All My Sons
This month, the Lyceum revives Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, directed by John Dove, whose Death of a Salesman a couple of years back was very well received. Steve Cramer talks to lead actors Kathryn Howden and Stuart Milligan about it.
Steve Cramer The play tells the story of Joe, a man who, during the Second World War, has okayed faulty engine parts for bombers. As a result, many airman, including one of his sons, have died. He has escaped justice, but his attempts to establish a normal family life have broken down. Does this tell us something about the way capitalism impinges on our private lives, though we try to deny this, creating a false divide between public and private life?
Stuart Milligan As an American I don’t see it that way, but that doesn’t mean that’s not part of what Miller was saying. I think profit from war is always a tricky one. We’ve been talking a lot about this in rehearsals, and certainly, during the war, fortunes were made, and there were a lot of bullets that didn’t go off, guns that exploded and engines that blew up, etc. Some people say there was a lot of guilt at the end of the Second World War, but I don’t think so. It was an argument that we won that we could have lost.
Kathryn Howden I think when I first read it, as an actress, I didn’t think ‘Oh, this is a political play’; it’s about the characters. It seems so simple, but it says so much - it’s a huge play, and you can do it today with as much relevance as ever.
SM All My Sons is an early play - the masterpieces we know him for were yet to come. But it was a huge hit. I think this was because it hit at family mythologies, this extraordinary need to deny, to move on, not to talk about it, to move onto another subject when someone comes into the room. The desire to hang onto the normality of the family at all costs - eventually that costs everything.
SC So what’s the secret of the play’s great power?
KH Even the flawed characters, you understand them - even Joe. You tend to say to yourself, ‘God, there but for the Grace of God’, you know. It’s self deception, I don’t think in his head he believed someone would die from the decision he took. He’s doing this thing where as long as the family’s okay, I’m okay. We all do that at times.
SC But is there a political subtext?
SM There’s this point where we have to say it’s our fault. I mean, I vote; a lot of Americans don’t. But if you want to say something about Iraq, you’ve got to get involved. What strikes me is that at this time there really were people waiting for people to come home, and people who had been waiting for peace. It’s not the same now, I mean we’re at war now, but it’s getting more real - and it is more real when we see this woman from Texas, who’s mad she’s lost her son, and she’s not going away, for all the politicians and media trying to shut her up.
KH But it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of genuine love in this family. I mean we’ve got a remaining son who’s looked up to his father all his life - how easy is it for him to believe his father has done this thing? As long as the lie goes on, he’s okay.
SM Yes, I think it’s about love.