Arthur Miller wrote All My Sons shortly after World War II, but the theme of soldiers being compromised as they go to war still resonates with us today. Nowadays claims are made that our army in Afghanistan is insufficiently equipped for battle, but Joe Keller (David Suchet in the play) is responsible for manufacturing cracked cylinder heads for military aeroplanes and these result in the deaths of young pilots.
In the current London production Suchet plays Joe as a family man and successful businessman. He is well liked (an attribute that Willy Loman deemed highly desirable) by his friends and neighbours, who pop in and out of his suburban garden. As the play unfolds it would appear that the only member of the cast with a problem is Joe’s wife, Kate (played by Zoe Wannamaker). She appears unable to accept the reality of the death of their elder son, Larry, during the war. When her younger son, Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore), proposes to Larry’s former sweetheart, Ann Deever, we believe she opposes the match because accepting the relationship would mean accepting the death of her son. The Kellers may seem to be a close knit family, but we learn that the Deevers have been torn apart because Steve, the paterfamilias, is serving a prison sentence for the crime of allowing the faulty parts to be used in the planes. Neither of his children has seen him since his imprisonment, and his wife has been considering divorcing him. Until the end of the play the audience is not aware that the guilt is Joe’s, and not Steve’s.
On the day that the action unfolds, Anne’s brother George, after visiting his father in prison, arrives to confront Joe with the truth: Joe is responsible for the faulty parts, but he has lied and allowed Steve to take the blame. Like all tragic heroes (the play adheres to the unities of time, place and action) Joe is responsible for his own downfall. David Suchet visibly shrinks before our eyes when forced to confront the truth. He may claim that he allowed the faulty components to be used because he was only thinking of his family, but when he has to accept that Larry suspected his father’s guilt and crashed his plane – revealed in a letter that he wrote to Ann on the day he died – it is all too much for him. Larry hasn’t died because he was piloting a damaged plane, but because his father has been revealed for the man he truly is. Kate, who has been aware of her husband’s guilt, is also forced to face up to the truth. The acknowledgement that Joe has been responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots is too much for him to bear. His offstage suicide could be construed as an honourable death, divine providence, or the act of a coward who cannot face the prospect of prison. Not only has Joe destroyed himself, but he has taken his family down with him. Life for the remaining Kellers will never be the same again.