Last weekend my family and I saw an incredible staging of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons at the Apollo theater in London. I’d seen the play before, but Miller’s themes especially resonated with me this time because they offer such a vital message in these uncertain times.
If you haven’t seen it, here are the basics of the plot: Joe Keller owns a company that manufactures airplane parts, which was under contract to the Army Air Force during World War II. The play takes place three years after the war is over. One son has returned home after being in command of a company that was mainly killed. The other, a pilot in the war, is still missing.
The play centers around the fact that, due to the relentless demands of wartime production, Keller’s company supplied the Army with a batch of cracked cylinder heads, which ultimately caused 21 planes to crash and their pilots to perish.
The faulty parts had placed Keller in a terrible dilemma: had Keller’s company withdrawn the cylinder heads, they would have lost the Army contract and he may have lost his business, which he wants to pass onto his sons.
In the court case that followed the discovery of the faulty cylinders, Keller denied involvement, committed perjury in court and allowed his neighbor and employee, Steve Deever, to assume all blame. Deever is convicted and imprisoned, his marriage falls apart and his children refuse to speak to him.
Yours and yours alone
For the sake of his own family, Keller is willing to sacrifice another family and of course the bigger family – ‘all the sons’ of the war who died through his actions. Nevertheless, it is precisely this action – looking after his own – that ultimately destroys Keller’s family, especially himself.
The play’s power comes from the fact that we can all identify with Keller. He is not an inherently bad man. He lives for his family and is simply looking out for them and their future, no matter what it takes. In fact, he believes, his actions are simply reflective of the morals of the society in which he lives.
When justifying his actions, he tells his son Chris, about the dog-eat-dog nature of the society in which they find themselves: “You got a process, the process don't work you're out of business…they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell's it to them?
“Who worked for nothin’ in that war? When they work for nothin’, I’ll work for nothing’. Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean? It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes, war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?”
Great web of meaning
When Miller wrote about the play himself, he said that it concerned the damage and evil of ‘unrelatedness’. Joe Keller’s crime is that he believes his responsibility ends with his property line. After living through the Great Depression, Keller will help his family to survive at all costs without regard for the consequences of any of his actions on the wider world.
“The concept behind it was that Joe Keller was both responsible for and a part of a great web of meaning, of being,” wrote Miller about his work. “He had torn that web; he had ripped apart the structure that supports life and society. . . . that web of meaning of existence. And a person who violates it in the way he did has done more than kill a few men. He has killed the possibility of a society having any future, any life. He has destroyed the life-force in that society.”
I thought of the play and its messages when I saw a photograph last week of the many ‘tent’ cities sprouting up in the US and heard the latest statistic that one in seven of all Americans are now homeless.
Two British epidemiologists named Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett spent more than thirty years painstakingly examining why certain human societies live longer and healthier than others, the results of which are contained in their remarkable book, Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better.
After researching the social conditions of virtually every Western country, Wilkinson and Pickett discovered an astonishing statistic that ran through every country they’d examined: the more unfair any society — which is to say, economically unfair and hierarchical — the worse off everyone is — both rich and poor — in terms of virtually every social problem.
In countries with giant income disparity between the very rich and the very poor, both the most affluent and the very poorest suffer from higher rates of ill health, higher crime rates, mental illness, environmental problems and violence.
Western countries in the main are at their most unequal in history. Our sense of taking and giving has been replaced by taking whatever you can get for you and yours alone. All of us have turned into a Joe Keller.
As the surviving son, Chris Keller, says to his father: “This is the land of the great big dogs, you don’t love a man here, you eat him! That’s the principle; the only one we live by — it just happened to kill a few people this time, that’s all.”
The UK, the US and many countries in Europe, with their vast difference between rich and poor, are among the worse off in virtually every social indicator than countries like Japan and Sweden, with less wealth disparity in the population.
Although one of the wealthiest countries in the world with half the world’s billionaires, Spirit Level names America as having far and away the highest level of all social problems — crime, lack of education, mental illness, suicide, disease of all varieties — of twenty countries, and the UK the third worse.
Although one in every thirty-nine Americans is a millionaire, 39.1 million Americans live below the poverty line.
Responsibility to the whole
To begin to recover our western societies, we must understand Miller’s message, which was essentially, that all of us live as part of an organic whole.
As Chris responds, when his mother says, ‘What more can we be?”:
“You can be better! Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that’s why he died.”
We ignore that message at our peril. Whenever we act purely for selfish reasons without regard for our social contract – the promises we keep to each other, to take our fair share, to wait our turn — we ourselves are destroyed, physically but more important, from the inside.
As one of the characters says of the kind of compromises that Keller made: “Every man does have a star. The star of one's honesty. And you spend your life groping for it, but once it's out it never lights again.”