Promo image from All My Sons

A LINE INTO THE PAST

By David Prosser

“When All My Sons opened on Broadway, it was called an ‘Ibsenesque’ play,” recalled Arthur Miller in a lengthy introduction to the 1957 edition of his collected plays, adding that “Some people liked it for this reason and others did not.” It is thus perhaps fitting that All My Sons should appear on the same Stratford Festival stage this season as Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, which had preceded it by some fifty years.

One aspect of Miller’s play that reminded critics of Henrik Ibsen was the way its story unfolds. Rather than building up to some crucial action and then following its consequences, All My Sons creates its dramatic tension by gradually uncovering the past actions that have led to the characters’ present predicaments. Its overall arc is the revelation of truth – not just to the audience but also to many of the characters themselves.

“All My Sons takes its time with the past,” Miller wrote in his introduction, “not in deference to Ibsen’s method as I saw it then, but because its theme is the question of actions and consequences, and a way had to be found to throw a long line into the past in order to make that kind of connection viable.”

That dramatic technique of revealing past action is much older than either Ibsen or Miller: it goes back at least as far as Oedipus Rex. Sophocles’ archetypal Greek tragedy takes the form of an investigation into a long-ago unsolved crime whose consequences are blighting the present. And the devastating truth that finally emerges points to a tragic flaw: the wilful blindness of Oedipus, who has refused to confront the increasingly apparent fact that he is himself the perpetrator.

Shakespearean tragedy, too (unlike its medieval predecessors, which saw tragedy as arising merely from the inevitable turning of Fortune’s wheel), embraces the idea of the tragic flaw. It is King Lear’s own ill-advised actions that lead to his downfall and death, his one consolation being that, amid all his losses, he gains what he lacked before: awareness of his flawed humanity and acceptance of responsibility for his own suffering and that of others.

By the twentieth century, though, as Miller observed in his 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” tragedy seemed to have gone out of style. The reason was its traditional association with high social rank. While there were exceptions, including such early modern “domestic tragedies” as Arden of Faversham and A Yorkshire Tragedy, the protagonists of classical tragedy tended to be kings and queens, princes, heroes, emperors or tyrants, whose elevated positions made their downfalls all the more terrifying. This seemed archaic in an era whose drama focused on the lives of middle-class men and women. “For one reason or another,” Miller wrote, “we are often held to be below tragedy – or tragedy above us.”

But with All My Sons, Miller had already set out on the path that would give the twentieth century its definitive tragic hero: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. After the failure of his first Broadway-produced play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, Miller had come close to giving up playwriting – until a critic, John Anderson, invited him for a drink and told him that he had sensed in that abortive work “some strange shadow world behind the characters, a fascinating gathering of darkness,” that held the promise of tragedy. “You ought to try to understand what you’ve done.”

Inspired by those words, Miller began, with All My Sons, to attempt in America what Ibsen had done in Scandinavia: to find the essence of tragedy in everyday lives. Like Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, Miller’s Joe Keller is not Prince Hamlet, nor is meant to be. But as Miller pointed out, nobility and rank have no monopoly on tragic flaws. The humblest among us can be just as blind as King Oedipus, and while the misguided actions of ordinary people may lack the cosmic resonance of Lear’s, their cost in human suffering can be appalling nonetheless.

It is not social status, argued Miller in his essay on tragedy, but the nature of the struggle in which the protagonist engages – the struggle “to evaluate himself, justly”; to “wholly realize himself” – that bestows tragic stature. “The commonest of men,” he wrote – and of women too, we might add, noting how many of Ibsen’s protagonists are female – “may take on that stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in the world.”

David Prosser is the Stratford Festival’s Literary and Editorial Director.