Arthur Miller and the morality of success


All My Sons
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Adam Cook
With Max Cullen, Marta Dusseldorp, Lynette Curran, Paul Gleeson, Glenn Hazeldine
At the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Until May 11
Bookings (02) 9929 0644


US playwright Arthur Miller's earliest successes — All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949) — were the discomforting voice of a liberal conscience in an era of US triumphalism and prosperity borne of war.

These early works were greatly influenced by the experiences of Miller's family during the Great Depression, when the Miller was in his teens. Having witnessed the ruin of his businessman father and the wider social catastrophe, Miller's earliest plays have at their heart the tumultuous personal struggles of middle-class men caught up in the elusive and morally murky pursuit of the American Dream.

This voice of conscience challenged the conservative climate that set in after the second world war, which dictated that people keep their heads down, mind their own business and enjoy the fruits of the boom. It was a climate that encouraged people to revel in consumerism without any moral questioning.

All My Sons tells the story of Joe Keller (played by Max Cullen), the successful owner of an aircraft parts factory who knowingly shipped faulty cylinder heads to the US air force during the war, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots.

Initially convicted, Joe squirmed out on appeal by convincing the court the fault lay totally with his manager, Steve Deever. Steve was also a close family friend and former neighbour. Joe subsequently became rich on war contracts while Steve was sent to prison.

Steve's daughter Ann (Marta Dusseldorp) is engaged to Keller's older son, Larry. Larry, an air force pilot, went missing in the war. Joe's wife, Kate (Lynette Curran), centres her life around her almost neurotic anticipation of Larry's return.

The Kellers' younger son, Chris (Paul Gleeson), is an idealistic young veteran who has been profoundly changed by the experience of comradeship between soldiers in war. As such, he is uneasy about the dog-eat-dog world of post-war prosperity and about taking up the wealth accumulated by his father, although at the outset Chris is unaware of his father's guilt. He looks forward to making his own way in the world, together with Ann, an equally idealistic young woman who has disowned her jailed father. Ann and Chris have fallen in love. But they face the disapproval of Kate, who hoped that Ann was destined to marry Larry.

The play is set one Sunday in 1947, when Ann comes to stay with the Kellers at the invitation of Chris. The young couple's efforts at winning Kate's approval, which hinges on the truth of Larry's fate, progressively drives the revelation of Joe's guilt, deceit and betrayal, precipitated by the later entry of Ann's brother, George (Glenn Hazeldine). This revelation then plunges the whole world of the Kellers into moral chaos, as Chris's post-war unease is transformed into rage at his father and the connection between Joe's deeds and Larry's death surfaces.

Joe is a shifty, uneasy and morally weak man who justifies all his actions by the wealth he has brought to his family. Max Cullen's portrayal is very good, convincingly conveying all the pathos associated with such a tragic character. Chris Keller's strong, conscientious character is masterfully interpreted by Paul Gleeson. The culminating confrontation between father and son is movingly played out.

From the pathetic Joe Keller to the tragic, delusional and broken-spirited Willie Loman of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller's post-war plays morally confronted a United States that was drunk on the glories of unprecedented prosperity.

The anti-communist witch-hunt was the subject of Miller's third success, The Crucible, a thinly veiled condemnation of McCarthyism set in the witch-hunts of 16th century Salem, Massachusetts. With the success of this play, Miller himself was hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956. He refused to divulge the names of leftist writers and was convicted of contempt of Congress.

Miller is still an artist of moral integrity. In an interview with the BBC in December, Miller criticised Washington's use of September 11 to attack civil rights and said, "more people are prepared now ... to inquire as to why we are so hated in so many places. It comes as a big surprise to a lot of people who have always accepted that American foreign policy was beneficent".

From Green Left Weekly, May 1, 2002.

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