Arthur Miller started writing All My Sons in 1945, inspired by World War II and the true-life story (told to him by his stepmom) of a woman who alerted authorities to her father's wartime wrong-doing (source: Christopher Bigsby, "Introduction to All My Sons." Penguin Classics, 2000). The play focuses on the story of a businessman who once narrowly avoided financial ruin by shipping cracked machine parts to the military. He blames his business partner and builds an empire, but eventually his crime comes back to haunt him. The play was produced after the war, won the 1947 Tony, and beat out Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award that same year.
You might already know Miller from some of his most famous plays, like The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, or A View From the Bridge. All My Sons was one of Miller's earliest plays – and his first commercially successful one – but it already features the ideas of social responsibility that he obsessed with throughout his entire career.
It's easy to judge Joe Keller. He did something really terrible: making a profit off of faulty airplane parts. Facilitating the deaths of several soldiers. And blaming it all on his feckless partner. You would never, never do anything like that, right? Us neither.
But we might make some decisions without thinking through the consequences. Like Joe, we might only be thinking of our friends and our family (or heck, ourselves) when we do certain things. Driving in traffic, for example. We're tired, we're late, we're hungry, and this punk is getting right in our way. With a number of stressors pressing on us, it's easy to cut him off. It's hard – particularly in a moment of crisis, which is just what Joe Keller faced – to step back and think of everyone else on the road.
Some people are really good at remembering the whole world when they make decisions. They are vegetarian, buy local food, compost, recycle, use no fossil fuels, walk dogs at the shelter, and help old ladies cross the street. We admire those people, but we don't always count ourselves among them. So maybe we actually can understand where Joe is coming from. At least a little bit.