All My Sons

All My Sons Study Guide

When the young playwright Arthur Miller began writing All My Sons, he was embarking on a project that would be either the beginning or the end of his career. His first and only play to be produced on Broadway, The Man Who Had All the Luck, was an unmitigated failure, lasting only four performances. A practical man who had lived through the depression, Miller decided to give himself one more chance. If he did not have success with his next play, then he would quit the business and find "another line of work."

In the meantime, Tennessee Williams had met great success with The Glass Menagerie in 1945, a very personal and psychological play with poetic overtones. Miller's plays, on the other hand, are public works, with straightforward (though not unpoetic) language, and which address issues of the individual's public persona and how people act. But he learned from Williams's success and set out to write a more commercial play, a drama that would "land" with audiences, in the language of the Broadway business. He also chose to write a play in a realistic style, a problem play in the manner of Henrik Ibsen, evoking a style he had not used in many years. The work of Ibsen influenced All My Sons structurally as well, for Ibsen had liberally applied the principle of Greek theater that stresses the influence of the past on the present.

When the play was finished after five years of work, Miller asked his agent to send it to the director Elia Kazan. A former member of the Communist Party, Kazan had directed Williams's The Glass Menagerie, and he would later direct the genre-redefining A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman (and would win Academy Awards for Gentleman's Agreement and On the Waterfront). Kazan's career was tarnished in memory, however, and his relationship with Miller was permanently severed when he chose to name names for the House Un-American Activities Commission during the Red Scare. But at the time, as a successful director with a talent for eliciting monumental performances from his actors, and as someone who shared Miller's leftist politics, Kazan was the perfect choice for All My Sons. The cast included such rising stars as Ed Begley (as Keller, later of Inherit the Wind), Arthur Kennedy (as Chris, later creator of the roles of Biff Loman and John Proctor), and Karl Malden (as George, later of Streetcar, Tea and Sympathy, and On The Waterfront).

Luckily for Miller and for the American stage, All My Sons was a success. Opening at the Coronet Theatre on January 29, 1947, the first night's notices were mixed--with the crucial exception of the New York Times, whose Brooks Atkinson admired Miller as a genuine new talent. As usual, the Times review swayed all the others, and All My Sons ran for 328 performances (quite respectable at that time) and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award for best play of 1947, beating out Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (which at the time had been coolly received and would only become a landmark of American drama in retrospect).

Miller's success gave him financial stability, confidence, and the confirmation of Miller's identity as a playwright. This success was necessary for him to take a risk with his next work, Death of a Salesman.