Top critical review
Is it satisfying drama?
on 12 June 2016
Too often we ask the wrong question about a play like ‘All My Sons’. What it is ‘about’? isn’t necessarily important. Rather we should ask, ‘Is it satisfying drama?’
Miller picks away at the emotional scabs of his characters’ pasts, exposing present raw feelings in a play that is hugely suspenseful. We know that Joe knows that he is culpable. We don’t know in what the circumstances, if any, he will admit (and indeed accept) culpability. When, and with whom, will the big emotional ‘bust up’ be? Will it be with Kate, his obsessional wife; Chris, his surviving son; George, the son of the ‘patsy’ who went to jail instead of Joe? Miller never lets us forget that these are ordinary people who are capable of big emotions, prone to ambivalent feelings and susceptible to shifting attitudes to each other and to the notion of what constitutes culpability. The dramatic interplay between characters is heady and subtle.
In his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, Christopher Bigsby makes the pertinent point that ‘All My Sons’ isn’t ‘a well-made play whose energy is fully discharged’. For example, George’s arrival strains our credibility. Why has he suddenly decided to visit his father in prison after all those years? On what basis does he now believe his father’s innocence? The play’s last act is theatrically crude. Where is the catharsis and for whom do we cry? Joe takes the easiest way out imaginable leaving Chris to cope with the issues to which his father should have faced up. Kate’s obsessiveness about Larry makes her an individual to whom it is impossible to relate. Chris, with whom we might identify most, is not a character with whom we can easily engage. He should have appraised his father years previously. Ultimately, ‘All My Sons’ isn’t a wholly satisfying drama.