“Once and for all you must know that there’s a universe of people outside, and you’re responsible to it.” Chris, All My Sons
Synopsis: When the daughter of his former business partner comes back to town unexpectedly, Joe Keller must face his past. Set in the backyard of the Keller’s house in a small town outside of Columbus, Ohio, All My Sons takes place over the course of 24 hours in August of 1946.
The Play & the Playwright: Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York City. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father was a successful manufacturer of women’s coats. They were well off and lived in Harlem until the Depression forced them to move to Brooklyn. Years of financial struggle and the shift in lifestyle would show up in much of Miller’s work. Miller worked at an automobile parts warehouse to save money for college. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1938 and returned to New York. He married his first wife and had two children. A college football injury kept him from serving in the military during World War II, though he worked as a fitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During all this time, Miller wrote. He wrote for the college newspaper, he wrote two novels, and he wrote plays. In 1944 his play The Man Who Had All the Luck premiered on Broadway, but closed after only four performances.
In 1947 Miller’s luck turned around. All My Sons opened on Broadway at the Coronet Theatre on 49th Street on January 29th, 1947. It was directed by Elia Kazan and started a long-term collaboration between Miller and Kazan. Their relationship had a ten-year break after the McCarthy hearings when Kazan named names, many of them their friends and colleagues from The Group Theatre. This conflicted friendship can be traced in their individual bodies of work from that time, such as The Crucible and On the Waterfront.
Miller studied playwriting at the University of Michigan where he was told to always carry a notebook; you never know where your next story could come from. This was sage advice for the idea for All My Sons came to Miller through an in-law: “During an idle chat in my living room, a pious lady from the Middle West told of a family in her neighborhood which had been destroyed when the daughter turned the father into the authorities on discovering that he had been selling faulty machinery to the Army. The war was then at full blast. By the time she had finished the tale, I had transformed the daughter into a son and the climax of the second act was full and clear in my mind.” – Arthur Miller, from the introduction to Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, 1957
All My Sons won the first ever Tony Award for Best Play. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times, “The theater has acquired a genuine new talent.” All My Sons established Miller as a professional playwright, and two years later he solidified his place in theater history with Death of a Salesman. Over his lifetime, Miller won seven Tony Awards, as well as an Olivier Award, an Obie Award, the John F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and a Pulitzer Prize. He married three times, once to Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe. The failure of that marriage is chronicled in his 1964 play After the Fall, which was also his professional reunion with Kazan. He died in 2005.
“Mr. Miller’s talent is many-sided. Writing pithy yet unselfconscious dialogue, he has created his characters vividly, plucking them out of the run of American society, but presenting them as individuals with hearts and minds of their own. He is also a skillful technician. His drama is a piece of expert dramatic construction. Mr. Miller has woven his characters into a tangle of plot that springs naturally out of the circumstances of life today. Having set the stage, he drives the play along by natural crescendo to a startling and terrifying climax.” – Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 1947
Our Weston Production: Although Miller wrote All My Sons nearly 70 years ago, the themes and issues in the play still resonate today. We are once again a country at war. Veterans coming back from war are dealing with their return and what “home” now means to them, and the conflict between individual responsibility and responsibility to the community at large is at odds.
All My Sons is the second production in Weston’s five-year commitment to American Masters. The cast includes familiar Weston faces Molly Regan (Copenhagen), Tim Rush (As You Like It), Elizabeth Morton (Death of a Salesman, To Kill a Mockingbird) and Piper Goodeve (Private Lives, The Marvelous Wonderettes). New to the Weston stage is David Wohl, Christopher Kelly, Davey Raphaely, Shannon Marie Sullivan, and Gabriel Vaughan, as well as ten-year-old Django Grace of Brattleboro, VT.
Interview selections: Director Mary B. Robinson spoke with Rena Murman, former Weston Playhouse Director of Education about All My Sons.
RM: In your book, “Directing Plays, Directing People” you note your need as a director to be inspired by and passionate about the play you are directing for it to be a successful project. What is it that draws you to All My Sons?
MBR: I’ve loved the plays of Arthur Miller since first encountering them in high school, for their rich, complex characters, their honesty and authenticity, and the quintessentially American stories and themes he chooses to tell and to explore. All My Sons, while not Miller’s very first play, is his first successful one that drew a wide audience; and I love it not only for its fascinating family dynamics but also for its exploration of a person’s responsibility to the world beyond his own home––a theme he would keep returning to for his entire life as a writer, and one that certainly resonates today.
RM: What is it about Miller’s writing, –his dialogue, characters, stories, — that makes his plays so enduring?
MBR: Miller’s plays endure for many reasons: his dialogue has an honesty and muscularity that doesn’t feel dated, even though some of the idioms may have changed; his characters are truly complex and sometimes even contradictory, the way people are in real life; and the stories he chooses to tell tackle big, morally complicated questions, but never in a didactic way, because of Miller’s ability to “see it human,” as his character Joe Keller says. His people seem as real to us today as they did to audiences 70 years ago, and his stories are universal and timeless. The questions posed by All My Sons are particularly relevant in an election year.
“I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were… I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society.” Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”