directions, refuses to believe the obvious fact that Larry is dead. This gives rise to all sorts of strange behavior that warps her life and the lives of others. Three years after Larry's death, the wound is still fresh. She cries hard the night his tree is blown over in the storm. Act I, p. 95. In addition, Mother keeps Larry's shoes shined and his clothes hanging in the closet of his room, waiting for when he returns. She asks her neighbor, Frank, to prepare a horoscope to show that Larry could not have died on the day of his disappearance. However, the most pernicious effect of her refusal to acknowledge the truth is that she opposes her living son, Chris, in his efforts to marry Ann and find happiness. See, Act I, p. 101.

    Chris' idealism, forged in battle, would never let him accept Joe's conduct. However, Chris should know better than to believe Joe's claims of innocence. Deep down he suspects that Joe is guilty, but he loves his father and does nothing. Chris suffers from seeing people as better than they are. (As Ann says, "As soon as you get to know somebody you find a distinction for them." Act II, p. 124) Chris' failure to see the truth that is in front of him makes him a hypocrite. Sue Bayliss sees this clearly. Act II, pp. 122 & 123.

    The Dangers of Inaccuracies of Self-Image:   This theme relates to another form of denial, the failure to have an accurate view of one's self. Joe Keller is a criminal who has caused the death of 21 pilots and the destruction of the Deever family through perjury. Each of these crimes were premeditated. However, Joe thinks that his obligations to his family justified his crimes. He acts like a criminal but doesn't see himself as a criminal. This leads to his self-destruction.

    An example of Joe's inability to see himself clearly is his claim that the Court of Appeal exonerated him when it overturned his conviction and that the people in his community believe that he is innocent. In fact, the community accepts Joe because he has successfully pulled a fast one and they admire that, not because he is innocent. (This is one of Miller's indictments of society as a whole.) Keller doesn't understand that the reversal of his conviction means only that the government didn't present enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As George Deever (now a lawyer) points out, the court paper doesn't prove Joe's innocence. Had Joe understood how much of a criminal he really was, he probably could have avoided his ultimate fate.

    Chris's hypocrisy, seeing himself as an upright man, at the same time that he works in his father's factory while ignoring his suspicions of his father's guilt, demonstrates an inaccurate self-image. Most critics look at Chris Keller with compassion. They see him as a man who comes home to his family from the war. He has a job with his father's business and, not being married, he lives at home. He doesn't want to believe the worst about his father and his parents help him submerge his doubts. By small degrees his loyalty to his dead comrades in the war has been compromised.

    The Law of Unintended Consequences:    The Law of Unintended Consequences states that even if our actions have the effect that we intend, it will also have effects that we don't anticipate. Several events in this play demonstrate this rule. Joe never expected that his crime would drive his sons away. Chris never expected that asking Ann to visit so that he could ask her to marry him would lead to the exposure of his father as a criminal, his father's death, and the destruction of his family. He didn't anticipate that the decision to leave home and reading Larry's letter to Joe would precipitate Joe's suicide. Nor did Ann predict that the result of her trip to the Keller home would be to expose Joe as a criminal and led to his death.

    The playwright put it this way, " . . . [W]hat I was after was the wonder in the fact that consequences of action are as real as the actions themselves, yet we rarely take them into consideration as we perform actions, and we cannot hope to do so fully when we must always act with only partial knowledge of consequences." 1957 Introduction

    The Compromises People Make:   Jim Bayliss wanted to be a research scientist but has become a practicing doctor to support his family. He always regretted the compromise. When Mother is worried that Chris won't come home after she exposes Joe's guilt, Bayliss tells her that: "Oh, no. he'll come back. We all come back, Kate. These private little revolutions always die. The compromise is always made. In a peculiar way, Frank is right. Every man does have a star. The star of one's honesty. And you spend your life groping for it, but once it's out it never lights again. I don't think he went very far. He probably just wanted to be alone to watch his star go out." Act III, page 149.

    When Chris returns, neither he nor Arthur Miller are comfortable with Bayliss' complete abandonment to compromise. Chris won't report his father, but he will deny his father the fruits of the crime. Chris won't work in the family business or take the tainted money. He's going to leave home. He hates himself for his compromise, " . . . [N]ow I'm practical, and I spit on myself. I'm going away. I'm going now." Act III, p. 154. But after learning about Larry's reaction to his father's crime and after Joe offers to go to the District Attorney's office, Chris doesn't discourage his father. When Mother orders: "You're not going to take him!", Chris replies, "I'm taking him." Act III, p. 157. The compromise is withdrawn and Chris is back on track with his principles.

    Let's look at these compromises a little more closely. Jim Bayliss is pretty unhappy about his compromise and it has caused serious strains in his marriage. However, his wife had put him through medical school and he did have obligations to her.

    Chris's first compromise of coming into his father's business and burying his suspicions was clearly not the right thing to do. He was not being truthful with himself and he was not being loyal to his principles. One critic has noted that Bayliss had it wrong. On the long drive Chris was not watching the star of his honesty fade away, he was coming to the realization that this star had faded a long time ago. Chris' second compromise, when he knew the truth and after taking his long drive, may have been reasonable given his love for both his parents. By refusing to take the tainted money and moving away, Chris was retaining an element of his principles. Arthur Miller clearly didn't think this was a good compromise. It leaves Chris feeling polluted and as if he had let his fellow soldiers down. "I spit on myself." Chris quickly rejected his second compromise after he learned of Larry's letter and when his father appeared willing to go the District Attorney.

    Ann decided to compromise from the beginning of the play and again during the play as the revelations about Mr. Keller came out. Her compromise was to ally herself with the Keller family, and later the son of the man who had destroyed her father's life. This compromise is not criticised in the play and it was probably the right thing to do, especially after Chris made known his intention to leave the business and move away. Chris wasn't responsible for what his father had done.

    The neighbors compromised their ethics by accepting Joe as a pillar of the community after his conviction was overturned. In the play, this is seen as a symptom of the cynicism of society. Under the law, people are innocent until proven guilty. However, respect in society is something quite different. Joe should not have been accepted as an upstanding member of the community.

    Idealism vs. Cynicism:   The community described in this play is cynical. Joe is accepted despite the belief that "he pulled a fast one". Frank Lubey comments when Joe tells him he only reads he want-ads, "What's the difference, it's all bad news anyway."

If students are reading the play, teachers might want to print the questions on paper and give them to the students.

Universal themes touch upon the experiences of many people in many cultures. For example, almost all human societies, from the primitive to the sophisticated, are based upon the family unit. Traditionally, families suffer stress when a male child grows up and seeks to exercise his power. This now applies to increasing numbers of female children, since gender distinctions are disappearing. The Law of Unintended Consequences applies to all mankind, etc.

"All My Sons" had a long and successful run in the state of Israel in 1977, a country which has had to maintain a strong military to protect itself from hostile neighbors. Arthur Miller was invited to attend one of the performances with Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel. Miller noted an almost religious quality in the audience's attention. He asked Mr. Rabin why this was so. Rabin replied "Because this is a problem in Israel -- boys are out there day and night dying in planes and on the ground, and back here people are making a lot of money. So it might as well be an Israeli play." Timebends" A Life by Arthur Miller, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1987, page 135.

Some other ways to state the theme of the assault on the fortress of unrelatedness: Miller wrote that: "Joe Keller's trouble, in a word, is not that he cannot tell right from wrong but that his cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with his world, his universe, or his society." 1957 Introduction.

Miller also wrote that the play deals with the issue of: "How may a man make of the outside world a home. How and in what ways must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside himself if he is to find the safety, the surroundings of love, the ease of soul, the sense of identity and honor which, evidently, all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family? " The Family in Modern Drama, an Essay by Arthur Miller.

This play, written in the 1940s, casts the conflict in terms of father/son. The literary analysis of the play adopts this formulation. However, the lessons of the play apply to conflicts of values between any parent and any child. With women working outside the home and gender differences blurring, the generational conflict in "All My Sons" is more properly referred to as a parent/child conflict.

Factual Sources: The idea for the play came to Arthur Miller when his mother-in-law told him about a family from the Midwest in which the daughter had discovered that her father was selling defective machinery to the Army and turned him in. This action tore the family apart. Miller converted the daughter to a son and immediately saw the climax of the second act of "All My Sons" in his mind. It took him another two years to write the rest of the play.

Why TWM Doesn't Recommend the Movie: The movie is black and white and appears to be dated. It differs substantially from the play. For example, the play has only one location, the Kellers' backyard. The screen version has several locations: the backyard, the plant, inside the house, the restaurant etc. This is an important change because one of the major dramatic devices of the play is the focus on the Keller's backyard. The screen version doesn't develop Chris' character as well as the play. In the play, the main action (delivering defective plane engine parts to the Army) is not shown. This is a technique of classic Greek tragedy. The movie shows events occuring as Steve describes them when Chris visited him in prison. There was no such visit in the play which also does not dramatize the underlying action of shipping the defective engine parts. In the play the audience learns about the day of the crime only as it is described by the characters. The apple tree is briefly referred to in the movie but loses its importance as a symbol. Minor characters such as a salesman at the poker game are added in the movie. In the film, George and Ann's mother is dead, but in the play she is referred to as being alive.

For the Movie: Age: 13+; No MPAA Rating; Drama; 1948; 95 minutes; B & W.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director for the Movie:

    Selected Awards: None.

    Featured Actors: Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Maidy Christians and Louisa Horton.

    Director: Irving Reis.

There is also a 1968 made for TV version. It is hard to get and we haven't seen it.

Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!


    Scholars draw a distinction between tragedy, social drama, and melodrama. Tragedy is an ancient form of drama originating with the ancient Greeks. It shows man struggling with his fate. Melodrama keeps the audience in suspense and builds excitement with crimes and catastrophes. The world of melodrama is a black and white world of good and evil. On the other hand, social drama describes a nuanced world in which people sometimes combine both good and evil elements. Social drama explores man in his social and political context, seeking to raise consciousness about the problems and conflicts of life within society. "Arthur Miller and the Loss of Conscience" by William B. Dillingham, Emery University Quarterly Vol. 16, pp. 40 - 50.

    Good social drama also has a psychological component because people always act in response to psychological needs and imperatives. In "All My Sons", Kate Keller is deeply conflicted and tortured by guilt. Through the course of the play Chris realizes that his father is not a hero but a man with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and faults. Every child, as he or she matures, goes through this process, although few are delayed as much as Chris Keller. Many soldiers coming home from war are changed by the experience and many suffer from the guilt of the survivor. These psychological insights are discussed more fully in the sections on the individual characters below.


    "All My Sons" has several direct links to Greek tragedy. The action of the play shows Joe Keller, the protagonist, living out the consequences of his actions. Joe Keller's fatal flaw is his failure to understand that "they were all my sons". (Act III, p. 157.) He needed to learn, as Chris puts it, that "there's a universe of people outside and you're responsible to it". (Act III, page 158.) There are several other formulations of Joe Kellers' failure of understanding: (1) he didn't realize that he has a connection to the community and the nation which brings with it ethical obligations beyond his family; (2) society is based on a social contract; Joe Keller received benefits from the community and the nation (e.g., from the men who fought and died in the war), and that under the social contract he has obligations to the community and the nation that sometimes supercede his desire to help his family; (3) he did not understand that the desire that his sons wouldn't have to start at the bottom was not a justification for sacrificing the lives of other young men by selling defective airplane parts; and (4) he was blind to the limits of the American Dream, i.e., that people cannot achieve the American Dream by failing in their obligations to the larger society.

    Critics tell us that classic tragic action in the sense of Sophocles and Shakespeare has two elements. First, the tragic figure must be a person of stature. While he must represent the human condition, he must be "larger and grander than the norm -- certainly in the inherent fineness and depth and energy of his mind and character, and perhaps also in his exterior societal role -- so that his fall will have deep emotional consequences for the audience." The second requirement is that the tragic figure's world must have a moral order which he in some way violates and which punishes him for that violation. Richard J. Foster, in "Confusion and Tragedy: The Failure of Miller's Salesman" in Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire edited by John D. Hurrell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961. To a great extent, the story of Joe Keller meets both of these criteria. He is a successful businessman who has started at the bottom, survived adversity (in his case the Great Depression), and is now wealthy. This is the modern American hero. The moral order is the idealistic view of society which has been adopted by his sons and which holds sway in much of the United States today.

    An important difference between this play and ancient Greek tragedy is that "All My Sons" doesn't tell the story of a king, prince or other great man on a battlefield or in the public arena. Modern audiences identify less with kings and princes than they do with people who appear to share their situation in life. While Joe Keller is a man of substance in his community, his most important qualification for being a modern tragic hero is that he is similar to his audience, a "common man". The audience can therefore feel an identification with him and sympathize with his plight. One of the great contributions of Arthur Miller was that he was able to craft tragic heros out of "the common man".

    The fact that Joe Keller is successful and somewhat important in his community enhances his status as a tragic hero. Before the revelation of his crime, he is the successful common man that we would all like to be. The Kellers' backyard, in which the entire action of the play takes place, is almost a community center for the neighbors. Joe has weekly poker games. Joe is well connected, ("I'm very friendly with some big lawyers in town. I could set George up." Act II, p. 127). People like to do things for the Kellers. Frank Lubey is creating Larry's horoscope for Kate. Lydia makes a hat for her and comes to the house to do Kate's hair. Ann and George practically grew up in the Keller house. Joe has a large manufacturing plant and provides jobs to the community.

    Joe Keller is a criminal, but we can all understand why he shipped the defective cylinder heads. Joe was faced with a situation in which, unless he shipped the defective engine parts, he would lose much that was dear to him: his ability to give his sons a head start; his standing in the community; his ability to give his wife the style of living she had asked for; and his view of himself as a successful man. He might not have survived prison. We can all feel the temptations that were pulling at Joe Keller.

    In classic Greek tragedy, the community suffers when the hero has a flaw and is not in sync with the powers of the universe. Thus, in Oedipus, Thebes suffers from poor harvests while Oedipus rules. In "All My Sons", this literary convention is also modernized. The community does not undergo economic deprivation, instead it suffers from a cynicism that allows it to accept Joe Keller as a pillar of the community while it knows that he pulled a fast one to avoid being punished for causing the deaths of 21 pilots.

    In the basic plot structure of a tragedy, long before the curtain rises, the main character has done something that violates the moral order of the universe, sometimes without even realizing it. This is called "the main action". In addition, a number of other important actions have occurred leading up to the events portrayed in the play. When the curtain rises, situations follow that force the protagonist to realize his mistake ("confrontation/realization"). Through the confrontation/realization, the tragic hero either learns from his fault or dies ("resolution"). Whatever the outcome, balance, harmony and moral order are restored, and the other characters are able to move on with their lives without the burden of the protagonist's error. This is the pattern of the plot of "All My Sons".

    The play adopts another technique of classic Greek tragedy by having the confrontation, realization and resolution occur within a 24 hour period. The main action and other important situations occur off-stage and are presented through a description by a character or, in the case of Joe, hearing the gunshot.

    The characters of Annie and George are actors in the drama as well as messengers bringing important information to the audience about something that occurred in the past at a different location. Having messengers appear with news is a common dramatic device in classic Greek theater.

    Mother seems, at times, almost like the ancient Greek chorus. This is melded into her role as Joe's wife. Look at her warnings to Joe in Act III ". . . you better be smart now" and "You want to live? You better figure out your life." (p. 150)

Dramatic Sources for "All My Sons":

Arthur Miller acknowledged a deep debt to the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828 - 1906). (Many believe that Ibsen was the most influential playwright of the 19th century.) Miller adopted Ibsen's insistence that events in the play be based on valid cause and effect: "forcing one event out of the jaws of the preceding one". 1957 Introduction He also adopted the idea of a character's idealism being the source of a problem and the dramatic device of the "fatal secret". This structure of drama has also been called "the play of the ripe circumstance" in which a character's entire life is put into perspective in the course of a couple of hours on the stage. Ibsen's plays often present a domestic scene and then gradually introduce information about a crime and the guilt of the perpetrator, leading to a climactic eruption. Miller employed the same structure in "All My Sons". From Henrik Ibsen's play "The Wild Duck" Miller took the idea of two partners in a business where one is forced to take moral and legal responsibility for the other.

In the introduction to Collected Plays, Arthur Miller noted that the damage done by Joe's crime was irreversible when the play opened: "The stakes remaining are purely the conscience of Joe Keller and the awakening to the evil he has done, and the conscience of the son in the face of what he has discovered about his father. One could say that the problem was to make a fact of morality, but it is more precise, I think, to say that the structure of the play is designed to bring a man into the direct path of the consequences he has wrought." 1957 Introduction.


    JOE KELLER:    Joe Keller is the self-made man of American folklore. The stage directions describe him as "a man among men". Joe Keller is down to earth, not well educated, focused on business, and not concerned with his community or his nation. Joe's limited interest in the newspapers, he reads only the want-ads, is a symbol of his moral myopia and his failure to understand his connection to the larger community.

    Joe appears to have achieved the American Dream. As he sees it, his sole achievements are his sons and his business. He struggled and nurtured the business through the Great Depression and then built it up during the war. But the sole purpose of the business was to provide a good living for his family and as a gift to his sons. Joe has already lost one of his boys in the war and so, for Keller, everything depends on Chris.

    Most critics do not see Joe Keller as evil and, in fact, for the play to work, the audience must feel a certain sympathy for him. After all, he did what he had to do to protect his family and the 40 years he had put into the business. However, by the end of the play, Joe Keller is revealed as a deeply cynical man who will lie (even to his family), cheat, evade responsibility, play the victim, and destroy the lives of others, in order to protect himself and, by extension, the money that he can pass on to his sons. These actions include: 1) putting the lives of pilots at risk; 2) shifting the blame onto Steve Deever, destroying the Deever family and causing untold pain to Deever, his wife, and children; 3) continue manipulating people, including George, Ann and Chris, to avoid blame.

    Keller has a lot of trouble with the truth. When Chris first broaches the subject of marrying Ann, Keller's first response is to tell Chris that the decision is just Chris' business. Of course, it's not, because Mother insists that Larry is coming back and Ann was Larry's girl. Later in the play, Joe suggests to Mother that if he offered to go to prison, surely Chris wouldn't demand that he go. Again, he intends to talk for effect and not telling the truth.

    Miller leaves open the question of why Keller kills himself. He could have committed suicide because of his anguish at being the cause of Larry's death. He could have shot himself because both his sons, his reason for being, had rejected his view of life and condemned him. Joe could have killed himself because he could not suffer the shame of exposure and loss of status, or it could have been that he believed that he could not have survived living in jail. He could have shot himself because he realized that his system of values was wrong and that he knew of no other way to live. He could have shot himself because he finally realized the enormity of his crime. Or it could have been a combination of all of these factors piled one upon another.

    One critic suggested that although Joe acknowledged in his last line that they were "all my sons", it was hard to believe that he could change the way he had thought and felt all of his life in an instant. "He knows only that his sons think there is something bigger than family, that he has shamed them, one to the point of suicide, that his sons for whom he has lived consider him an animal and do not want to live in the same world with him. Joe's suicide is less a moral judgment than an act of love. In effect, Joe kills himself so that Chris need not kill himself." All My Sons and the Larger Context by Barry Gross, Modern Drama, March, 1975.

    Another view of Joe Keller sees him as a coward: from the time he shipped the defective cylinders rather than face the ruin of his company, to the time he refused to take the blame and shifted it onto Steve Deever, through to the end when he killed himself to avoid facing the consequences of admitting guilt. But when Keller put the gun to his head he could very well have been thinking that this was a final sacrifice for Chris. Keller was very good at self-deception. He could have been thinking that if he were out of the way, it would be easier for Chris to grieve the loss of his image of his father.

    MOTHER:    Kate Keller, according to the stage directions, is " . . . in her early fifties, a woman of uncontrolled inspirations and an overwhelming capacity for love." She is consistently called "Mother" in the stage directions. Mother knew that Joe was guilty from the beginning and has served as his accomplice in evading responsibility for his crime. She has tremendous power in the Keller family both as the mistress of the house and through her unstated bargain with Joe that she will not discuss his guilt and he will not challenge her neurotic insistence that Larry is still alive.

    Mother's insistence that Larry is alive makes sense on at least two levels: social/ethical and psychological. From the standpoint of the moral lessons of the play, Mother's conviction that Larry can't be dead comes from her intuitive understanding that if Larry has died in the war, there is a connection between Joe's crime and Larry's death. She felt this long before she knew about Larry's suicide. See her speech outing Joe, Act II, p. 144. (This speech is quoted below.) Mother understands that if the war can reach into her family and take away her son, people have responsibilities to the wider society to act in ethical ways so that this happens as little as possible to any family. If she accepts the benefits of Joe's crime, she is discarding her son, in Chris' words "like a stone that fell into the water". (Act III, p. 157). (Ann Deever shares this understanding. It was the news of Larry's death (not Larry's letter) that broke her relationship with her father. Act I, p. 111) In this way, Mother does not share Joe's fatal flaw of failing to understand that people are related. She knows that protecting the business was not a justification for shipping defective parts to the Army.

    A good way to understand Mother is to look at her psychological conflicts. She is bound to her husband, perhaps by love, but certainly by the fact that they are husband and wife and have had two sons together. She is also an accomplice to his crime. At several points during the play she helps her husband. Examples are her assistance in neutralizing George's initial anger (Act II) and her chorus-like warnings to Joe in Act III ". . . you better be smart now" and "You want to live? You better figure out your life." (p. 150) Later, she tries to deflect Chris' attack on his father, telling him, "The war's over. Didn't you hear? It's over!" (p. 157).

    At the same time, Kate hates Joe for his crime and she hates herself for her complicity in helping him get away with it. She and Joe are among those people who profit by killing servicemen. If she enjoys the benefits of that profit, then how can she mourn the loss of one more serviceman, even if it happens to be her son? But a mother cannot keep from mourning her son. This is why Mother holds so fiercely to the delusion that Larry is alive.

    On one level Mother knows that Larry is dead and, so, she becomes almost a split personality. One part of Mother hates herself and her husband for their crimes and the other needs desperately to mourn for her dead son. She tries that hatred by denying that Larry is dead. This is an intolerable situation but there is a way to resolve it: for Mother to expose Joe. Then she can grieve for her son and put his memory to rest.

    A close analysis of the text of the play supports this interpretation. The conflict between Kate and Joe starts from her first entrance when she upbraids him for interfering with her operation of the house by throwing away a bag of potatoes. (Does the bag of potatoes represent Larry?). Later, her subconscious tries to resolve the conflict that tortures her through her slip of the tongue telling George that Joe " . . . hasn't been laid up in fifteen years". This is Kate informing anyone who would listen that Joe was guilty. At that point, only George was listening. Act II, p. 141. Kate's subconscious makes this revelation even though she has to know that it could destroy what was left of her family. The only explanation is a repressed guilt and hatred for herself and for Joe.

    Further evidence of Mother's hatred for Joe can be found in the dialog and stage directions. In Act III (at page 150) Keller says that he doesn't like it that Jim Bayliss guessed a long time ago that Joe was guilty. Miller writes, "MOTHER laughs dangerously, quietly into the line: What you don't like" mocking her husband. Mother also comments on the destructiveness of her own hatred when, ostensibly describing George but really describing herself, she says, that there are people who ". . . can hate so much that they tear the world to pieces." Act II, p. 120. Her hatred tears Joe's world to pieces, and her world, too. But at least she will be able to grieve for her son.

    Arthur Miller referred to Mother as a sinister and potent force in the play. In an interview, he commented favorably on one director's interpretation of Mother as "a woman using the truth as a weapon against a man who had harmed their son. . . . She's both warning him not to go down the road that his older son is beckoning him to go and, rather ambiguously destroying him with her knowledge of his crime." Interview of Arthur Miller by Matthew C. Roudané, Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer, 1985 quoted at Readings on Arthur Miller pp. 112 & 113, hereinafter "Michigan Quarterly Interview" In addition, in his autobiography, Miller referred to Mother taking "vengeance on her culpable husband by driving him psychically to his knees and ultimately to suicide. . . ." Timebends" A Life by Arthur Miller, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1987, pages 135 & 136.

    Mother is truly a tragic character. By the end of the play she is forced to acknowledge that Larry is dead. Her surviving son, Chris, is disillusioned and is going away. Her husband has shot himself. At a late stage of life Kate Keller suddenly finds herself bereft and alone. But while Mother's life is a tragedy, she is not a tragic hero. Perhaps Miller could have constructed a play in which the tragic flaw was believing that it was possible to avoid facing the truth. But that is not this play. It is Joe's violation of the moral order of the universe that starts this tragedy and his suicide that is its culmination. It is Joe who, as a successful businessman, has the stature of the tragic hero.

    As previously suggested, Mother acts as a Chorus in this tragedy. Look at Act III, page 150, ". . . Sit down, stop being mad. You want to live? You better figure out your life." This is another dual statement because it shows that she cares for the man whose relationship with his son, the most important relationship in his life, she has just recently destroyed. It also foreshadows what will happen to Joe.

    Mother is the main example of how the failure to acknowledge the truth warps thinking, although Chris is also important to this theme. Kate believes in portents and signs. She asks Frank to prepare an astrological chart for the day Larry disappeared. She ends up destroying her family because she can no longer fail to acknowledge the truth.

    In the end, like many strong women in literature (and in life) Mother perseveres through horrendous adversity and supports what can live. Released by Joe's suicide from her conflicts, she can now think about what is best for Chris. (Something she hasn't done since the defective engine parts were shipped out.) When Chris confirms that Joe is dead and "comes out of the house, down to Mother's arms ... almost crying, saying 'Mother, I didn't mean to--'" she gently puts his arms down and walks toward the house, telling him "Don't take it on yourself. Forget, now. Live." And then she begins to weep for her own great losses. (Act III p. 158)

    CHRIS KELLER:    The defining event of Chris Keller's life, before the events of the play, was his service in the war. He was a real "killer in the war". But the casualties suffered by his unit were very high. From the sacrifices of the other soldiers and the general experience of the war, Chris came to the ethical viewpoint that Miller espouses in the play, i.e., we have obligations to the wider community that can transcend our duty to family. He also has "survivor's guilt", wondering why he lived to come home and work in a profitable business that got fat on the war, when so many of his friends were dead on the battlefield.

    Chris Keller is more complex than he seems at first glance. "He is thirty-two, like his father, solidly build, a listener. A man capable of immense affection and loyalty." Stage Directions, Act I, p. 93.. Chris is a good man and a good son. He always thinks the best of people, including his father. Chris has never gone through the normal process of adolescence and reached a mature understanding that his father is a person, like other people, who has strengths and also weaknesses. When the play begins, Joe is still Chris' hero. After Chris learns of his father's guilt, he tells Joe, "I know you're no worse than most men but I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father". (Act III, p. 156.)

    Since Chris does not see his father as an independent person, Chris' own sense of self-worth and dignity are tied to his image of his father as an upright man. (Larry had the same problem, which is why he killed himself rather than live with the knowledge that his father was a criminal.) When Chris finds out that his father is, in fact, responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots and has tried throw the blame for the crime onto another man, the shock is a personal devastation.

    Chris never felt entirely right about taking part in the family business. He always had a suspicion that his father was guilty, but he ignored it and never pursued the question. When he learns the truth, his principles and his solidarity with the men in his company who died during the war, tell him that he should turn his father in to the authorities. His love for his father prevents this and leaves him feeling cowardly and polluted. Chris' rage at his father is directed partially at himself for betraying the memory of the men who died in the war. Larry's letter brings him around and he is ready to take his father to the prosecutors.

    Like Ann, Chris is part of the new generation that recognizes and values morals and ethics. Chris protests that, "This is the land of the great big dogs, you don't love a man here, you eat him. That's the principle; the only one we live by - it just happened to kill a few people this time, that's all. The world's that way... " (Act III, p. 155). It is because of the corruption of the society as a whole and his loyalty to and affection for his father that Chris initially compromises and tells his father that he won't turn him in. (Chris' compromise, however, is not complete. He will leave the family and the business. They are tainted by the blood of the 21 pilots.) Chris changes his mind when he reads Larry's letter. Larry's suicide is like the sacrifices of the soldiers under Chris' command and he cannot ignore its call to the moral order of the universe. After reading Larry's letter, Chris rejects the compromise he came to on the long drive. Chris, however, has not lost all his affection for his father. He is devastated by Joe's suicide. Mother must tell him to live his life, free of the corruption of the Keller household.

    Some critics view Chris Keller as the tragic hero of the play. His fatal flaw would be his failure to recognize the truth when he sees it. As a result, he becomes a hypocrite and loses his father. There are several problems with this approach. First, the entire focus of the play is on Joe. It is to Joe that the chorus, in the person of Mother, speaks. It is Joe that loses the most, all that he has built during his life and life itself. Moreover, in this play Chris lost his innocence and came to know his father as a flawed man. This is the typical journey of a maturing child not the spiral of a tragic hero.

    Other critics take a very harsh view of Chris. Like Sue Bayliss, they see him primarily as a hypocrite. According to them, Chris didn't go off to watch the death of the star of his image of himself as honest, he had already compromised when he took the job with his father and buried his suspicions. If he went to watch anything go out it was "not the fact of his innocence but the lie of his innocence which he has persisted in believing." "All My Sons and the Larger Contest" by Barry Gross in Modern Drama, March, 1975. This is unfair and by this standard we are all hypocrites. Think of Chris' position. He comes home from the war and the natural place to work is the family business. This is a man who sincerely loves his mother and father. The contradictions and suspicions are in the background. He personally is never asked to do anything wrong. It would take a man who was extraordinarily sensitive to living an ethical life to detect a problem in that situation.

    ANN DEEVER:    This young woman is possibly the most mature and well-adjusted character in the play. She has confronted the reality that has been presented to her, and, unlike any of the other characters, she has dealt with it and learned from it. She worked through her father's guilt, the shame it brought her and her family, and her boyfriend's death. Afterwards, she was stronger. Ann is the breath of fresh air in the story. It is through her agency that the winds of change come to the Keller household. She is also very strong and will do what is necessary to remove the road blocks to her marriage. This includes showing Larry's letter, with all its devastating effects to Mother, to Chris, and to Joe.

    On the structural level of the play, Ann represents what is gracious in life. (The name "Ann" is the French version of the Hebrew word "Hannah" which means "favored" or "gracious".) She is the beauty in life that the Keller children, both Larry and Chris, seek. Some reviewers have criticized the playwright for making Larry's fiance to be Chris' love interest, claiming that it isn't believable. They also claim that it isn't believable that she would wait for Chris for three years or that Chris would want to ask her to marry him when he hasn't seen her in five years. However, they misunderstand this part of Ann's function in the play. It is the very improbability of Chris' selection of Ann which tips us off to her role as the symbol of graciousness sought by the Keller children. Chris' delay in deciding to get married is consistent with and symptomatic of his delayed emotional development. Chris is 32 years old and hasn't yet moved beyond a child's view of his father as someone perfect. Chris hasn't even moved out of the family home.

    Ann has also been seen as representing the "New Woman". Compared to her neighbor, Lydia Lubey, she is independent, strong-willed and very bright. She was living in New York by herself for years. Perhaps the tragic events that came early in her life forced her to become an independent and self-sustaining woman. She had no one else to rely on.

    All of the main characters have multiple roles in the play. As described above, Ann's desire to marry Chris is not only a plot element but a major structural element in the symbolic roles of the characters in the play. Ann's steadfast devotion to Chris and her willingness to see Chris as separated from the corruption of the rest of the Keller family is an important symbol of hope. After the play, Ann and Chris will get married and have a life. This is a statement of belief in the future; a statement that living according to values is something that works.

    LARRY KELLER:    Larry never appears and speaks only through a few lines read from his last letter to Ann. However, his presence is felt throughout the play and it is through Larry's example of commitment to the concept of relatedness that Chris is finally able to resist the pull of compromise and Joe Keller comes to understand the full loathsomeness of his anti-social actions.

    Like Chris, Larry has not separated himself from his family and he takes on his father's sin as his own. This is why he commits suicide. Ironically, while Chris bears the name of Christ, it is Larry who dies for the sins of others and, in so doing, leads others to moral understanding.

    JIM BAYLISS:    This character is a foil for Chris. Bayliss has compromised his life away by deciding not to be a research scientist, his true calling. His wife complains that Chris' idealism disturbs her husband and makes him unhappy.

    GEORGE DEEVER:    George is a foil for Ann. Like Ann he easily falls prey to the nostrums of the Keller family but unlike Ann, he sees Chris as tainted. He cannot forgive Chris for his association with Joe.

Note that the stage direction descriptions of the major characters fit their image of themselves but, because each of them has an incorrect view of themselves, these descriptions are incorrect and, in many ways quite ironic.

"Ultimately, it is not the monstrousness but the conventionality of Joe's outlook, actions, and rationalizations which provides the underlying horror of the play." Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright by Benjamin Nelson.

The importance of Mother to this play cannot be underestimated. For example, she is the first character who has a speech above the level of normal conversation. This occurs when she describes her dream the night of the storm. Act I, p. 101.

Most people can maintain the myth of unrelatedness only as long as they themselves have not suffered great loss. They have a false sense of invincibility. Those who suffer, generally reach out to others and develop empathy for the suffering of others. However, Kate cannot do this because of her complicity in helping Joe hide his crime.

Thinking of Kate's dilemma another way, the conflicts were intolerable and her subconscious had to change the situation.

Another way to describe Kate's dilemma is that when people suffer a real tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, they look to others to share their grief and to provide comfort. But Kate can't do this because her crime and Joe's crime separate them from the rest of mankind.

An example of the depth of great art: One of the wonderful things about great art is that you can always come up with something new. For example, why is Kate Keller called Mother in the stage directions? Names are significant in this play. See the discussion of symbols, below. Chris is not called "Son" Joe is not referred to as "Father". No character other than Mother is referred to by their biological place in the family. As we have seen, Mother has power. In addition, she eschews logical thinking. (Her situation would be intolerable if Larry had died in a plane crash in the war. Therefore, Larry didn't die.) Her main loyalty is to her children. — These are all attributes of a manifestation of the Goddess, the feminine deity. The Goddess can only be furious at Joe for causing the deaths of 22 of her children (21 pilots plus Larry). The Goddess does not let a son be killed by his father without punishment. When Joe goes back on his unstated bargain with his wife that she will act as his accomplice in hiding his crime and he will go along with her neurotic refusal to acknowledge that Larry is dead, she slaps him and then destroys his relationship with his remaining child. It's dangerous to cross the Goddess.

Of course there are other reasons to depersonify Kate Keller. She is so strong a character that she could take over the play if Miller isn't careful. In fact, it was reported that early drafts of the play centered on her tragedy, not on Joe's.

Chris captures the situation when he says, " . . . we never took up our lives again. We're like at a railroad station waiting for a train that never comes in." Act I, p. 102.

Another View of Chris "At some level, Chris fears that, if he allows himself to see his father's human imperfections, he will also have to recognize his own limitations -- and his experiences in the war make him dread that confrontation. . . . Having watched heroic young men under his command die selflessly in battle to save their comrades, Chris feels guilty for failing them and surviving the war. His guilt is the guilt of the survivor . . . that derives from knowing that 'no one is innocent they did not kill.' Chris desperately wants to escape from this guilt and the anguish it produces. When given the chance, he tries to find relief by disguising his disgust with himself as contempt for his father." All My Sons by Steven R. Centola, in The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller

Note that all of the minor characters have a function in the play that relates to its themes and the progress of the plot.

One can find selfish motives in some of the minor characters.

Ann Deever, the only character who knows about Larry's suicide from the beginning, cannot help but at least suspect Joe Keller's guilt. Nonetheless, she is willing to ignore these suspicions in order to ally herself with Chris who is scheduled to inherit the business tainted with the blood of the 21 pilots and of her former fiancee, Larry. She doesn't turn on Joe until it is necessary to save her relationship with Chris. Centola, Ibid.

The Baylisses also suspect Keller's guilt but they are willing to overlook it. Sue admires Joe for being able to pull a fast one and Jim Bayliss tries to warn them not to let George into the yard. The Bayliss' are people of compromise and they take comfort in the compromises of others but have trouble when faced with their own compromises. Thus, Jim Bayliss is not comfortable with Chris' sense of rectitude, because there is a core of sincere belief and feeling in Chris. If Chris was a complete hypocrite, his attitude wouldn't bother Bayliss.


    AN EXAMPLE OF THE BEAUTY OF DRAMATIC LITERATURE: Mother's destruction of Joe in the climax of Act II is one of the great passages of dramatic literature. Under Chris' threat to leave the business, Joe has made the mistake of ridiculing Kate's belief that Larry is alive. ("[For] three and a half years you've been talking like a maniac." Act II, p. 144.) In response, she "smashes him across the face" and then:
    MOTHER: Nothing. You have nothing to say. Now I say. He's coming back, and everybody has got to wait. . . .

    CHRIS: How long? How long?

    MOTHER, rolling out of her: Till he comes; forever and ever till he comes!

    CHRIS, as an ultimatim: Mother, I'm going ahead with it.

    MOTHER: Chris, I've never said no to you in my life, now I say no!

    CHRIS: You'll never let him go till I do it.

    MOTHER: I'll never let him go and you'll never let him go!

    CHRIS: I've let him go. I've let him go a long --

    MOTHER, with no less force, but turning from him: Then let your father go. Pause. Chris stands transfixed.

    KELLER: She's out of her mind.

    MOTHER: Altogether! To Chris, but not facing them: Your brother's alive, darling, because if he's dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father. Now you see, don't you? Now you see. Beyond control, she hurries up and into the house.

    KELLER -- Chris has not moved. He speaks insinuatingly, questioningly: She's out of her mind.

    CHRIS in a broken whisper: Then . . . you did it? (Act II, pp. 144 - 145.)
    Mother's statement outing Joe is, at the same time: (1) a neurotic fixation of the character because at one level she maintains the fiction that Larry is dead and she is asking Chris to abandon reality and maintain the fiction with her; (2) a statement that Joe killed the 21 pilots because she knows at another level that Larry is dead and she also knows that Chris believes that Larry is dead; (3) an excellent example of non-logical emotional thinking revealing a deep human truth, i.e., if Joe killed the 21 pilots, he has joined in the killing of pilots and he is therefore partially responsible for Larry's death; (4) the playwright's statement of a moral truth that "they were all my sons", that we are all one community and killing any one of us is a crime against us all; (5) a dramatic device to explicate the theme that not telling the truth warps family relations; (6) a dramatic device that advances the plot, (7) a statement about Mother herself, because of her complicity in the crime (you can substitute the word Mother for the word "father" in her statement and it works just as well); and (8) a monumental irony because, as we find out in Act III, Mother's statement is literally true: Joe did cause Larry's death by driving his son to suicide when Larry heard that Joe had been convicted.

    STRUCTURE:    "All My Sons" has the basic structure of tragedy invented by the ancient Greeks. As in "Oedipus Rex", events which have disturbed the moral order of the universe occurred before the curtain rises. They are revealed to the audience piecemeal during the play as the effects of the originating events ripple outward and take over the action of the play leading to the crisis and restoration of the moral order.

    Another way of looking at structure is that the play provides the audience with successive, ever deeper glimpses into the reality that is hidden by appearances. Or, to put it another way, reality is successively peeled back to reveal the appearance below.
    Since the world itself operates on the levels of appearance and reality, by bringing together the two worlds of [the] manifest and the hidden, Miller creates a realistic world as it exists today and which cannot be taken at its face value. The dichotomy between things said and done, between what the people appear to be and what they are, characterizes the modern world. The main interest of the play comes from juxtaposition of these paradoxical aspects of the world . . . . The Manifest and the Hidden in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" by Ramesh K. Srivastava in Perspectives on Arthur Miller edited by Atma Ram

    THE USE OF LANGUAGE:    Joe Keller, Chris Keller and Mother are continually asking questions. There are different types of questions. Some are just normal dialog. In addition, Joe Keller uses questions to deflect inquiries from other characters. However, on many occasions, the questions are not answered and serve as signals for where the play will go. Here are a few examples.

    • When Chris tells Joe that Mother was up at night, saw Larry's tree break in the wind, and then cried, Joe says, "She's getting just like after he died. . . . What's the meaning of that?" p. 95;
    • After Mother describes her experiences of the night before as "more than just a dream" and complains about Joe and Chris rushing into planting the tree ("Everybody was in such a hurry to bury him."), Chris says, "The wind blew it down. What significance has that got? What are you talking about?; p. 101;
    • Mother says to Joe, "You above all have got to believe [that Larry is still alive] . . . ." and Joe responds "Why me above all? p. 103
    • Mother: "Why did that happen the very night she came back? Laugh but there are meanings in such things. She goes to sleep in his room and his memorial breaks in pieces. Look at it; look." Act I p. 103
    • Joe Keller asks, "Well, what have I got to hide? p. 104.
    • When Joe says, "To his last day in court the man blamed it all on me; and this is his daughter. I mean if she was sent here to find out something?" Chris responds, angered, "Why? What is there to find out?" p. 117
    • When Chris asks, "What's the matter George, what's the matter?" George responds, "The trouble? The trouble is when you make suckers out of people once, you shouldn't try to do it twice." Chris responds with a question, to which no answer is given, "What does that mean?" Act II, p. 131.
    • When George tells Ann she can't get married, Chris asks another unanswered question, "That's been your trouble all your life, George, you dive into things. What kind of a statement is that to make?" Ibid.

    At other times, the query is in the form of a thought, but it's a question nonetheless. Mother comments: "It's so funny . .. everything decides to happen at the same time. This month is his birthday; his tree blows down, Annie comes. Everything that happened seems to be coming back. I was just down the cellar, and what do I stumble over? His baseball glove. I haven't see that in a century." p. 100

    The effect of these questions is to build tension and keep the audience interested.

    PLOT:   The driving force in this play is Chris' intention to marry Ann. This is unacceptable to Mother because it means that Chris and Ann accept the fact that Larry is dead. When Joe joins Chris in his refusal to live with her neurotic fiction Mother swings into action and destroys Joe.

    Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright, reportedly said that "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act." This is a plot device which occurs several times in "All My Sons"

      -- Chris and Joe talk about their fear of what Kate will do when she finds out that Chris wants to marry Ann.

      -- The horoscope designed to foretell whether the day Larry disappeared was a favorable day for him or not. It is mentioned in Act I and comes back to advance the plot in Act II.

      -- When Chris comments facetiously that dishonesty pays off and Joe replies "I ignore what I gotta ignore." (Act I, pp. 96 - 97.)

      -- Joe mentions in the first act when talking to Bert that he has a gun. (Act I, p. 94.) He uses it on himself in Act III.

    IRONY: Irony is basic to the structure of the play. Joe Keller's great strength as a human being is his commitment to his family, but that very commitment, taken to the exclusion of his obligations to others, that gets him into trouble.

    Joe Keller commits a crime to keep his business so that his sons won't have to start at the bottom. When Chris threatens to leave the business if he can't get his parents' blessing to marry Ann, Joe says, ". . . what the hell did I work for? That's only for you, Chris, the whole shootin' match is for you!" (Act I, p. 98) However, Joe loses both of his sons. Larry kills himself when he hears of Joe's conviction and Chris rejects what Joe has built for him.

    While Chris bears the name of Christ, it is Larry who dies for the sins of others and in so doing leads both Chris and his father to a deeper moral understanding.

    November 25 was a "favorable day" for Larry. Mother and Frank believe that if the day of Larry's disappearance was a favorable day according to his horoscope, he couldn't have died. This, of course, doesn't work if Larry had wanted to die.

    Joe Keller makes several ironic statements. At one point he asks, "Well, what have I got to hide? (Act I, p. 104.) Talking about Steve he makes several statements that apply to himself, "There are certain men in the world who rather see everybody hung before they'll take blame." (Act II, p. 141)

    Joe's game with the kids, in which Joe is the jailer, is ironic. It's Joe who should be in jail. Mother cannot stand the game and demands that Joe stop playing it. Act I, p. 104.

    Mother says to Chris: "Your brother's alive, darling, because if he's dead, your father killed him." Act II, p. 144. This is a true statement because Larry killed himself on learning about what Joe did. However, at that point Mother knew nothing of Larry's suicide and had no idea that as a matter of actual causation Joe had a role in Larry's death.

    Joe claims that the court paper proves his innocence even though the jury convicted him. In fact, by saying this Joe unconsciously incriminates himself. An innocent man knows he's innocent. No court paper is necessary.

    SYMBOLS: This play is richly endowed with symbols. They include:

    • The names of the characters:   Chris is short for Christopher, a name derived from Christ. Sue (Dr. Bayliss' wife) hates Chris because he "makes people want to be better than it's possible to be." This disturbs her husband who would like to do medical research. Act II, p. 123. Arthur Miller was clearly thinking about Jesus when he wrote this play. As Joe says, " . . . a man can't be a Jesus in this world." Act III, p. 156.)

      Joseph was the father of Christ. The link to Christ was clearly on Miller's mind. See comment above and Chris himself refers to Christ in Act II, p. 143, "That's all, nothing more till Christ comes, about the case or Larry as long as I'm here!"

      Kate Keller's name, "Katherine", derives from the Greek for "pure" but Miller never calls her that. The stage directions constantly refer to her as Mother. One reason is that this character is forced into compromises that rob her of her purity.

      The name "Ann" derives from the Hebrew word for "favour" or "grace". And that is what Ann represents, the graciousness in life that the Keller children are seeking, first Larry and then Chris.

      Finally, the surname "Keller" derives from the German word for cellar or basement. In the Keller home, according to the game that Joe plays with the neighborhood children, the jail is located in the cellar of the Keller home.

    • Reading newspapers:   Most people read the paper for news about political and social events in their community and the world. In this play, newspapers are seen as unwanted bringers of bad news or news that stokes Mother's dreams. Joe Keller can't see the importance of reading about politics and the larger issues of the outside world. He reads only the classified ads "to see what people want"

      Chris reads only the book reviews but never the books. This signals Joe's focus on the personal and Chris' unwillingness to explore any issue completely and ferret out the truth. Chris can't think for himself but takes at face value what the book reviews say, just like he believes his father's claims without investigating his suspicions.

    • The apple tree:   The play begins with a discussion of an apple tree planted in memory of Larry that was snapped in half by a storm the night before. Mother hated the tree because for her Larry couldn't be dead. It is Chris who drags the downed part of the tree out of the back yard, just as it is Chris who pushes the idea that he will marry Ann, which forces Mother to face the fact that Larry is dead.

    • The storm:    The storm the night before the play occurs the very night that Ann comes. It blows down the tree that represents Larry. It foretells the storm that will wreck the Keller family.

    • Steve's hat:    When George first enters the stage he is wearing his father's hat. He has come from his father to argue his father's case. (See, Act II, p. 130.)

    • Joe's game with the neighborhood children:   The jailer and the director of the police in this game is Joe. This is a symbol of the upside down world of the community in which a man who pulled a fast one to avoid being punished for causing the deaths of 21 men is a respected pillar of the community.

    FORESHADOWING: These are hints about plot developments that will come later in the play. Here are some examples.

      -- The storm in the night foreshadows the storm that will wreck the Keller family. The breaking of the tree foreshadows a change in the family's memories of Larry.

      -- Joe remarks: " . . . That's what a war does. I had two sons, now I got one. It changed all the tallies." Act I, p. 92. In fact, the war is soon to change his life in more ways than he suspects.

      -- Kate: "Everything that happened seems to be coming back. I was just down the cellar, and what do I stumble over? His [Larry's] baseball glove. I haven't seen it in a century." This tells us that Larry's death is an issue that is rearing its head. Act I, p. 100.

      -- Mother to Joe in Act III, page 150, ". . . Sit down, stop being mad. You want to live? You better figure out your life." Joe is at risk of dying or of having something even worse happen to him than what has happened already.

      -- Joe Keller clearly telegraphs his own death. Speaking of loyalty to family, he says that " . . . and if there's something bigger than that, I'll put a bullet in my head." Act II, p. 151. Larry's letter and Chris' agony convinces Joe that there is something bigger, or at least that both his sons believed that there was something bigger. And he puts a bullet through his head.

      -- Joe foretells his death in another passage when speaking to Chris, trying to explain his actions: "It's your money. That's not my money. I'm a dead man. I'm an old dead man." (Act III, p. 155.)

      -- Shortly before the climactic revelation that destroys the Keller family, Chris says, "That's all, nothing more till Christ comes, about the case or Larry as long as I'm here!" Act II, p. 143. Well, there is more and it comes with the Keller family armageddon.

    SETTING THE SCENE: The First Act is the morning of a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. Act I, p. 88. The human interactions of the day begin as a peaceful August Sunday in suburbia. The first line, "Where's your tobacco?" focuses on domesticity. However, soon, a complication enters when Chris insists on marrying Ann. The Second Act takes place as twilight falls. The Third Act takes place at two o'clock in the morning, the dead of night. The time of day follows the progression from complacent normalcy to the dead of night as the darkness resulting from Joe Keller's crime engulfs his family.

    The scene shows that the story which will unfold is different from the Greek and Shakespearian tragedies. It doesn't take place in castles and on the battlefield and its characters are not princes or kings. Setting the play in the Keller backyard is a statement by Miller that he is creating a modern tragedy.

    The first pages of Act I are exposition. The plot starts to move when Chris sits Joe down and reveals his plans to marry Ann. Act I, p. 96.

"All My Sons" was Arthur Miller's first successful play. Critics have found, in the play, evidence of Miller's relative immaturity as a playwright. While much of this comes from a failure to fully understand the play, it is true that "All My Sons" is a way station on the road to "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible".


    Arthur Miller (1915 - 2005) was one of America's greatest contemporary playwrights. His other works include "Death of a Salesman" and The Crucible. Miller and his plays have been the recipient of many awards including the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Awards. Most of Miller's plays concern the responsibility of people to each other in light of the common goals shared by people in society.

    Growing up during the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II, Miller's work focused on the American experience. "His probing dramas proved to be both the conscience and redemption of the times, allowing people an honest view of the direction the country had taken". PBS Web Page on Arthur Miller.

    Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York City. His father owned a coat manufacturing company and the family led a comfortable life until the stock market crash of 1929. His father had speculated heavily in the stock market and the business was hit hard by the Great Depression. Miller put himself though school at the University of Michigan by working odd jobs. He graduated in 1938 with a major in English. Upon graduation, Miller turned down a job as a screenwriter for 20th Century Fox to begin his artistic career as a playwright for the Federal Theater Project. The Federal Theater Project required its writers to produce works that were based on reality, portrayed noteworthy stories about the American people, and were relevant to the current era. In his work Miller would draw on these themes, as well as on the themes of morality and responsibility.

    As World War II took hold, Miller did his part for the war effort by working in Navy shipyards. He continued writing, mainly for radio shows and produced some unsuccessful plays and a novel. (These early works gained greater recognition and acclaim years later as Miller's fame spread.) Miller enjoyed some success in college but his first effort for Broadway, "The Man Who Had All the Luck" was a failure. His next effort was "All My Sons". He continued to write award-winning plays through 1964, most notably, "Death of Salesman" (1949) and "The Crucible" (1953). He also wrote an autobiography, Timebends. Miller received numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize for "Death of a Salesman", Five Tony Awards, a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award, and several New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.

    The House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism: Although a respected playwright, Miller was not immune to persecution by people with hysterical fears that the U.S. had been infiltrated by Communists. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed in order to find and intimidate Americans who were thought to be Communists. Hollywood in general was put under the microscope, and many people's careers were ended prematurely due to HUAC's intervention or the McCarthyite blacklists. One facet of the red scare of the late 1940s through the mid-1950s was that writers, directors, actors and artists were called before the HUAC and required to testify about their political associations. There were two ways to respond to an HUAC subpoena. One was to confess ties to the Communist party and give the Committee names of persons the witness had associated with in left leaning organizations. Some of this information was fabricated and almost all of the activities investigated by the HUAC were political activities protected by the First Amendment. The second way to respond to an HUAC subpoena was to refuse to testify on the grounds that the questions sought information about protected political activity. The risk was a contempt citation and a prison sentence. Many people were imprisoned for refusing to testify.

    Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to testify to the HUAC about his work with the Federal Theater Project. Miller took the latter course and refused to testify on the First Amendment grounds that the Committee had no right to ask about his political affiliations and activities. He was cited for contempt of Congress and later convicted. However, the convicted was overturned on appeal and Miller was acquitted.

    In the mid-1950s it became evident that the Communist hunters had gone too far, that the influence of Communists had been grossly exaggerated, and that many innocent people had been persecuted by the red-baiters. Senator McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954. (For more about Miller and the HUAC, see Learning Guide for "The Crucible".)
  The Federal Theater Project was a New Deal initiative to help artists make a living during the Great Depression. The storylines of plays developed in the FTP focused on the contemporary American experience. FTP plays were expected to entertain and raise the morale of the audience. It was closed down in 1939 based on claims by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and others that it was infiltrated by the Communist Party. At its peak the FTP employed 12,700 theater workers and established units in 31 states. FTP units gave more than 1,000 performances each month before nearly one million people -- most of the audience was admitted free of charge. The FTP's "Federal Theatre of the Air" reached some 10 million listeners broadcast over all of the major radio networks. Many people who later had stellar film and theater careers got their start in the FTP. Among them were Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, Canada Lee, Will Geer, Joseph Losey, Virgil Thompson, Nicholas Ray, E.G. Marshall, Sidney Lumet and, of course, Arthur Miller. New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

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These questions assume that the class has been introduced to the concepts in the Helpful Background Section.





    See questions under the theme The "full loathsomeness of anti-social action"

    1.  What crime did Joe Keller commit?

    2.  Was Steve Deever innocent?

    3.  If, rather than conceal the defects in the engines, Keller had immediately reported the problem to the government, what would have happened to him and his family? Would this have been the end of his life?

    4.  Compare the actions of Joe Keller to those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables? Was Joe Keller justified in selling defective engines to the Army? Was Jean Valjean justified in stealing bread to feed his family? What were the differences, if any?

    5.  One scholar who examined this play described Joe Keller by saying that "there is no vice in him, only littleness and his own form of myopia. He is genuinely unable to visualize the public consequences of what was for him a private act." Welland, p. 26 Do you agree or disagree?

    6.  What is the difference between private acts, that are not regulated by the law, and public acts which are can result in criminal penalties if a person does the wrong thing?


    7.  This play explores the relationship between a husband and a wife. What happened to that relationship through the course of the play?

    8.  Why was it so important to Mother to refuse to acknowledge that Larry was dead?

    9.  Joe Keller had a responsibility to provide for his family. Did his actions meet that responsibility?

    10.  Assume that Joe Keller had served out his time and come home. What should his wife's attitude toward him have been? Would it make a difference whether or not Joe admitted his guilt and attempted in some way to atone for his crimes?

    FATHER/SON -- Actually, it's Parent/Child Conflict

    See questions under the theme Parent/Child


    See questions 19 and 30 of the Curriculum Related Discussion Questions.

    11.  Was there a better way for Larry to react to the news of his father's conviction, rather than to kill himself?

    12.  What was Larry's state of mind when he committed suicide? What does that tell us about one of the problems with suicide?

    13.  Is suicide a way to accept responsibility for your actions or a way to avoid accepting responsibility for your actions?

    14.  Was there any way for Joe Keller to redeem himself after causing the death of so many young men or was suicide the only way out?


FOR SUGGESTED ANSWERS:   click here. .

    Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

    1.   Does any character in this play who had committed a great wrong make amends or obtain redemption?


    (Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)

    2.  List each of the subparts of the Trustworthiness Pillar of Character that Joe Keller failed to live up to.


    (Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

    3.  Compare how Joe Keller, Chris Keller and Larry Keller dealt with their responsibilities?


    (Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

    4.  What was more important, Chris Keller's duty to his country or his love and his duty to his father?

    5.  Compare how Joe Keller, Chirrs Keller and Larry Keller dealt with their obligations as citizens?

Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.

Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.


    Bridges to Reading: The play itself is excellent reading.

MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: The Crucible is also based on a play written by Arthur Miller.

    Assignments, Projects and Activities:

    1.  Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction

    2.  Students can write an essay on what "The American Dream" means to them, and whether it is different for them than for their parents or grandparents.

    3.   Have students create a collage, cutting out pictures from magazines and gluing them to poster board to represent what "The American Dream" means to them. After each student shares his or her poster board, put these up around the classroom as a representation of their dreams and goals, and as a reminder that the way to achieve most dreams is through education and training. (An alternative is to have the class work together to craft a collage based on students' suggestions for what "The American Dream" means to the nation.)


    Bibliography: Many of the websites set out in the Links to the Internet Section, and;

    • Readings on All My Sons, Christopher J. Smith, Ed., Greenhaven Press, San Diego, CA 2001; (This is a collection of critical essays and an excellent resource; if you are going to consult one book on the play, this should be the one. However, be careful, a few of the essays in the book are ill-considered.)
    • Arthur Miller, A Critical Study by Christopher Bigsby;
    • Miller: A study of his plays by Dennis Welland, Eyre Methuen Ltd., London, 1979;
    • Readings on Arthur Miller, Bruno Leone, Ed., Greehaven Press, San Diego, CA 1997;
    • Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944 - 1961; page references in this Guide are to this edition of the play;
    • Arthur Miller (Tony Kushner, Ed.) compilation notes and chronology copyright 2006; Penguin Putnam, Inc.;
    • Arthur Miller, New Perspectives Robert A. Martin, Ed., Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1982;
    • "Introduction" by Arthur Miller in Arthur Miller's Collected Plays, 1957, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., referred to herein as the "1957 Introduction"
    • Timebends" A Life by Arthur Miller, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1987.

    Last updated October 10, 2012.

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