All My Sons

[Orange] Mask, David Moore, 1971

[Orange] Mask, David Moore, 1971

Last Friday night, Anne and I went to go see All My Sons, this month’s play at the Rep. We have been attending the Rep as season ticket holders for decades now. Invariably their January offering is the most enlightening, but least entertaining of all their offerings. Playwright Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is no exception. Exiting the theater, after the show, I overheard a young woman tell her friend, “That was depressing.” True, but maybe not as bad as another Miller play, The Crucible. Miller wrote All My Sons in 1947 after his first play The Man Who Had All the Luck failed, lasting only for four shows. While preparing All My Sons, Miller promised himself that if it failed too, he would seek another line of work. Fortunately, it was a success and ran for almost a year. The play is based upon a true story. During WW II the Wright aircraft company of Ohio was implicated in selling defective aircraft engine parts. Then Senator Harry Truman led an investigation of the scandal that led to the conviction of three Air Force inspectors that were involved in the crime.

All My Sons was both a critical and commercial success, but was also plagued by political controversy. Its criticism of the American dream, was one reason why Miller was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, while America was in the grip of a communist hysteria. The stage director Elia Kazan was a former Communist Party member and shared many of Miller’s left-wing views. Their friendship was destroyed when she gave names of suspected communists to Joe McCarthy’s committee.

All of this lurid back story, belies the idyllic opening of the play. In its entirety the play is set on a single Sunday, in the backyard of a home in some nameless suburb. A storm had passed the night before and downed a tree, but the morning has dawned bright and clear. Slowly at first, but with an increasing pace things begin to unwind and the cracks in the foundation of this American household begin to show. By the time of the play’s climactic ending its shaken American dream comes crashing down like an avalanche of bricks.

At the beginning, I might have been a little harsh on Mr. Miller. The play’s dialog is first rate and in its time, it might have been bold enough to rock the corridors of power, but today its scandal seems more like yesterday’s news. In real life no exec from Wright ever went to jail, just the men who were their go-between. There was no justice then. The rich went to trial, while the poor went to jail. It is just all so depressing to think about.

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