The term “The American Dream” was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book the “Epic of America” in 1931, a little over a decade before “All My Sons” was written.
The American Dream is a dream of a social order in which each person shall be able to obtain the fullest potential of which they are capable, and be recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the circumstances of birth or position in society.
In the play “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller we most definitely witness the attempt to create and inevitably the shattering of this ideal. Miller also uses this theme much more obviously in his play “Death of a Salesman.”
The play is about the business-success dream. Joe Keller has worked hard his whole life to create the perfect existence for his family who he loves dearly. His whole reason for existence is the son he has left after the war, Chris. He created the business for Chris and assumed that he would take over after he was gone. Chris on the other hand is not interested in this and wants to “get married and live someplace else”. When Keller tries to persuade him otherwise he says to him that he’s “got a business here” to which Chris replies “The business doesn’t inspire me.” Here Chris exposes the lie of “The American Dream”. Americans believed that money equals happiness but Chris does not entertain this ideal. Keller does not understand that Chris does not get happiness from earning lots of money and that he needs a more spiritual type of happiness.
In his speech about being “human”, on pages 30 and 31, Keller is describing why he thinks Steve covered the cracks but the reasons he gives for “Steve’s” decision are the reasons he told Steve to cover them. He keeps repeating “see it human” as if he knows Chris and everyone will one-day find out that it was infact his fault those men died, so he’s pleading his case now.
He sees how Annie is ashamed and angered by her father when she says “Father or no father, there’s only one way to look at him” and the fact she has not even written to him, let alone seen him, since Larry’s death. He desperately doesn’t want Chris to feel that way about him when he finds out the truth. This may be one of the reasons that, in the end, he shoots himself. The guilt he feels when he finds out that Larry killed himself because of the shame of his fathers misconduct, would be made worse if Chris never forgave him and treated him how Annie treats her father.
Keller says to Chris in desperation at the end of act 2 “For you, a business for you!” but Chris just throws it back in his face by saying “what the hell do you think I was thinking of, the Goddamn business?” about when he was fighting, during the war. We see this again and again throughout the play; that Chris seems to have more of a global awareness, unlike his father whose mind is set in the close-knit community he has built around himself. Chris is thinking of “living someplace else. Maybe New York.” He’s not tied down to the traditional lifestyle that his father wants him to go into. And because his son is wanting to do his own thing, even if that means he must move away, Kellers’ dream of his son taking over the business is destroyed.
Keller seems to have got it into his head that money creates happiness. But despite their comfortable living with enough money and a maid, none of them are happy.
A reason for this is that every one in this play, apart from Chris, are hiding something from someone else. Keller and his wife know that he is guilty of shipping out the cracked cylinder heads, and when Chris finds out he is crushed. Even in the stage directions it says he speaks “in a broken whisper”.
The exact moment where the dream is completely shattered is when Annie brother George comes back, to reveal the truth about Keller, and then Annie revealing the truth about Larry.
Miller found the idea for Joe’s crime in a true story, which occurred during the Second World War: a manufacturer knowingly shipped out defective parts for tanks. This led to the deaths of many soldiers. The fault was discovered, and the manufacturer convicted. In All My Sons, Miller examines the morality of the man who places his narrow responsibility to his family above his wider responsibility to the men who rely on the integrity of his work.
There is an obvious difference between success and failure within the system, and a difference in opinion of what success and failure are. In the end of the play a great sense of relief descends on the family, and Kate even tells Chris to “Forget now. Live.”
After the play is finished, you still feel a great deal of compassion for Keller. He is meant to have been the “villain” of the tale: he has killed many men and got away with it. But even after all this comes out, we still feel sorry for him. I think this is because of the way Keller is portrayed, as a regular guy, who is a bit dim. He was trying so hard to do what was right, but “All my Sons” does question the widely debated idea of what is “right” and “wrong”.
This play has received mixed reactions from people since it was written. The critics in 1947, when the play premiered, loved it and even said, “it edged out Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that Miller had brought “something fresh and exciting into the drama” with “a pitiless analysis of character that gathers momentum all evening and concludes with both logic and dramatic impact.”
This was all good, but the play did offend certain people. Mainly the president of the Catholic War Veterans who said the play was a “party line Communist propaganda vehicle.” Also some said its content was “an unfounded smear upon the American business community.” This was all triggered by the Army making plans to show the play in occupied Germany, and due to the out rage the play was deemed unsuitable for performance in the American occupied areas and a declaration banned its performance in those regions.
It was not the last time Miller would be tarred as a Communist, of course; in 1957 he was convicted of contempt of Congress when he refused to supply names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. But other than that this play has received lots of admirable and well-deserved praise.
By concerning himself only with his family and his business, and not looking at the wider picture, Joe Keller has destroyed the exact thing he set out to create: happiness. His wife is not happy because her son is dead, Chris is not happy because he has dreams and ideas beyond the business which he is being forced into, and Keller himself has lived for three years with the shame of sending an innocent man to prison. In the end his belief in The American Dream has caused more suffering than happiness.