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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.
National Endowment for the Humanities
Lots of content about Miller, including a lecture and an interview, excerpts from plays, and a bibliography.
American Masters: Arthur Miller
A PBS website with bio and timeline for Miller. There's also an interesting lesson on his relationship with Elia Kazan, who, unlike Miller, named names during the McCarthy Era.
All My Sons, 1948
Check out the first film adaptation of this play. Burt Lancaster stars at Chris Keller.
All My Sons, 1986 (for TV)
Nearly forty years later, a version was made for television too.
"The Play in Review"
The New York Times review of 1947 production, directed by Elia Kazan. [PDF]
"Oedipus & Company"
The New York Times review of the 2008 Broadway revival, directed by Simon McBurney.
"Tragedy of the Common Man"
Here's Miller's famous essay, in which describes his theory of modern tragedy.
"On Politics and the Art of Acting"
Text of Miller's 2001 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
The playwright himself, some time in middle age.
Katie Holmes and John Lithgow in All My Sons on Broadway, in 2008.
Photos from All My Sons in 2008.