All My Sons

All My Sons Influences on All My Sons

All My Sons is a tightly constructed household drama in the style of the ancient Greek tragedies and of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen was one of the forerunners of the modern realistic style of drama. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Ibsen's plays featured small casts, colloquial language, and realistic situtations. But from these realistic situations arose timeless, archetypal emotions and conflicts. Essentially, Ibsen took the high drama of the gods in Greek theater and set it anew in Victorian drawing rooms, with pistols and purses rather than lightning bolts and chariots.

In a time when the Norwegian theater was still full of morality plays, Ibsen's plays were highly controversial. Right and wrong were not immediately apparent, nor were there clear protagonists and antagonists. More shockingly, bad things often happened to good people, contrary to the poetic justice of most Victorian theater and of an audience's natural preferences.

Ibsen challenged such assumptions and conventions with, for example, powerful, complex female characters such as Hedda Gabler in A Doll's House), antiheroes such as in Peer Gynt, and critiques of mob mentality in plays such as Enemy of the People. His plays introduced idiomatic dialogue to the stage and a sense of realism that was adopted by Chekhov, Shaw, and realist playwrights through Miller. Ibsen is also credited with presenting scathing social critiques through the drama of individuals, taking the generalism of Greek tragedies (in which the heroes were often explicitly representative of all humanity or of particular human flaws) and compressing it into realistic individuals with whom, like Willy Loman, audiences could readily identify.

Ibsen's style and construction influenced all of Western theater, not just Arthur Miller's works. But Miller is particularly pinpointed as an Ibsenian playwright, even though his more fantastic works such as Death of a Salesman and After the Fall are very unlike Ibsen? Miller was an Ibsenian also because he wrote characters, like Joe Keller, Willy Loman, and John Proctor, who fit the Ibsenian mold of tragic Greek heroes in their contemporary world. All My Sons was particularly perceived as Ibsenian because of its structural and thematic similarities to Ibsen.

All My Sons owes a great debt to Ibsen's The Wild Duck (1884), in which a young man returns home and slowly discovers heinous secrets about his family. The protagonist insists on full truth in all statements, but his ideals end up backfiring and result in the suicide of a young girl, showing that some truths are too much to bear. This play bears thematic and structural similarities to All My Sons, which probably reinforced the critical reception of Miller as an Ibsenian playwright at the time.

The link of All My Sons to Greek tragedy is not just by way of Ibsen but more direct as well. The concept of the inescapable influence of the past is very classical (remember Oedipus, for example). Oedipus too discovers the full truth about killing his father and marrying his mother after a series of hints, and the past does determine the future. Likewise, the father-son conflict in which the son realizes that his father is a mere mortal and kills him (directly or indirectly) is one of the most classic tropes in drama.

All My Sons weaves together these elements--Greek themes, Ibsenian structure, and a modern idiom--into a triumph of the well-constructed realist play.