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ALL MY SONS by Arthur Millerline

Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller
Post-War Drama by Jennifer Kiger


Arthur Millers first success was 1947's ALL MY SONS, a powerful play about family.


The success of a play, especially one's first success, is somewhat like pushing against a door which is suddenly opened from the other side. One may fall on one's face or not, but certainly a new room is opened that was always securely shut until then. For myself, the experience was invigorating. It made it possible to dream of daring more and risking more. The audience sat in silence before the unwinding of All My Sons and gasped when they should have, and I tasted that power which is reserved, I imagine, for playwrights, which is to know that by one's invention a mass of strangers has been publicly transfixed.
                                              - Arthur Miller, Introduction to the Collected Plays

Arthur Miller's first taste of success came in 1947 with the opening of All My Sons. Even then there were signs of greatness to come. In a New York Times review of the Broadway production, Brooks Atkinson wrote, "The theater has acquired a genuine new talent." Two years later, Death of a Salesman firmly established Miller as a major force in the American Theatre. In the more than 50 years since his first success, Arthur Miller has earned his place along with Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams as one of the 20th Century's three great American dramatists.

In addition to receiving numerous awards when they first premiered, several of Miller's plays, Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge, The Price and All My Sons, have garnered critical and audience praise in revivals, proving his work is as powerful today as when it first opened.

Miller will perhaps be best remembered for creating Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman, a character embedded in the national consciousness as the American "Everyman." To Loman, the pursuit of the American Dream came at a terrible price. Similarly, for Joe Keller, the patriarch of All My Sons, the choices he makes to provide for and protect his family ultimately cost more than any of them can bear.

Joe Keller is a small factory owner who has worked his entire life to support the family he loves. Like many businesses during WWII, Joe's factory thrived as a result of lucrative government contracts to build cylinder heads for airplane motors. Faced with the possibility of losing the government contracts because an error in the production process caused cracks in a number of cylinder heads, Joe had to make a decision. He convinced his partner to cover up the cracks and ship the parts, hoping the defects would be detected before the parts were installed.

The play opens on the day Joe's son Chris has decided to start a new life. After returning home from the war, Chris took his place beside Joe in the family business. Now Chris is ready to move out on his own. He wants to marry Ann Deever, the daughter of Joe's ex-partner and the fiancee of Chris' brother Larry, who has been missing-in-action for three years. Chris invites Ann to his home, hoping to make the engagement official and receive his parents' blessing. In order for this to happen, Chris has to convince his mother to finally admit Larry died in the war. As Mrs. Keller fights to keep her family together, ghosts from the past threaten their future happiness.

The uneasy calm resting over the Keller household is destroyed over the course of one day as Chris and Ann fight to start a life together and the horrifying truth about Joe's actions and Larry's death are finally revealed. Can a family survive the secrets that hold it together?

All My Sons is the third play by Arthur Miller produced at South Coast Repertory (Death of a Salesman has been produced twice and The Crucible once). With this production, SCR audiences will get a rare glimpse into the breakthrough work of the man known as one of America's most important playwrights.

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Arthur Miller was born October 17, 1915 in New York. His father was a ladies-wear manufacturer and shopkeeper who was ruined in the Great Depression. After graduating from high school in 1932, Miller worked two years to earn money for college. In 1934 he entered the University of Michigan. There, he began writing plays, two of which won awards and gained some attention. Completing his studies, the budding author accepted a job with the Federal Theater Project. The following year, a novel, Focus, was published. But it took another three years before Miller gained real acclaim. All My Sons opened on Broadway in 1947 and earned Miller the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as Best Play. Two years later, Death of a Salesman was produced and went on to win both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.

The 1953 award-winning play, The Crucible, brought Miller to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which investigated Communist influence on the arts. The play used the seventeenth-century Salem witch hunts as an allegory for the McCarthy era. Miller was called before the committee and cited for contempt of Congress when he refused to name others associated with leftist or suspected Communist groups. The courts reversed the ruling two years later.

The playwright continued to produce popular successes like A View From the Bridge. Then in 1956 he married screen siren Marilyn Monroe. Although he stopped writing for the stage during his marriage to the movie star, Miller wrote his first produced screenplay, The Misfits, in 1961. The film was directed by John Huston and starred Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable. The couple was divorced the same year. In 1962, Arthur Miller married Inge Morath, a photojournalist with whom he has collaborated on several books.

After a nine year absence, Miller's work returned to the stage in 1964 with the autobiographical After the Fall and Incident at Vichy. Both plays met with mixed audience and critical acceptance. His next Broadway success came in 1968 with The Price, which ran over 400 performances.

His subsequent works divided critics and audiences, including The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972) and The American Clock (1980). Miller returned to Broadway in 1994 with Broken Glass, a drama about a troubled marriage and the wife's identification with Jewish oppression under the Nazis. In addition to writing for the stage, Arthur Miller has written both for film and television. Several of Miller's teleplays have received critical acclaim, including Playing for Time (1980), the story of a group of women who formed an orchestra and played for the captives at Auschwitz.

In 1997 New York's Signature Theater Company honored Arthur Miller by devoting an entire season to his work. Miller served as playwright-in-residence for the 1997-98 season, which included the premiere of a new play, Mr. Peter's Connections.

Arthur Miller has received countless awards for his contribution to the American Theatre, including two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, three Tony awards, the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award (1984), the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award (1998), a Special Drama Desk Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement (1999). In 1999, Miller became the sixth recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, an award presented to "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life."

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Arthur Miller wrote several plays prior to All My Sons, but only one of them, The Man Who Had All the Luck, was produced in New York. Unfortunately, it closed after four performances. Years later, Miller was able to see how those previous attempts prepared him to write his breakthrough play. The following excerpts are taken from the Introduction to the Collected Plays, published in The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (Da Capo Press, New York, 1996).

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.

I knew my informant's neighborhood, I knew its middle-class ordinariness, and I knew how rarely the great issues penetrate such environments. But the fact that the girl had not only wanted to, but actually moved against an erring father transformed into fact and common reality what my previous play had only begun to hint at. I had no awareness of the slightest connection between the two plays. All I knew was that somehow a hard thing had entered into me, a crux toward which it seemed possible to move in strong and straight lines. Something was clear to me for the first time since I had begun to write plays, and it was the crisis of the second act, the revelation of the full loathsomeness of an anti-social action.

The stakes remaining are purely the conscience of Joe Keller and the awakening to the evil he has done, and the conscience of the son in the face of what he has discovered about his father. One could say that the problem was to make a fact of morality, but it is more precise, I think, to say that the structure of the play is designed to bring a man into the direct path of the consequences he has wrought.

All My Sons has often been called a moral play, and it is that, but the concept of morality is not quite as purely ethical as it has been made out to appear, nor is it so in the plays that follow. That the deed of Joe Keller at issue in All My Sons is his having been the cause of the death of pilots in the war obscures the other kind of morality in which the play is primarily interested. Morality is probably a faulty word to use in the connection, but what I was after was a kind of wonder in the fact that consequences of actions are as real as the actions themselves, yet we rarely take them into consideration as we perform actions, and we cannot hope to do so fully when we must always act with only partial knowledge of consequences. Joe Keller's trouble, in a word, is not that he cannot tell right from wrong but that his cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with his world, his universe, or his society. He is not a partner in society, but an incorporated member, so to speak, and you cannot sue personally the officers of a corporation. I hasten to make clear here that I am not merely speaking of a literal corporation but the concept of a man's becoming a function of production or distribution to the point where his personality becomes divorced from the action it propels.

This fortress which All My Sons lays siege to is the fortress of unrelatedness. It is an assertion not so much of a morality in terms of right and wrong, but of a moral world's being such because men cannot walk away from certain of their deeds.


Updated: July 16, 2004
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