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
which had preceded it by some fifty years.
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.
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.”
dramatic technique of revealing past action is much older than either Ibsen or
Miller: it goes back at least as far as Oedipus
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
by those words, Miller began, with All
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.
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.”
Prosser is the Stratford Festival’s Literary and Editorial Director.