Terrible Home Truths

The set of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Apollo Theatre is so impressive that on the night I saw it, the audience applauded the set before the play had begun. The stage is filled with the lush backyard of an attractive 20th-century house, which has a porch and steps. There is some garden furniture, tasteful plantings and a young tree with a yellow ribbon tied around it. But what dominates both house and yard is a huge, overarching willow tree that almost seems alive.

In the first scene, the light dims into night, a rising wind makes the willow leaves shiver, large aircraft pass deafeningly overhead and a storm breaks out. A terrified middle-aged woman (Zoë Wanamaker) comes out in her nightclothes, and while she watches the sky and listens in horror, the young tree snaps in the gale. Clearly very distressed, for reasons we cannot know, the woman goes back inside. This is a powerful start, both menacing and suggestive: the yellow ribbon is a traditional American symbol and means that a woman is waiting for her man to return from war. The willow tree is, among other things, an ancient symbol of mourning. 

Those who tend, like me, to think that Miller can be rather didactic and reductive, and altogether too much like G. B. Shaw, must have been surprised by the imaginative force of this unspoken scene. That might be because Miller didn’t actually write it. There is no such scene in All My Sons. In the original version, the action opens on an August Sunday morning in the same backyard, with casual neighbourly gossip in post-war Middle America, though it is true the woman does later describe just such a storm scene to her husband and son. But Miller’s detailed stage instructions for the set contain no yellow ribbon, and no overwhelming willow tree. He stipulates only closely planted poplars. 

However, I think these additions are both justified and inspired. From the first, they give the play an emotional force that Miller productions and the writer himself often lack. The spirit of Miller owes to the director Howard Davies, the designer William Dudley and the exquisite performances of David Suchet, Zoë Wanamaker and Stephen Campbell Moore, a production of All My Sons that must be as good as it gets, and better, I’m tempted to think, than the playwright could have imagined. They have brought a creativity and subtlety to it that defy the curse of Shaw. 

The play is set in 1946, and the plot has new resonance today: it has to do with sending young men to war without the equipment to keep them safe. The anti-hero Joe Keller (Suchet) is an American success story, a bluff, uneducated man who has built up a successful engineering business. His son Chris (Campbell Moore), now back from the war, works in the business but his other son Larry was a pilot and is missing in action. Joe’s grieving wife (Wanamaker) refuses to believe Larry is dead and doesn’t want to let his girl stop waiting for him and marry his brother Chris instead. 

This isn’t the only tragedy hanging over the family. Joe’s business partner is in prison, disgraced, for knowingly supplying faulty cylinder heads from Joe’s factory to US Air Force planes, with the result that 21 young wartime pilots crashed to their deaths. Joe has always denied any part in it and has escaped jail, but there are doubts about his account. Along with his devoted wife and son, Joe is gradually forced to recognise some terrible truths. 

Joe’s overriding interest in life is his family, particularly his sons. His narrow devotion to them has been both motive and excuse for everything he has done. Miller made it clear in his introduction to his collected plays that All My Sons is in part about the wider responsibility people have to the world beyond their own back porch. Joe’s problem is that he cannot see his own connection to society beyond his own backyard. But I find that unconvincing. It doesn’t demand any understanding of a wider society to know that sending boys to their deaths to avoid a commercial loss, and then letting another man take the blame is wrong even by the most parochial of standards. 

What is more interesting and central to the play is the way that the main characters manage to deceive themselves, at least partly — another theme with contemporary political resonance. “You have such a talent for ignoring things,” Chris says to his mother but it seems he shares it. And as a neighbour remarks, living with something terrible requires a certain talent for lying. Evasion, fabulation, forgetting, lying — these are unstable, intermittent devices and Suchet shows with brilliantly subtle transformations the many unstable changes of mood that Joe goes through. He even seems to change physically, to grow, shrink and age through Joe’s reluctant progress towards the punishing truth. 

A talent for ignoring things and for lying is central to Simon Gray’s play at the Donmar Warehouse, The Late Middle Classes. This is its London première, though it was first produced in Watford in 1999. Like All My Sons, it is set soon after the Second World War, but in an England where there is still food rationing. Charles is a typically lower-upper-middle-class Englishman, an inhibited pathologist given to bitter witticisms who is glad that at least his patients don’t talk to him. His snobbish wife Celia is bored and discontented. Forced to humiliate herself socially in the pursuit of company and scarce fresh eggs, she consoles herself with gin, cigarettes and tennis, ignoring her son apart from fitful emotional blackmail. 

Holliday, their son (who shares his name with Simon Gray) , is articulate and talented. They allow him to take piano lessons at the house of his besotted music teacher and his neurotic, Viennese émigré mother, whose complicity Holly breezily ignores. Caught at the edge of adolescence between the indifference of his parents and the excessive interest of Mr Brownlow, Holly negotiates the complications of his life with a vulnerable, heartbreaking sophistication. Laurence Belcher (one of three boys playing the role) is quite exceptional; indeed, he steals the show. Gray’s admirers should not miss this overdue London production of the play, but they will have to admit that, for all its wit, perception and black comedy, it is by his standards rather slow and slight. 

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