All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Michael Buffong
Talawa Theatre / New Wolsey Theatre Production
Saturday 7th March 2015, 14.15
Doña Croll as Kate Keller
Ewen Cummins as Jim Bayliss
Andrea Davy as Sue Bayliss
Ashley Gerlach as George Deever
Kemi Bo-Jacobs as Ann Deever
Bethan Mary James as Lydia Lubey
Leemore Marrett Jr as Chris Keller
Ray Shell as Joe Keller
Chinna Wodu as Frank Lubey
Arthur Miller has a resurgence of attention. Last year saw major productions of The Crucible (Old Vic) and A View From The Bridge (Young Vic). The latter has just moved to the West End. The Royal Shakespeare Company is opening its 2015 season with Death of A Salesman. This Miller mania combines with my own completism, and was what motivated us to see his first play, All My Sons. It was written in 1947, and directed by Elia Kazan, a year in which it won the New York Critics Award for best play. I’ve read it, but never seen it, though I know that it knowingly follows the classic lines of a Greek tragedy – unity of place and unity of time are set, a central figure with a tragic flaw who gets his comeuppance. It takes place in one day.
This classic of “classic American drama” exemplifies the best and worst of its genre. It demands full on emotional performances from actors from a (usually) excellent script. On the minus side, like so many American plays it has just one set for three acts, a manageably small and therefore economical cast of nine and is devoid of any “theatricality,” and that’s not just time. Noel Coward had plenty of “theatricality” in novel staging and stage events years earlier. Classic American drama really is too often big characters getting very emotional on a fixed set.
It’s pastiched brilliantly in the “play within the play” in the 2014 film Birdman where it takes place around a kitchen table and ends (just as in All My Sons which I think is deliberate) with the central character shooting himself. And in the play within a play, Edward Norton and Michael Keaton give it the full Elia Kazan too.
The USP of the Talawa Theatre touring production is an all-black cast to emphasize its universality. It was first performed in 2013 (and had some poor reviews, especially The Telegraph) and is revived to tour in 2015. To me the casting causes some issues. Wisely, with a British cast, they mainly went for straight standard American, which greatly aids comprehension, and which works with the lines because Arthur Miller wrote them in standard American. The other course was to have gone for a BEV – Black American Vernacular – accent, In spite of major regional differentiation, a unified accent tone sits on top of all the regional variations of African-American English. Afro-Caribbean British people don’t have that super-regional tone (unless they’re yoof). For years when doing tapes in American English we had the ludicrous situation of booking black actors who were then made to eradicate any African-American accent on microphone. It took years before an American producer allowed our black actors on tapes to use a mild “black accent.” They wouldn’t allow a white Southern accent either.
L to R: Kate, Chris, Joe, Anne
The reason accent is an issue is down to the set design. Miller set the play in “the outskirts of an American town” but logically from references, in the North-East. The wooden house we see could be in any rural American setting, but it really does look “Southern” and that is greatly accented by having strands of green and yellow cloth to represent Spanish moss above the stage. The set looks great, but it reads “Southern.” OK, the North-East is stiflingly hot in the summer too, and the lines in the play point this. But we have no black accents, nor do we have Southern accents. Only the doctor’s wife, Sue Bayliss (Andrea Davy) gives a mild African-American, slightly Southern edge to her delivery. She does it well, but one of the inevitable tiny slips was a Southern British Englsh “gr-arse” rather than “grass.”
The programme makes a major deal of its interesting notes on the African-American contributions to World War II. At £3.50, it should have added more on the rationale of THIS production rather than the many adverts.
Joe Keller (Ray Shell) is a factory-owner. His tragic flaw / crime was to allow cracked cylinder heads for P40s to be delivered to the air force, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. Incidentally, in 2015 a “P40” sounds to British ears like a document (UB40? P45?). The P40 was a Curtiss Warhawk fighter plane. In 1947, American audiences knew this. I think I’d have pushed a “Curtiss P40 Warhawk” or “P40 fighter plane” into the script. So Joe Keller owns a factory so is a wealthy man. His partner and neighbor, Steve Deever, was blamed for selling the faulty parts knowingly. Steve and Joe were arrested, but Joe got out of it by lying and was exonerated. Steve is languishing in prison. To be honest, that lovely wooden house on the set looks far too modest for a guy who owns a factory. His new neighbor (having bought Steve’s old house) is Dr Jim Bayliss.
Ann and Kate
Steve’s son, George Bayliss, is a lawyer. Joe’s surviving son, Chris, is rich on his father’s money. Basically, with a wooden house very similar to the one in Fences, they don’t look like wealthy war profiteers and NOT because they’re black, though also while the programme tells us about the famed black Tuskogee pilots in World War II, I don’t picture black wealthy industrialists in a 1947 setting. In this way of course, the production is “colour blind” and that’s positive. It’s that wooden house that throws it.
The play centres around Joe and his wife Kate. Kate cannot accept that their son Larry, who went Missing In Action three years earlier, is dead. Larry’s fiancée is Steve Cheever’s daughter, Ann. Ann has been corresponding with the other brother, Chris, and is visiting for the first time since her dad was imprisoned two years earlier. Chris and Ann plan to marry, but Kate will not accept this because it means admitting that Larry is dead.
Joe and Kate with “the letter from Larry” Act Three
It all comes out in Act 3. Ann has known all along that Larry was dead. Larry had heard about his Dad’s arrest and then committed suicide in his warplane. This is what the play is about. Joe’s justification for selling the faulty parts is that he did it “for his family.” In the 1940s, both America and Britain were going into major social change which the play reflects. They were moving to the two-generation nuclear family, and away from the extended family. There is held to be a major difference in public behaviour between nuclear and extended family cultures. Basically, strongly “large family-centred” cultures are more hostile to strangers. It’s the old joke about the French that they hate you until they’ve been introduced to you then they’re great friends. Nuclear-family cultures have too be more polite or sympathetic to strangers, because the family is no longer a self-suffcient system. This is the crux of the play, as Joe is forced to realize that it’s NOT all about “our family” and “my sons” but that the twenty-one pilots killed by his willful and criminal negligence are “all my sons.” That is, the relation to a wider society replaces the blinkered obligations to “only my family.” That is why the play was so important – Miller put it in the play title which Joe emphasizes at the end.
This theme, family v the wider society, is echoed by Jim, or Dr Bayliss. His wife, Sue, is chasing Jim to make more money, as a family doctor, so that he can support “the family.” But Jim wants to help a wider world by becoming a medical researcher. One of the few comic lines is where Jim explains how happy he was “researching a certain disease” in New Orleans. We assume it’s the one sailors are supposed to get.
Ann, Chris and brother George
I had a thought about the tree. There is a tree planted in Larry’s memory. It is a sapling and fell down in the wind the night before the play begins. Later Chris symbolically cuts it down. Was Samuel Beckett mildly taking the micky out of the “best play of 1947” with that tree in Waiting for Godot in 1955?
I have to say that the playscript of “The Best Play of 1947” contains excruciating bits of sexist writing by Arthur Miller. Iconoclastic? Don’t worry, I’ve used the same adjective about some of the guff Shakespearean “Fools” have to spout. Take Lydia, the neighbor on the other side of the Keller residence. She has three children by Frank, who evaded the draft and survived the war wealthily and healthily. Bethan Mary-James is very good in the role, but the patronizing sexist writing by Miller is only excusable by saying “it shows 1947.” She has to call hubbie because she’s too dumb to plug in a toaster, what with being female. Then there’s Ann, living in New York City, described frequently as astonishingly beautiful, and wearing great clothes, but “so lonely” without Chris. Really? In New York City in 1947? Kate (Doña Croll) is always called “Mother” in Arthur Miller’s playscript. So he was a sexist male chauvinist who really, really couldn’t write women’s parts that well – I would extend that to A View From The Bridge, a play I know well, with extensive examples– and he ended up married to Marilyn Monroe. Go figure. But there are lines which should be cut. Not because of pace, though something about this production lacked pace and flow, but because they’re plain poor writing.
If we’re going for a little Politically-correct rant, we both noticed that Anne, described as beautiful, having lovely legs etc, is cast as a slim light-skinned woman. We noticed the same in the films at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The narrators in the films tend to slim and light skinned. They just don’t cast darker women of a typically African larger body type and facial features. A little light with that late 60s slogan “Black is Beautiful” went off in my head. Ann is played superbly by Kemi-Bo Jacobs and she looks the part, but I think, given the thrust of an all-black production, I would have deliberately cast darker-skinned … Lydia, the neighbor was gorgeous, and also darker, for example. It takes me back to buying a doll for my daughter at Tokyo airport circa 1982. All the dolls in Japanese dress had blonde hair and Western features. What did that do the self-image of the girls selling them? So how do dark-skinned, curly-haired young girls with wider hips feel when their ethnicity is represented by lighter-skinned slimmer girls?
The cast gave it full energy on a matinee. Full marks for that. I felt both Joe and Kate missed something of what I think Miller would have intended.
The costume design is worthy of special mention. The mens’ ties are so cool they should have had a few made up and sold them in the foyer. I’d have had all three patterns. Ann’s dress is exquisitely 1940s (though we didn’t think such a frock would really have had a pocket concealed in the pleated skirt).
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