Over the summer I saw a local production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. I’d never seen it before, but I was familiar enough with the premise, and familiar enough with Arthur Miller’s overall dramatic sensibility and style to know I wasn’t exactly in for a Whedonesque light-hearted romp. I had a small role and was also in the chorus for Indiana University’s first production of William Bolcom’s setting of A View From the Bridge back in 2005 (I say “first” because IU just revived it, which I have to say surprises me a bit), and Death of a Salesman is near and dear to my heart in a lot of ways. My junior year of high school, a neighboring high school’s theatre department did a wonderful production of it with now-working actor Chad Afanador as Willy Loman. (Chad, I’ll mention, shared my very first theatrical endeavor, Wellington Elementary’s 1984/5 production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which he was Linus and I was Charlie Brown; he also was with me on my first trip to Indiana, when I tagged along with his high school to the International Thespian Society’s 1993 Festival at Ball State University.) Chad was so good that I dragged my parents to it the second weekend; at intermission, I got a taste of certain disconnects to come because they insisted we leave. “He’s too believable for it to be the least bit enjoyable,” they said.
Anyway, All My Sons was, predictably, thought-provoking (perhaps, for some, a euphemism for “depressing”); its commentary on the failure of the American Dream is well-trodden ground, but I wonder how much its setting obscures what the play has to say for contemporary audiences who might not be clear whether to take it as a period piece or as a present-day work. It’s a key plot point, for example, that a conversation needed to happen in person because “you can’t prove a phone call”, which sounds bizarre to me, and I’m part of a generation that still remembers things like land lines and operators — I can’t imagine how it must clang against the ears for somebody who grew up with cell phones being the norm. That wasn’t a problem for this production, however, because I was the youngest person in the audience by probably twenty years; it was mostly a blue-hair crowd, and it was a small one at that. It was really too bad; war profiteering is hardly an irrelevant issue in our time, and it seems like the kind of thing a contemporary audience should eat up. Maybe not in southern Indiana.
More intriguing and immediate to me, however, was the issue of fatherhood. Joe Keller is a man, in wanting to be a good father, makes choices that turn him into a bad father — and when his choices threaten to spill over onto his son, he has only one way to atone so that his son’s honor is preserved. This is also an issue for Willy Loman, and in a more abstract way, for Eddie Carbone as well. Joe’s tragic flaw, it seems, is that he’s a great businessman, but he’s a great businessman who can’t see that the businessman’s instinct of self-preservation has much greater consequences when lives are on the line. A businessman who makes business decisions that inconvenience his competitors and/or his customers is ruthless, maybe, but when he makes those decisions and they cost lives, then he’s a murderer — and when it’s wartime and those decisions cost his country lives, he’s a traitor and a murderer. In a way, Joe — again, like Willy Loman — does only what he knows how to do; he can’t figure out how to adapt to the different circumstances of wartime. In not being able to adapt, he is also not able to the father he clearly wants and tries to be.
We have a lot of images of fathers in our world that are problematic, literally and figuratively. From Darth Vader to clergy abuse scandals, father figures are almost de facto untrustworthy, unlovable, unreliable, to be viewed with suspicion and fear. For myself, it is anxiety looking both forward and back; looking forward, I am perhaps within a year of being a father myself, and this is not a matter of small concern for me. Looking back — well, what perhaps would be least inappropriate for me to say is that the number of times we had to move while I was growing up, combined with financial difficulties, my parents moving away when I was 17 (quite literally the day after I graduated high school), their divorce being fresh when Megan and I were married — leading to another series of relocations on both of their parts — and my educational and career choices have all contributed to familial relationships that are complicated. I’ve seen for myself Joe Keller’s attitude of “dollars and cents, nickels and dimes,” the belief that as long as a businessman is making the decisions he thinks are best for his business, then he should be seen as above reproach regardless of any other factors, and I’ve seen that perspective ensure that there’s nothing left for, or for that matter of, the family of the person who thinks that way.
Is it realistic to think that a father can pass on a legacy worth having to his family in this age? I don’t mean a material inheritance necessarily, but what about a way of life? A set of values? An identity? A memory? Or do things just change too fast nowadays for who a father is to mean anything to the next generation? Even taking up the idea of a material inheritance for the moment — I have one friend whose parents, still married, live in the house they bought in the early 1970s, and I have a neighbor who inherited the house he grew up in when his mother passed away, but these seem like outliers to me. I also just happened to read Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” recently, and Henry Baskerville’s conviction that “[h]ouse, land, and dollars must go together” strikes me as a perspective that just doesn’t work in the present day. Even factoring out tax laws, that just doesn’t seem to be how the world works at this point.
Is being a good father in 1947 (when All My Sons premiered) the same thing as being a good father in 2011? What about being a good husband? I’ve been married almost eleven years, long enough that I’ve seen friends’ marriages break up, including a few that I never, ever thought would, and a couple that are truly tragic with respect to the human frailty involved. We’ve survived, but I can’t pretend to have any particular expert knowledge about how it works, and I’m still figuring out how I can come anywhere close to being either the husband I want to be or that my wife wishes I could be, but thankfully Flesh of My Flesh has buckets of grace to spare.