All My Sons gave Arthur Miller his breakout success, convincing him, after the failure of The Man Who Had All the Luck, which lasted only four nights on Broadway, to continue to pursue being a playwright.
The play is set during World War Two and focuses on Joe Keller as he faces the consequences for not fulfilling his social duty in a time of war - letting his lust for money overcome his civic duties. Joe lives peacefully, with his son, Chris, and wife, Kate, who is tormented by the death of her other son Larry, who was declared missing in action in the war.
The story’s tight construction has echoes of the style of Henrik Ibsen; it details the perils of idealism and focuses on two business partners where one takes responsibility, both legal and moral, for the other. Miller also draws on Greek tragedies, mirroring the structure of a previous offence coming back to haunt a character, resulting in the protagonist's suffering.
The play takes place across a day and a night, the short time frame allowing for tensions to be revealed within the Keller family, contrasting with the style of Death of a Salesman. Although, much like his other masterpiece, the message at the heart of All My Sons is a criticism of the American Dream, with Miller exploiting one character to show the failures and hypocrisies of such an idea.
All My Sons tears apart the American Dream, revealing the American nightmare it so often is, albeit in a larger scale than the average family. This criticism was one of the reasons that during the Fifties Miller was called to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, especially as the original stage version was directed by Elia Kazan, a former member of the Communist Party.
The prosperous comfort at the start of the play is harmonious and peaceful, spare the broken apple tree, which symbolises Larry, that signals the breakdown of relationships that is about to unfold. Acts Two and Three contain large numbers of rhetorical questions, accusations and exclamation marks, creating a forceful dialogue which allows the characters to blame and reveal their true nature.
The ever-present nature of the unseen Larry creates a fear that he will come back to take revenge on his brother, who is planning on proposing to Ann, Larry’s old girlfriend. However, Miller does not fall into this trap, ensuring that Kate, Larry and Chris’ mother, is allowed to be tormented over her son’s death and not be allowed respite. Whilst the pleasure derived from this sounds cruel, it allows the pain of the original audience, who would have seen it on Broadway from 1947 to ‘49, to not be lessened by descending into cliche and giving false hope to mothers who would have seen the play whose own sons were missing in action, or killed.
The tale of a family being torn apart by one man’s actions becomes even more poignant with the knowledge that it was inspired by a true story that Miller’s then mother-in-law showed him. The article detailed how the Wright Aeronautical Corporation had collaborated with army inspection offers to approve defective aircraft engines which had been produced for the U.S. military.
Miller began writing All My Sons during World War II, though finished it after. The play was created to show the pragmatic reality of wartime profiteering that went on at the same time people were laying down their lives for their country. n 1999, Miller spoke about his story’s continuing relevance: “The justification that Joe Keller makes is that … you do what you have to do in order to survive,” a defence, “always understandable and always unacceptable”. Joe is shown as no better than "half the Goddamn country”, allowing him to act as an everyman that people can identify with, showing modern audiences their potential for complicity.
The story reflects society and the sometimes opposing requirements of patriotism, family, and money, Joe’s actions act as a microcosm for how humans can fail through their selfish want of material goods. Through the play Joe accepts his responsibility, with even the title showing how important this is. Joe proclaims all the 21 pilots who died were in a way his sons - with the ending allowing a justice that is not so often seen outside of theatres. The issue of wartime profiteering is as contentious now as it was in 1947 when Miller wrote the play, the 2003 Invasion of Iraq saw corporations making massive profits. Miller’s play allows a timeless reflection of human selfishness, which will always arise in times of struggle, and which, as Miller said, should never be accepted.