All My Sons

All My Sons was the great mid-century American playwright Arthur Miller’s first big hit. He was inspired to write it by the Second World War, and a story his stepmother told him about a woman who told the authorities of her father’s wartime wrongdoing. The play tells the story of a businessman, Joe Keller, who once narrowly avoided bankruptcy by shipping faulty machine parts to the US military. He blames his business partner and proceeds to build a business empire. But eventually his crime comes back to haunt him. The play indicates many of the themes that would obsess Miller throughout his illustrious career, especially the idea of responsibility, both to society and to one’s family.

Lies

Everyone is a liar in the play. Joe Keller lies to his sons and his neighbours about the crime that killed 21 American pilots and sent his partner to prison. His wife keeps quiet about it too. Chris, the surviving son and heir to Joe’s business, lies to himself about it. The play could be read as a study on the different shades of dishonesty: outright lies, dutiful silence and self-deception.

Justice

Everything that happens in the play is the result of a huge crime. Joe ducks the blame and goes on to succeed. His partner rots in prison, and loses all support from his family. This injustice informs the lives of their children. One son has died, one is depressed; the daughter and son who want to marry must fight through their fathers’ wrongs, judge them, and judge themselves.

Family

The play’s very name indicates that it is all about family. Three families are onstage, while a fourth is a constant, vital offstage presence. In many ways, All My Sons represents an appeal by Arthur Miller for the family to be redefined, emphasising more social responsibility and less hostility towards people who are not relatives.

Wealth

Money, money, money. All My Sons is a tale of financial woe and jealousy. Capitalist culture is pitted against human decency, leading the characters to behave terribly. Joe Keller defends his war profiteering because caring for his family meant growing his business, while the usually idealistic Chris tells his fiancée Annie, “I’m going to make a fortune for you!”

Memory

The theme of memory is unusual in All My Sons, as many characters refuse to acknowledge the past. Their denial keeps the old ghosts around until everything catches up with them. Characters struggle to suppress these memories but the past reveals itself through the arrival of an old neighbour, a telephone call from prison, and through an old letter from a dead son.