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Wednesday, 13 January 2010

All my Sons – Historical and Cultural Context.

Communism, Consumerism, Capitalism.

I have studied Arthur Miller’s All my Sons in relation to the impact communism, consumerism and capitalism had on both the playwright and the American populous and how this is evidenced in the play.

All my Sons was completed and first performed in 1947, the year the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating communist infiltration of Hollywood. This period of history coincided with the idea of the “American Dream” where money was important and everyone could be successful. Eighteen years earlier the Wall Street Crash heralded ten years of depression. Miller’s father, like millions of Americans, lost his business during this period and the failure of capitalism is a recurring theme in this and other plays written by Miller. Welland says, ‘Miller was growing up during the depression and no other single factor is more important than this in determining his work’ (WELLAND 1961:6). During 1932 -1938 unemployment in America averaged 20.3% (www.infoplease) and it could be argued that his father’s business failure sparked Miller’s communist sympathies and “All My Son’s” is an attack on both the capitalistic culture and an attack on the House Committee’s Un-American Activities’ Special Investigation Committee. Others, including Welland, suggests the opposite view, namely; ‘not an attack on capitalist business ethic but as a study of the bewildered common man’ (WELLAND 1979 A Study of Miller’s Plays:29). Miller explained his beliefs in 1958 when he addressed the Congressional Investigation Committee; ‘although never under communist discipline’ he had ‘explored – and rejected – the party’s doctrine although he attended communist sponsored meetings’ (WELLAND 1961: 10). However, counter-rumours continue to circulate to the effect that he had been an active member of a writer’s unit of the communist party, under the pseudonym of Matt Wayne, during the time he was writing All My Son’s.

The depression in America ended with the advent of the Second World War. Increase in manufacturing of armaments and war goods allowed America to break out of this circle of deprivation and become the wealthiest nation in the world. Keller’s business was no different and was working to full capacity as demonstrated in his outburst; ‘you gotta appreciate what was doing in that shop in the war...It was a madhouse. Every half an hour the Major callin’ for cylinder heads. (p118)’

America’s new found wealth allowed consumerism and suburbia living to flourish. Keller and his neighbours are part of this. Indeed, although the Lubey’s and Keller’s have lived in their houses for some-time, the Bayliss’ moved into theirs at the end of the war. Miller is very specific with the initial stage directions to ensure that the setting of the house and yard is stereotypical of North American affluent suburbia; ‘outskirts of American town...hedged and planted poplars...two storey house...driveway...cost perhaps $15,000’ (p89).

Joe Keller was forty years of age when the Wall Street Crash affected the nation and nearly fifty when America started providing war machinery to the Allies. Joe experienced poverty during this dark decade and again when he lost his machine shop manufacturing business while incarcerated. During these times he dreamt the “American Dream” of having money and success; ‘once upon a time I used to think that when I got money I would have a maid’ (p103). Miller shows America as a land of opportunities by the way Keller once again became a successful businessman after re-building his business in fourteen months by making consumables; ‘Pressure cookers and assembly for washing-machines’ (p150).

Issel suggests that post war America was a two class society, those with money and those without and ‘the coexistence of wealth and poverty after 1945 bought a central theme of American history into the post-war period’ (ISSEL-1985:135). Lee goes further ‘The new affluent society increased emphasis on materialism. Household equipment would no longer be basic...’ (LEE-1993:126). Keller the capitalist has liberal, if not communistic leanings. He is aware that, but for luck, he could be poor or out of work. Even for those employed, post war pay rates in America were pitifully low and work menial; “I got so many lieutenants, majors and colonels that I’m ashamed to ask somebody to sweep the floor...you stand on a street today and spit, you’re gonna hit a college man’ (p134).

Money became a motivator to majority of Americans and was a commodity to be spent on consumer items and houses in the suburbs. Money and possessions were important; ownership demonstrated wealth and thereby status. Miller uses this theme on numerous occasions. Lydia’s failed attempt to get the toaster to work by inadvertently plugging in the malted mixer (p94-95) thereby demonstrating that families with 3 children can also live the American Dream and own new kitchen appliances; Anne’s dress costing nearly three weeks’ salary (p109) and Sue’s continual attempt to get her husband to earn money from his patients – ‘seems to me that for ten dollars you could hold his hand’ (p94).
Not all American’s were totally committed to money and commercialism and Miller explores this aspect with both Jim and Chris. Both of them initially give the impression of dollar chasing: Jim when he says; ‘I’d love to help humanity on a Warner Brothers’ salary’ (p93) and Chris when he tells Annie; ‘I’m going to make a fortune for you’ (p122). Sue confirms her husband is, in reality, a selfless person; ‘he’s got an idea he’d like to do medical research...Research pays twenty-five dollars a week’ (p130) while Chris demonstrates he is not driven by money and has high morals when he turns down his father’s offer of taking over the business (p124).

Miller manages to combine three of America’s cultural and period themes in the space of four lines; the growth of suburbia, the importance of money, the potential corruption of capitalists. Keller wants Chris to stay and continue to run the business. He offers; ‘to build’...him...‘a house, stone, with a driveway from the road’ (p124) thereby using his capitalist-money to buy a house in suburbia by way of a bribe.


FIEDLER L.A. (1972 first published 1948) An End to Innocence. NEW YORK. STEIN AND CO.
ISSEL W. (1985) Social Changes in the United States 1945 – 1983. LONDON MACMILLAN.
LASSMAN E.Z. (2008 first published 2007) All My Sons, Arthur Mille. LONDON, YORK PRESS.
LEE R. (Editor) (1993) A Permanent Etcetera. LONDON, PLUTO PRESS.
LEICESTER THEATRE TRUST. All my son’s by ARTHUR MILLER. Walter Meierjohann. CURVE THEATRE. 8 Oct 2009 – 14 Dec 2009.
MILLER A. (2000 first published 1961) A View from the Bridge/ All my Sons. LONDON, PENGUIN CLASSICS.
WELLAND D. (1979) Miller: a study of his plays. LONDON, EYRE METHUEN.
WELLAND D. (1979) Miller The Playwright. LONDON, EYRE METHUEN.