One of EC Comics’ darkest and goriest stories is “’Tain’t the Meat, It’s the Humanity,”, the grim tale of a butcher who chooses profit over ethics and loses his son — and then his life — as a result. “’Tain’t the Meat” was printed in 1952, several years after Arthur Miller’s All My Sons debuted on Broadway, but they both tread similar ground; fathers who chose profit over community have to face the damage they’ve done to their society and to their own families.
Of course, both “’Tain’t” and All My Sons were based on truth, the kind of unflattering truth that would later get Miller pulled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. For Miller, it was a 1943 scandal, where a corporation conspired with military officials to sell defective airplane engines. I wasn’t able to find any evidence that these engines caused accidents or deaths, but how could you really gauge the exact reason an airplane goes down in war? There weren’t any black boxes at the time, and the pilots were literally getting shot at.
In All My Sons, the answer is clear, though: the defective engine parts Joe Keller sold to the military “made 21 P-40s crash in Australia.” Keller has blood on his hands (twenty-one pilots, in fact), and when law enforcement looked his way, he set up his former business partner and neighbor Steve Deever, a man now in jail for Keller’s crimes. Miller, early in his playwriting career, stacks the setup with conflict: the Kellers’ eldest son, Larry, went missing in action and is almost certainly dead, though his mother Kate continues hoping he’ll return. Larry was engaged to Steve’s daughter, Ann; she has accepted that Larry is gone and has been writing to the Kellers’ younger son, Chris. They plan to get married, but Kate’s stubborn insistence that Larry is alive and the reappearance of Steve’s son George, a successful lawyer who is suspicious about the official story of his father’s guilt, start complicating things. Miller crashes these characters together over the course of All My Sons’ three acts, shaking Chris’s trust in his father, testing Chris and Ann’s relationship, and slowly, painfully pushing the truth into the light. Joe insists he made the right choices. “You wanted money, didn’t you?” he asks Kate as things fall apart around them. As in Miller’s later classic Death of a Salesman, the patriarch has made choices trying to secure his family’s future, and as in Death of a Salesman, he learns that they’ve haven’t necessarily given them what they want or need. In both plays, the only way out is death.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this play was the way we engage with, and refuse to engage with, our own histories. All My Sons (and “‘Tain’t the Meat”) were written when we were reckoning with what we — and our families — did during the war. World War II gets categorized as the good war, the one where the heroes and villains were clearly delineated. But no nation comes out of war with their hands clean. It’s just not that simple. Arthur Miller ripped the curtain back and showed the damage, between parents and children, between spouses, between individuals and the society they live in.
Chris comes out of the war changed too, but in a more positive way; due to his experiences, he has recognized that “there’s a universe of people outside, and you’re responsible to it.” His parents, separated from the front, never really understand. It’s not clear they even want to.
Profiteering is a particularly ugly business. “’Tain’t the Meat” ends with the hapless butcher — whose moral compromise has inadvertently poisoned his son — dismembered by his own wife; mad with grief and fury, she has put his body in the display case and is offering “tainted meat” to passerby. All My Sons chooses a more metaphorical catharsis, but by the time the curtain falls, the Keller family has been rocked by two suicides. What goes around eventually comes around. It turns out that war doesn’t turn everyone into a better person. (Miller himself didn’t serve, due to a high school injury. He spent the war working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and writing radio plays.) Miller places the blame in part on his parents’ generation, as the Baby Boomers who followed him would blame the generation who led them into Vietnam. But he doesn’t limit the blame to them: the very idea of the American Dream and of capitalism’s pursuit of profit over the common good come under fire. (That’s the other reason Miller faced the HUAC.) Terry Prachett might have put it most bluntly — “Evil starts when you begin to treat people as things —” but Miller seems to have had the same idea.
The setting of Miller’s play and its pointed critique of the American Dream seem very specific, but All My Sons has been staged internationally with quite a bit of success — I suppose “a parent whose dreams for his children don’t go as planned” is a pretty universal message, no matter your language or culture. The UK’s National Theatre staged it a while back with Sally Field and Bill Pullman and during the pandemic, the government of Mauritius staged the full play for public release. The video is still up.