“Old sins cast long shadows,” as the saying has it. But new, fresh sins – things that are still wounds rather than just painful memories – do this too. And those sins beget ghosts of the sort that can haunt a person, a culture, an entire country.
The United States entered World War II in late 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the manufacturing machine that is part of the engine of any large military effort was immediately thrown into high gear. One of the cogs in this machine was Wright Aeronautical, a subsidiary of
the Curtiss-Wright (as in Orville and Wilbur) Corporation. CW now manufactures airplane components rather than entire aircraft, but it thrives still, its Wright Aeronautical arm having weathered one of the worst American scandals of the Second World War.
At an early stage of U.S. involvement in the war, Wright was awarded a large contract to provide aircraft engines to the U.S. Army Air Force. The company’s plant in Lockland, Ohio, under pressure to meet the acute wartime need, cranked these engines out. The result, as the
Truman Committee later heard in testimony, was “Management incompetence…. Government and company inspectors were criticized for rejecting material and would not be criticized for passing questionable material…. Rejected material [was] mixed with accepted parts and installed in engines…. Tests [were]
falsified….” Investigations concluded that Wright officials had conspired with both civilian and military personnel to let below-par aircraft engines through the gates for use.
It was this incident that inspired Arthur Miller to write All My Sons. It was, he claimed, his final attempt to write a commercially viable play after the failure of (the ironically titled) The Man Who Had All the Luck, which had played Broadway for a grand total of four
performances in 1944. To the story of the Wright scandal he added some elements from Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and found the success he was looking for: the play, directed by Elia Kazan, opened on Broadway in January 1947 and was a hit. It was adapted for film the following year, and again forty years later. It
remains popular today.
The theme of the dark corners of the American Dream was evergreen for Miller; his best-known play, Death
of a Salesman, is a virtually perfect tribute to it. But where Salesmanis about the quiet ruin of an ordinary man whose only real sin is thinking that he belongs somewhere, All My Sons goes a step farther and examines the consequences of an equally ordinary man riding the imperatives of
American capitalism – produce, produce, produce – head-on into the realities of war and its cost beyond measure.
Joe Keller is presented to us as the kind of mid-century American everyman for whom the Dream was made. His ungrammatical speech signals that he hasn’t had the advantage of a great deal of formal education, nor is his background wealthy or illustrious; but Joe has things that are far more
important in the America of his time and place: hungry ambition, a clear view of “the way the world was made” – and a willingness to go along to get along.
Joe Keller is not a man to make waves; like Miller’s Loman, he believes that the important thing is to be both liked and well-liked, and he thinks that he is. After all, his neighbours still play cards with him, and he has come through the scandal his company has endured – allowing faulty engines
off the assembly line and into aircraft on active war duty – while his business partner, convicted as the true culprit, has been jailed for the negligence that has cost the lives of American pilots. “What have I got to hide?” he asks.
Joe seems better equipped for the realities of this life than are his neighbours: Frank Lubey, a man just old enough to have escaped the draft and passionate only about horoscopes, and Jim Bayliss, a physician who exchanged his dreams of pursuing research for a career tending to hypochondriac
matrons in order to satisfy every married father’s need for security. Joe Keller is made for the kind of contentment his time and place offer. His loving wife, Kate, and his comfortable house on the outskirts of town represent the apex of mid-century comfort and security – the reward due a man who keeps his
head down, works hard, and buys in.
But there has been war, and Joe and Kate’s two sons have been lost – one literally, in action, and the other to the reach and reassurance of the dream to which his parents have been so faithful.
Chris Keller returns home from World War II unable to reconcile the trauma and immediacy of his combat experience with what feels to him like life in a parallel, oblivious universe. War has given him a sense of obligation to others, and he wants that to be a legacy, something that would
make the sacrifice a redeeming one: “To show that, to bring that on to the earth again like some kind of a monument and everyone would feel it standing there … and it would make a difference.” Like The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, a World War I veteran and casualty of the so-called Lost
Generation, Chris wants the world to stand at a sort of moral attention as acknowledgement of the dreadful, irrevocable shift he and his peers have experienced. Instead, “There was no meaning in it here…. Nobody was
changed at all.”
Most unbearable to Chris is the disconnection between production and use that he sees everywhere, the evaporation of the effort and passion that can link people to what they do and to each other: “I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank-book, to drive the new car…. When you drive that
car you’ve got to know that it came out of the love a man can have for a man, you’ve got to be a little better because of that. Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there’s blood on it.” As the play unfolds, we see the truth of Chris’s conviction here – how right he is about it, and the cost of his
father’s denial of it.
We also see how Larry, the son who has disappeared in action, becomes a space that Joe can fill with everything that makes him feel like a good man: “If Larry was alive he wouldn’t act like this. He understood the way the world is made…. Larry. That was a boy we lost.”
The other space here is that left by Larry’s status as missing rather than killed, and it is one in which his mother, Kate, dwells in desperate possibility, haunted by omens and buoyed by the reassuring horoscope Frank Lubey has drawn up for her son. Larry’s absence is overwhelming: he casts
as long a shadow as sin. The arrivals of Ann and George, the two children of Joe’s incarcerated business partner, Steve Deever, signal in different ways the beginning of the collapse of these spaces, and of the safe buffer of affability and cards and fantasy that have kept Joe and Kate going. When the truth of
Larry’s fate emerges, the weight proves insupportable, and his parents’ world is crushed beneath it.
Dr. Kel Pero is an actor and scholar who lives in Stratford.