Written by Arthur Miller in 1947, All My Sons
is a tragic play set in post WWII suburbia and is considered an American classic. Directed by Elia Kazan, the play opened on Broadway in 1947 and ran for 327 performances. It received the New York City Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Tony awards for Best Author and Best Director of a play for Kazan. It has been adapted for radio, television, and twice for film.
The play takes place, over its three acts, in the backyard of the Keller residence. It is a very nice, and somewhat expensive, home in a new suburb located in an unmentioned, middle-american city. The play opens with an amiable and relaxed sixty-year-old Joe Keller is sitting in his yard on a beautiful autumn day reading a newspaper and living the American Dream. We meet Joe’s wife Kate and learn that Joe and Kate had two sons, Chris and Larry. Both sons went off to fight in World War II, but only Chris came back. Larry is technically listed as missing in action, but after three years only Kate still seems to believe Larry is still alive. We also learn that Chris has invited Larry’s fiancée Ann Deever, who has been living in New York, to come for a visit. Chris and Ann have actually been cultivating a romance and Chris has planned to propose.
Both Chris and Ann are worried about getting Kate’s blessing, not only because Kate still sees Ann as Larry’s bride to be, but, as we soon learn, there was a scandal involving Joe Keller and Ann’s Father Steve. Joe and Steve were partners in a manufacturing company that made parts for the war effort. An order came in for airplane engines, and Steve filled the order with defective parts. Twenty-one Air Force pilots died as a result. Deever claimed that Joe told him to use the defective parts, but Joe said he was out sick that day, and thus, could not have made that decision. Deever wound up going to prison while Joe walked out a free man.
Steve Deever swore he would never forgive Joe, so Kate worries that Ann will try and harm her family to gain revenge for her father. Ann swears she holds no ill will and that her only desire is to marry Chris, which Kate considers to be an act of betrayal to Larry. Through all of this, Joe has been amiable and relaxed, playing peacemaker and defusing emotions. He seems at times to be almost perplexed and confused by the whole situation.
Next we learn that Ann’s brother George is on his way over. It seems that he has just met with their father, and George is hurrying over to talk to Ann. There is a bit of a discussion about what George, who has become a lawyer, might have been talking to Steve about and why he would be in a hurry to see Ann. During this conversation, Joe suggests that not only is he willing to get George a better job than he has now, but that he is also willing to hire Steve back when he has served his time. When asked why he would do this when Steve has been accusing him of being a liar and a murderer ever since the trial, Joe says that in all honesty, he never believed that what Steve did was as bad as everyone thinks. He says Steve just made a mistake – he didn’t mean to see anyone get hurt.
Upon George’s arrival, we learn that Steve has heard about Ann’s impending marriage to Chris, and both Steve and George are adamant that this should not happen, since Ann would find herself married to the son of the man who framed her father and allowed twenty-one American pilots to die because of defective parts. Ann refuses to give up on the man she loves, so George starts to brow beat Chris into admitting that Joe lied and that Chris has always known it. Chris seems to be unwavering in his faith in his father’s innocence, but several of his answers are a bit ambiguous. Joe then attempts to convince George that his wealth and power can fix everything. George is almost convinced by Joe, until Kate makes an off-hand remark about how Joe hasn’t been ill in fifteen years.
George immediately catches this remark and realizes that Joe must have lied about being sick when those engines were shipped. He begins questioning Joe, Kate, and Chris, and it suddenly becomes clear to all that Joe did let Steve take the blame for shipping the defective parts. George leaves as Chris goes into a violent rage, stalking Joe around the yard. Joe tries to defend himself by telling Chris that he made a mistake, and that he never thought they’d use the bad engines. He thought someone would see they were defective and send them back. He declares he only did it to make money to support his family, to leave something for his children—for Chris. Chris refuses to let Joe off the hook, telling him that this isn’t the legacy he ever wanted. He speaks of the integrity and the honor of the soldiers who he fought alongside of and who died for their country. He then leaves.
The play ends later that night when Ann confronts Kate, demanding she let Chris go so they can get married. When Kate refuses, Ann produces a letter she received from Larry before his death, where he makes it clear he knew his father’s secret and cannot live with the knowledge. He writes of his intention to purposely crash his plane and die. Chris returns and reads the letter to Joe, who suddenly realizes his obligation to the all the pilots who died because of him. He tells Chris he is ready to pay for what he’s done, then goes into the house and shoots himself.