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Items From Rehearsing the American Dream: Arthur Miller’s Theater

By Harry Ransom Center

In Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, business partners Joe Keller and Steve Deever manufactured faulty military airplane engines during World War II, causing the death of 21 pilots. Both men were tried, but Keller was acquitted. By the start of the play he has returned to the community and rebuilt his life.

The surface fiction of normality is uneasily maintained until Keller’s son Chris, engaged to Deever’s daughter and under pressure from Deever’s son, forces his father to acknowledge his culpability. “They were all my sons,” Keller finally admits, realizing that the choice to take care of his family over the safety of the pilots was immoral. Keller cannot live with the way he has betrayed his family and community and kills himself. Chris is left horrified by his own complicity in his father’s crime and suicide.

Mordecai Gorelik (American, b. Russia, 1899-1990),<br />Scenic sketch for <em>All My Sons</em>, 1947.
Mordecai Gorelik (American, b. Russia, 1899-1990),
Scenic sketch for All My Sons, 1947.

Joe Keller’s decision to distribute defective military equipment has disastrous consequences not only for soldiers oversees but also within his own family, as the play’s designer Mordecai Gorelik illustrates with his claustrophobic domestic setting depicted in this scenic sketch with watercolor and gouache on paper mounted on board. Miller and Gorelik shared similar artistic and political backgrounds, and the former was known for translating the social commentary of dramatic texts into his stage images. Gorelik produced the play’s setting in an essentially realistic style, but this scenic sketch demonstrates his general expressionistic approach toward designing scenery. When analyzing a dramatic text, he selected colors and images that accentuated the emotional tenor of the piece. Gorelik wrote two years later that “the setting, beyond all its other functions, must be right for the play poetically. It must be felt as a poetic image.”

A page from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s file on Arthur<br />Miller, January 3, 1951.
A page from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s file on Arthur
Miller, January 3, 1951.

In 1985, under the Freedom of Information Act, Miller requested a copy of his Federal Bureau of Investigation file. This page notes biographical information such as his address in Brooklyn and his birth name of Anton Ascher [sic] Miller, but also claims he was the “sponsor of numerous Communist front organizations 1946 through 1950.”

Jo Mielziner (American, 1901-1976),<br />Scenic sketch for <em>Death of a Salesman</em>, 1949,<br />Pencil and ink on paper.
Jo Mielziner (American, 1901-1976),
Scenic sketch for Death of a Salesman, 1949,
Pencil and ink on paper.

Arthur Miller’s initial draft of Death of a Salesman contained over forty scenes that producer Kermit Bloomgarden (1904-1976) asked established Broadway designer Jo Mielziner to bring together. Mielziner’s design used a skeletal outline of a typical suburban home to frame each scene. He covered the walls with scrim, a thin mesh-like material. When lit from behind, the walls faded, revealing the gloomy city of Willy’s present. During flashbacks, lighting from the front transformed the set into the sun-blessed, idyllic neighborhood of Willy’s past.

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