A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
All My Sons

“All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s 1947 Broadway hit, has been universally praised in its revival at the Royal National Theatre, where it is running in repertory through October 18, his eighty-fifth birthday.  Another American revival is SRO at the Donmar Warehouse—Nicholas Hytner’s excellent production of Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending,” starring Helen Mirren. 

With an excellent cast and set, “All My Sons” is a revelation of Miller’s skillful use of dramatic tension and climax as he treats with compassion the family conflict that would be the theme of his next work, “Death of a Salesman.”  In the intimate Cottesloe Theatre, William Dudley has created the back of a white clapboard house, with its screen-door, porch, and back yard with overhanging trees, lawn, and wooden garden furniture.   Director Howard Davies begins the play with a night storm, only mentioned in the text, into which Kate Keller wanders dreamlike, to witness lightning strike the little tree that is a memorial to her son, killed in World War II three years earlier. 

As delineated by Miller so completely and realistically as to make you understand and care about them, Kate and Joe Keller and their son Chris at first seem like the typical American family, but conflict soon arises, and mounts in intensity with each new revelation.  Joe Keller is a congenial, self-made successful businessman, manufacturing household appliances.   During the war he and his partner turned out airplane parts for the U.S. Army, but one day, with Joe at home supposedly ill, his partner shipped out cracked cylinder heads, in the belief that the fault would be discovered in time to prevent their use.  But they were used in planes, resulting in the deaths of twenty-one pilots.  After a trial, the partner goes to jail but Joe is exonerated.  

Brash, outspoken, proud of his practicality and brief education, Joe believes that it doesn’t get any better than achieving his version of the American dream – earning good money and spending it on material things: steaks (absent during the war), new houses with long driveways, dining and dancing.  In an excellent performance, James Hazeldine brings Joe to life.  His son Chris, effectively played by Ben Daniels, is just the opposite of Joe.  He has been through the war, seen the men he led die, and realized their sacrifice: “they didn’t die, they killed themselves for each other.”  He had hoped that he and the other survivors were returning home to a better world, where the war would have changed people, but he was wrong; to them, he says, the war had no more impact than “a bus accident.”  Far from improving, the war profiteers were even more materialistic.  “Nickels and dimes,” says Joe, attempting to explain the shipment of faulty parts, “it all comes down to nickels and dimes.”   

As wife and mother, Julie Walters is not only superb, but she brings such depth to the role of Kate as to make it equally important with those of the men in the family.  Although the text is clear as to her importance, early productions tended to downplay the roles of the women in Miller’s works.  In the original “Death of a Salesman,” for instance, Mildred Dunnock played Willy’s wife Linda as secondary, whereas in the most recent Broadway production, because of the way Linda was acted, she was recognized as strong, the one who holds the family together.

Kate is convinced that their older son, Larry, is still alive, although he was reported as missing some three years earlier.  While she is warm and friendly with the neighbors, she is hostile to Ann, Larry’s former fiancée, whom Chris wishes to marry.  Well played by Catherine McCormack, Ann is the Kellers’ former next-door neighbor and daughter of Joe’s jailed partner.  Kate’s anxiety mounts when she learns that Ann’s lawyer brother has been to visit their father.  “Be smart,” she cautions Joe, “be smart.”  Miller believes that the past colors our actions in the present, and he unfolds that past in the twenty-four hours during which the play takes place.  Joe’s and Kate’s guilty secret is revealed, and idealistic Chris has a final confrontation with his father.  To Joe’s defense that he did what any other man would do, Chris replies, “I didn’t think of you as a man; I thought of you as my father.”

Miller’s play at the National is gripping theater, and it concerns a family conflict that is both personal and universal. The playwright convincingly dramatizes his conviction that we have a responsibility to the world outside our family, that the lost pilots, Joe finally realizes, are “all my sons.”