Arthur Miller started writing All My Sons in 1945, inspired by World War II and the true-life story (told to him by his stepmom) of a woman who alerted authorities to her father's wartime wrong-doing (source: Christopher Bigsby, "Introduction to All My Sons." Penguin Classics, 2000). The play focuses on the story of a businessman who once narrowly avoided financial ruin by shipping cracked machine parts to the military. He blames his business partner and builds an empire, but eventually his crime comes back to haunt him. The play was produced after the war, won the 1947 Tony, and beat out Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award that same year.
You might already know Miller from some of his most famous plays, like The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, or A View From the Bridge. All My Sons was one of Miller's earliest plays – and his first commercially successful one – but it already features the ideas of social responsibility that he obsessed with throughout his entire career.
2. Why Should I Care?
It's easy to judge Joe Keller. He did something really terrible: making a profit off of faulty airplane parts. Facilitating the deaths of several soldiers. And blaming it all on his feckless partner. You would never, never do anything like that, right? Us neither.
But we might make some decisions without thinking through the consequences. Like Joe, we might only be thinking of our friends and our family (or heck, ourselves) when we do certain things. Driving in traffic, for example. We're tired, we're late, we're hungry, and this punk is getting right in our way. With a number of stressors pressing on us, it's easy to cut him off. It's hard – particularly in a moment of crisis, which is just what Joe Keller faced – to step back and think of everyone else on the road.
Some people are really good at remembering the whole world when they make decisions. They are vegetarian, buy local food, compost, recycle, use no fossil fuels, walk dogs at the shelter, and help old ladies cross the street. We admire those people, but we don't always count ourselves among them. So maybe we actually can understand where Joe is coming from. At least a little bit.
3. All My Sons Summary
Joe Keller, a successful businessman, lives comfortably with his wife, Kate, and son, Chris, in a suburban American neighborhood. They have only one sadness in their lives – the loss of their other son, Larry, who went missing in World War II. After three years, Kate still clings to the hope that her son is alive. Chris would like her to give up that hope because he wants to marry Ann, an old neighbor and Larry's former fiancée.
Ann arrives. Kate, sensing the reason for her visit, gets a little touchy. We learn that Ann's father is in prison for a crime he committed while working in Joe's factory. Faced with a batch of defective machine parts, he patched them and sent them out, causing the death of 21 pilots during the war. Turns out that Joe was also accused of this crime and convicted, but he was exonerated (set free) during the appeal. Steve went to prison; Joe returned home and made his business bigger and better.
Soon after Ann's arrival, her brother George follows, straight from visiting his father in prison. He knows what Chris has in mind and is totally against him marrying Ann. Joe and Kate do their best to charm George into submission, but finally it's Ann who sends him away. She wants to marry Chris no matter what.
The marriage of Chris and Ann is becoming a reality – and Kate can't handle it, because it means Larry is truly dead. And if Larry is dead, she tells Chris, it's because his own father killed him, since Larry was also a pilot. Chris finally confronts his father's guilt in shipping those defective parts.
But Chris won't do anything about it. He won't even ask his father to go to prison. Ann, who turned her back on her own father for the same reason, insists that Chris take a hard line. Joe Keller goes inside to get his things. A gunshot is heard. He's killed himself.
All My Sons Act 1 Summary
The stage directions describe the Keller home as situated in an American suburb. It's roughly August 1947.
The house is comfortable and well-kept, as is the yard. Downstage left stands an apple tree stump. The trunk and branches are toppled beside it.
Joe Keller is in his yard reading the want ads. He's a self-made businessman of about sixty. Doctor Jim Bayliss, his neighbor, is about forty. He's reading the paper too.
Joe's neighbor on the other side, Frank, enters. He's 32.
The neighbors chat about the weather and the want ads.
Frank notices the felled tree. It was struck by lightning in the night. He observes how strange it is that the tree planted in memory of Larry was struck down in his birth month. Larry is Joe's son. He would have been twenty-seven this August, which Frank remembers because he's working on Larry's horoscope.
What Frank is trying to figure out – at the request of Kate, Joe's wife – is whether the day on which Larry was reported missing was his "favorable day," when, astrologically speaking, odds are he wouldn't die.
This piques skeptical Jim's interest – he doesn't buy it.
Talk turns to Annie, a young woman who used to live next door. She's visiting the Kellers and is upstairs asleep for now.
Jim makes a quip about how the block could use a pretty face. Just then his fat wife enters, nagging him about a patient's phone call.
Frank's wife Lydia comes in, also curious about Annie. Is she engaged? She was Larry's betrothed.
Chris Keller enters. He's 32. He starts reading the book section.
Joe and Chris start to talk about Larry's tree when eight-year-old neighbor Bert enters. He's Joe's "deputy" and tattles on some of the other kids on the street. He asks to see the jail Joe keeps in his basement, but Joe won't let him.
Bert exits; talk turns back to the tree. Mom saw it last night, says Chris. She was outside when it broke, then she came in and cried.
Kate Keller still believes Larry is coming back, even though it's been three years. Chris thinks they should puncture the illusion; Joe wants to keep it intact.
Chris sits his dad down. Listen up, pop, he says – I'm going to propose to Annie. But Mom still thinks she's Larry's girl.
Chris threatens to leave town – and the family business – if his father doesn't encourage his mother to support this marriage. Joe is shocked.
Kate enters, a woman in her early fifties. She's happy the tree blew down, because it affirms for her that Larry is still alive. They were in a rush to memorialize him with that tree.
Kate and Chris tiptoe around a discussion of Annie. Kate doesn't want to acknowledge that Chris might be courting her.
Kate recalls a dream she had about Larry last night. When she heard the wind, she imagined it was Larry flying by in his fighter plane.
Kate turns to Joe and wags her finger at him: they shouldn't have planted that tree. They gave up too soon.
When Chris exits to get his mother an aspirin, she turns on Joe. Chris better not be planning to propose to Annie. Joe says he doesn't know anything more than she does – an outright lie.
Kate wants Joe to believe with her that Larry will come back. He asks her to calm down.
They're again interrupted by Bert, who brings up the jail. Kate reacts sharply, telling him there is no jail there.
Ann enters from the house. She's beautiful and beautifully dressed. She's been living in New York.
When Chris shows his admiration for Ann, Kate comments lightly that she has put on a little weight.
Ann remarks on the little changes in the neighborhood: trees, a missing hammock. She's introduced to Jim, who now lives in her old house.
When Ann mentions Larry, Kate is relieved. Eventually she asks Ann directly if she's waiting for Larry. Ann says no.
Frank enters and dispels the tension. A little small talk, and then Frank mentions Ann's father. He's in prison.
Ann is sensitive; she wants to know if the neighbors still talk about her father and his crime. Chris and Joe say no. Ann remembers the neighbors screaming "Murderers" at her father, Steve, and at Joe.
In a long monologue, Joe recalls the day he was cleared of the crime. He and Steve had been accused of selling cracked cylinder heads to the Air Force, causing twenty-one planes to crash. Joe was exonerated; Ann's father was imprisoned. When Joe returned home, he walked down the street with defiance and pride. He suggests the same for Steve when he's released.
Ann admits that neither she nor her brother keep in touch with their father anymore. They blame him for knowingly shipping out faulty parts, resulting in the death of so many American pilots. She wonders aloud whether this was responsible for Larry's death.
That really sets Kate off. Ann should never say that again.
Keller tells his version of the story. There was a mad rush for parts, and when the cylinders came out cracked, cowardly Steve just decided to send them out. He was afraid that Joe and the military would be displeased with the mistake, so he kept quiet about it.
Chris breaks in. He just wants a change of subject. So they talk about steak and champagne instead, and Keller exits.
The long-awaited proposal occurs. Chris asks; Ann says yes. Now they just have to figure out how to tell Kate.
Chris has something to get off his chest. It's about the war. Leading a company, he lost all his men. Then he returned to the States and felt that nobody noticed; that the sacrifice of the men who died meant nothing substantial to the people at home. He has survivor's guilt. Chris feels as though he doesn't deserve life and doesn't deserve her.
Ann sets him straight – he does deserve her. And he better kiss her right now.
Joe interrupts them. There's a phone call from George, Ann's brother.
Chris tells Joe the news of his engagement to Ann. But Joe is preoccupied with this phone call. He's afraid George will want to open up his father's case again, and that Ann is on his side.
Ann emerges. George is coming there to settle something. He wouldn't say what.
This rattles Joe and Kate. Kate tells Joe to be smart.
My Sons Act 2 Summary
It's the same evening, at twilight, and Chris is chopping down the rest of Larry's tree.
Kate comes out and asks him to watch out for Joe and her when George arrives. She also wants him to ask Ann to leave with George. Chris still avoids telling his mom about the engagement.
Ann comes out and has a brief exchange with Chris. She wants them to tell Kate immediately.
Sue emerges from the house next door. Over a glass of grape juice, she lets it all hang out for Ann. Number one, Ann should move elsewhere when she marries Chris. Number two, everyone on the block still thinks Joe is guilty.
Ann gets totally freaked out. She asks Chris to assure her that Joe is innocent. He does.
Joe comes out and after some good-old-boy ribbing, tells Ann he'd like to set George up with some of his local lawyer friends. He's trying to mend fences in light of their marriage, he says.
Then Joe ups the offer. He'll give Steve a job when he gets out of prison. Chris doesn't like the idea, thinks it looks bad. But Joe believes they should forgive Steve and help set him up.
Jim arrives. He has George in the car. He warns Chris that George is angry and vengeful, and plans to take Ann home.
George enters. He's described as a man of about Chris's age, but pale and tweaked out. He's wearing a dirty shirt.
George meets Sue, who invites him to come over and see how they changed the house he lived in. He declines. He notices everything that's changed about the block.
George has just been to visit his father, who's shrinking. He launches into why he came. Ann will not marry Chris, son of the man who destroyed their family.
Filled with regret for turning his back on his father, George tells Steve's version of the broken cylinder story. In short, over an untraceable phone call, Joe told Steve to cover up the cracks and just send them out.
It's not a story Ann and Chris haven't heard. They heard it in court. George says that anyone who knows Steve and Joe knows the truth – that Joe was guilty. It was only because Chris believes in Joe that George did, turning his back on his father.
George is trying to take Ann away. Things get really heated – then Kate comes out.
This makes things hard for George. He really likes Kate.
Kate mothers him, gives him juice, promises to feed him.
George has to leave on the 8:30 train. Kate insinuates that he's taking Ann with him.
Lydia comes out. She and George used to have a thing. He's sad that she's shacked up with Frank and has three babies now.
Kate says she told him so. Now she wants him to move back, get a job through Joe, and find a girl.
Joe enters. Some awkward small talk and then they start talking about Steve. Joe puts out the offer of a job. George doesn't think his dad will accept; he hates Joe's guts now.
Acting friendly, Joe brings up another instance in which Steve failed to gracefully take the blame.
Ann has called a cab. But Joe invites George to stay for dinner.
He's just happily accepting when Kate makes a slip. She says Joe hasn't been sick in fifteen years. But the lynchpin of Joe's story was that the flu laid him up on that fateful day – which is why Steve is the only one in jail.
George doesn't let Kate's slip pass. He's on the attack.
Frank comes in with the horoscope. It implies Larry is alive.
This is just what Kate wants to hear. George is leaving, and Kate openly directs Ann to go with him. She even packed her bag.
Chris is furious. He tells George to go. Ann does too. But she exits to see him off.
Finally, Chris tells his mother he plans to marry Ann. She refuses to accept that. For her, Larry is alive.
Larry is alive, because if he's dead, his own father killed him… Now it's out.
Chris is totally, totally floored. His father is guilty.
Joe tries to explain himself. He's a man of business. What could he do? He was building a business for his sons.
Chris attacks him, calling him lower than an animal. He weeps.
All My Sons Act 3 Summary
•It's the middle of the night. Kate is out in the yard. Chris is missing.
•Jim comes back from a house call. He confesses to Kate that he has always known Joe is guilty. He tells her not to worry; Chris will come back. He'll figure out how to compromise and come back.
•Jim offers to go look for Chris.
•Joe comes in, upset that Jim is in his business. Kate's had about enough of her husband. She tells him that, if Chris comes back, Joe should offer to turn himself in.
•Joe can't believe this. His family wanted money and so he made money. Now they are turning on him.
•Kate explains that, for Chris, there's something bigger than the family. Joe can't understand that perspective. He's defined by his family.
•Ann emerges. She has her own agenda. She won't do anything about Joe's guilt, but she demands that Kate admit to Chris that Larry is dead. She wants to get on with her life.
•Kate refuses. Ann must leave her alone.
•Ann gets nuclear. She has a letter from Larry. She hadn't wanted to share it, but Kate leaves her no choice.
•Chris shows up. He apologizes to Ann for being a coward, for suspecting his father and doing nothing about it. He wants to put him in jail now, but doesn't feel like he can.
•Ann tries to comfort Chris. She doesn't expect him to do anything about Joe. But, in reality, she does.
•Joe comes out defensive. He tells Chris to throw his money away, if he thinks it's so dirty. He's no worse than any other man in the world.
•Chris knows that. He just thought Joe was better.
•Ann gives Larry's letter to Chris. In it, Larry confesses that he plans to kill himself because of his father's guilt.
•Joe gets it. He says he'll turn himself in. He goes inside.
•Kate still wants Chris to give it up. But he wants to go through with it, just to teach them that they have to understand there are wider consequences for their actions.
•A gunshot is heard inside. Chris goes to check, then comes back out. Joe has killed himself.