Aristotle wrote in ‘Poetics’ that tragedy should contain ‘… incidents arousing pity and fear… ‘ and thus prove cathartic for an audience. To what extent does the plot of Arthur Miller’s play, ‘All My Sons’ allow for this? Arthur Miller (1915-2005) in ‘All My Sons’ (1947), journeys the key concept of catharsis through the intricate character of Joe Keller; our tragic hero and his hubris flaw, the concept of Hamartia, the generating of pathos through language and most importantly the formula of tragedy, described by Aristotle, bringing about catharsis.
‘All My Sons’ starts at the end of summer in suburban America, after World War Two. The events of the play, described by Miller, occur on a single set, the backyard of the Keller home, a ‘secluded atmosphere’, considerably the American Dream. Furthermore there stands the stump of an apple tree, as its ‘trunk and branches lie toppled beside it’1. Miller here, emotionally engages us into the play with the use of pathetic fallacy, increasing our emotions by building tension and giving opportunity to the futures of tragedy.
The audience no longer feel safe behind the American Dream but instead are presented with a faade of respect, somewhere much sinister , preparing the audience for the upcoming tragedy. Miller uses this same technique again when Joe Keller, our protagonist, notifies: “Gonna rain tonight. “2 Miller builds fear in the audience, suggesting something unpleasant about to happen. Nevertheless as the audience learn more about Joe Keller, we see that he is an ego-centric man, whose mental attitude does not go beyond his own sphere. Where society is dysfunctional, Keller’s choice simply remains to ignore them and their changing platforms: “…here’s a guy is lookin’ for two Newfoundland dogs. Now what’s he want with two Newfoundland dogs? “.
The audience in turn pity for Keller’s character, understanding his lack of knowledge in relation to the macrocosm therefore leading us towards what may be a cathartic experience. Perhaps different audiences react differently to Keller as a character. It is debatable that Keller does not understand the subtleties of life because he is lazy, selfish and his outlook is materialistic, therefore perchance building exasperation in the audience and receiving no compassion.
Or perhaps as an audience we become harsh and forget to realise that Joe Keller is financially comfortable. But beyond this the audience still pity Keller’s inertia as he struggles to move on. Similarly Kate Keller cannot move beyond the inertia she is trapped within. She is in denial about Larry’s death which has driven her to spirituality, her emotional crutch: “He’s not dead, so there’s no argument! “4 This makes the audience pity her sub-conscious state and empathise with her hope for Larry’s return. It could be argued as to what extent we can cope with her denial and her rejection of reality.
Progression sees Miller introduce us to the bliss of hope, this is important to the cathartic journey, as we hope for some re-alignment of morality or achievement of justice. Hope is first presented through Frank Lubey, a superstitious character, who brings us closer towards catharsis through the melancholic life he lives and the hope he brings within the play for fellow characters, besides the hope the audience already bear: ‘(Looks up at the sky)’ These stage directions are evidence of Frank’s hope and transcendence into a world of his own.
Nevertheless, Chris Keller is a warm man who cares for his father and becomes Miller’s mouthpiece in demonstrating the world beyond the Keller home. He strives for independence and security but constantly gets held back from his parents and is put into an inertia of his own: “… every time I reach out for something I want, I have to pull back because other people will suffer. “5 This is part of Millers plot where pathos allows the audience to feel emotions of pity evoked by Chris’s helplessness and thus prove cathartic. The audience also fear as to what step Chris might take in the future because of his suffering:
“I’ll get out. I’ll get married and live some place else. Maybe in New York. “6 The audience also empathise with Chris, as the family secret prevents him from breaking free and therefore the audience hope for Chris’ life to be re-aligned and end happily with his marriage to Ann. However this news arouses trepidation in the audience and characters because they do not understand as to how Kate might react because of her fragile state and her stubborn will. This is evident through Keller’s dialogue and Miller’s apprehensive language: “Well, you want to be sure Mother isn’t going to -“7.
At the very end of Act One the audience are left feeling a strong sense of fear for Joe Keller when he is made aware of George Deever’s return. The audience understand Keller’s vulnerability and his lack in understanding the complexities of life therefore he sees no harm in George’s return, but is it debateable as to whether Keller might know how much of a risk it could be on a sub-conscious level and as to what George might be here for? Miller has made this is evident through the stage directions, exemplifying the fear: “(frightened, but angry): Yes, I’m sure.
The fear left with the audience to experience at the end of Act One becomes pivotal in the role of experiencing catharsis. Miller has instantaneously given us the opportunity to empathise with the characters and in turn fear for them thus we are given a sense of foreboding, vital for ultimately experiencing catharsis in any tragedy. In the opening stage directions of Act Two Miller, again, uses pathetic fallacy to suggest the progression in the plot and perhaps the catastrophe still to come suggested metaphorically by Miller: “… leaving stump standing alone…
“9 Though as the play progresses a growing sense of anxiety is created in the audience by Miller. We can see this through Sue Bayliss a character chosen by Miller to represent the wider community. This lets the audience fear even more for Joe Keller as a character because it becomes apparent that not everybody overlooks his guilt: “There’s not a person on the block who doesn’t know the truth. “10 In Act Two Miller finally decides to present a rush of emotions which soon psychologically engage the audience as well as the characters Chris, Ann and George.
Miller’s use of short, forceful sentences build tension and anxiety in the audience that we soon become eager to reach some sort of resolution, where inner peace can be found. This is witnessed through George’s dialogue and we soon learn to identify with George’s character because we recognize his impatience to reach a cathartic ending: “But the morning passed. No sign of Joe. So Dad called again. “11 George’s transcendental state also suggests trouble constructing an impression of fear upon the audience: “(Calling as George pays no attention… )”.
Considering George’s character we could deduce that he is a caricature used by Miller to start the tragedy and thus the journey to catharsis. After the anxiety we experience, Kate’s sudden entrance to the involvement of catharsis builds tension and hope for resolution. But then Miller entraps us into a network of terror once more when Kate slips her tongue disproving Keller’s alibi, this brings hope for Chris and George as we, the audience, hope that they will find out the truth and move on out of the inertia: “He hasn’t been laid up in fifteen years. “