All My Sons is one of Miller’s earliest plays to explore what has become one of the playwright’s major thematic concerns: the tragic destruction of the common man. Miller’s reputation as one of the finest contemporary American playwrights rests on that theme. Miller’s major and more mature plays all derive their power from this early work. Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) absorbingly charts the inevitable downfall of Willy Loman, a failed salesman and father. The Crucible (pr., pb. 1953), a thinly disguised commentary on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist purges, examines the question of individual responsibility in times of mass hysteria. A View from the Bridge (pr. 1955) echoes the intimacy and tragedy of All My Sons as Miller explores the death of Eddie Carbone, an Italian American longshoreman.
In each of these works, Miller exploits those themes and devices which proved successful in All My Sons. In both Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge, the playwright focuses on a single family, a family held together by the most fragile of bonds. At the center of each family is a husband and father who is unable to conquer the forces which threaten to destroy his dreams and family. Willy Loman, a slave to the myth of the American dream (yet never able to achieve that vision of success), cannot face his failure and commits suicide. In A View from the Bridge, Eddie Carbone is destroyed because of his destructive and incestuous love for Catherine, his adolescent niece. Furthermore, these later plays also rely on the same tight structure and powerful use of language that made All My Sons a successful and provocative play. All My Sons, then, is both a success on its own terms and a blueprint for the niche that Miller has created for himself in the world of American theater.
Regarded by critics as Arthur Miller’s first successful play, All My Sons presents a narrow slice of American middle-class life. The play’s context is limited: A manufacturer sells defective parts to the military and then covers up his crime by forcing his partner to take the blame. The ensuing situation, however, is where the scope of the play enlarges, culminating in the moment when the American Everyman must take a moral stand.
The drama’s spatial confines underscore the theme of the play. The Kellers’ backyard is enclosed by hedges and arbors and offers only a glimpse into the adjoining neighbors’ yards. The focus is on the individual family and its moral limitations. While the story’s premise is specific, the everyday, down-home setting of a backyard in a middle-class neighborhood in a nameless American town offers the audience a common ground of experience.
A major theme of All My Sons is that of responsibility. Before the play’s action begins, Joe Keller ducked moral responsibility by allowing cracked cylinder heads to be shipped out of his factory. He covers up and blames his partner, but he is able to justify his actions as a consequence of his obligation to his family. At the end of the play, he accepts responsibility for his crime only after his dead son Larry’s letter indicts him.
Kate Keller, too, bears responsibility for the cover-up, but she participates in it primarily as a way to keep Larry alive in her mind. If she acknowledges Joe’s guilt, she will have to acknowledge that Larry crashed. Kate represents the intuitive and the irrational. Her responsibility to her family defies—and defines—moral obligation.
The son Chris is the idealist who must come to grips with his parents’ human weaknesses. It can be said that in idolizing his father he sets up a barrier to the truth and to exploring the notion of his father’s guilt, a possibility that must have occurred to him. Chris feels a larger responsibility. Where Joe has his family in mind, Chris sees something bigger than family. It is Chris’s responsibility to make his father see that larger arena. In doing so, he brings about his father’s ultimate acceptance of responsibility and his father’s decision to take his own life in expiation for his crime.
All My Sons also addresses the material aspect of the American Dream and its effects on the soul. When Joe says that he acted as he did for Chris and his family, he represents the tension between the need to succeed materially and the responsibility of behaving ethically. Because the American economy flourished as a result of World War II, a sense of guilt could be overpowering. Chris lives this tension, and by the end of the play Joe, too, is forced to confront it. The sentiments of the play are rooted in a prewar era, but the emotional power defines the angst of postwar American society.
All My Sons, which prepares the way for Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman (1949), continues a tradition in twentieth century American drama that was established by Eugene O’Neill in Ah, Wilderness! (1933) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), and by Thornton Wilder in Our Town (1938). In these plays, as in Miller’s All My Sons, the authors explore the complex dynamic between individual responsibility and family relationships.