All My Sons (1947)
by Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
Arthur Miller shares what his goal was in writing All My Sons: “Ultimately, the play’s central theme is social responsibility and the ability to connect with the world around us. Both close and distant.”[i] To make that all important connection requires that we embrace reality and take responsibility for our behavior which requires more courage than is common for most of us; we turn instead to the coping skills of both denial and distraction and escape into a delusional story which turns out to be no escape at all.
In this play we see Joe Keller, the father and central character isolating himself because he does not want to see reality—he is trying to remain unconscious—the same self-anesthetizing process common to most of humanity. Human suffering is universal, only the unique details of each human life reveal the diversity of the sources of that pain.
Joe owns a plant that produced and shipped defective airplane parts during the war which caused the deaths of 21 American fighter pilots. It is understandable that two years after that incident he wants to repress that memory. “In the opening scene, Joe is reading the newspaper help wanted ads, but not the news. This suggests his disengagement from the world or at least the reluctance to discover what’s going on in the world. Joe’s viewpoint is somewhat akin to the isolationists who opposed America’s participation in World War II—suggesting that it was best to look after one’s own rather than to engage with other countries.”[ii]
The shadow, both personal and collective, is a major cause of human suffering and is created by repressing what our conscious self finds unacceptable. Over time this shadow becomes very dark and dangerous because the contents will ultimately find their way to the surface and erupt into a mode of expression that is often very destructive. The shadow as a source of afflictive human reactions is joined by the self-denial behaviors of lying, denying and secrets thus adding to the array of self-destructive human behaviors. “The second major theme is the effects of repression and self-denial—or as Miller termed it ‘the paradox of denial.’”[iii]
Joe Keller’s crimes against society “derive from the instinct for self-preservation and self-assertion that foster the adoption of a counterfeit innocence and the illusion of one’s being a victim of others. His denial is paradoxical in that it sets forth the chain of events that finally destroy him.”[iv]
Joe represents humanity at large in that delusion and denial go hand-in-hand. We live an unsustainable lifestyle, pretending that this can go on indefinitely, and denying through our distracting addictions that anything is wrong. The closing sentence of this brief look at Miller’s play describes the Kellers but could be an apt description of any family or any collective in the world today. “The Kellers, and many of those around them, choose to blame everyone else for their dilemmas, but only they are the authors of their destinies—and their failure to accept the tremendous burden of their freedom and responsibility is itself the cause of their personal tragedies.”[v]
And so it is with most of us.
[i] Inside/Out. “All My Sons.” Denver Center Theatre Company, September 2005, page 6.
[v] Ibid., page 7.
Find more indepth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.