All My Sons is an American tragedy. It’s the story of a post-world War II family caught in a cycle of greed and deception; it’s the story of a terribly flawed patriarch who hides a terrible choice that holds devastating consequences for the family he desperately loves.
From Sophocles to Shakespeare, tragedies have been events for the masses who watch them collectively and process them experientially, perhaps even cathartically. The target market of the Greek tragedy was the aristocracy, but the groundlings of the Elizabethan Age paid a hard-earned penny to arrive in eager droves to see Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. The unified experience involved a tragic hero with a tragic flaw who left on an epic journey, often begun with an invocation to the gods. At the end there was personal revelation with terrible consequences. And there was death. So what is the appeal of a tragedy?
First Corinthians 10 may shed some light:
10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. (New American Standard Bible)
These things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved…these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. The apostle Paul is very specific: Old Testament stories, tragedies in literature older than the Golden Age of Greece, are poignant signposts pointing us to the narrow way; Achan’s horde under the floor, the Golden Calf, David and Bathsheba, Joseph and eleven jealous brothers, Jacob and his deceptions, Lot’s wife and her over-the-shoulder farewell to Sodom and Gomorrah are some of the more dramatic among them.
Joe Keller, the protagonist of All My Sons, could have been a character pulled right off the pages of Genesis and plopped into a 20th century script. He was laid low in his own wilderness, very much as the Children of Israel were laid low in theirs. The original travelers never made it to the Promised Land. We know from Scripture the nation of Israel learned the hard way at every turn of their journey; so did Joe Keller. Joe Keller could have learned by taking the narrow way, which is in the end, the easy way of choosing the easy yoke of the One who wrote the story.
So, we circle back to the original question: what is the appeal of tragedy? At the end of any tragedy, I find myself left with two reactions. First is the stark revelation of senseless waste; a different moral choice would have sent the characters on a vastly different trajectory involving far less pain and far more nobility. Then, the collective sigh of relief: there but for the grace of God go I.
This is exactly the choice Joe’s son Chris is presented with at the end of the play. Chris and Kate, Joe’s wife, hear an offstage gunshot after Joe understands for the first time the consequences his actions have had. The result? No spoiler: a terrible tragedy. Kate is all too aware of the dilemma her son now finds himself in:
CHRIS: Mother, I didn’t mean to…
KATE: Don’t dear. Don’t take it on yourself. Forget now. Live.
Chris is in danger of making exactly the choice his brother and father did. Kate, in the rarefied air of the final moments of the play, understands this completely, and her love and imperative to her son ultimately pull him from the edge of the abyss.
How this moment is staged is completely up to the director, and it has everything to do with whether this play is merely the audience’s observation of senseless waste or something that challenges us to higher moral ground. As a director, I would, of course, choose the high ground; what my eye already sees is hope. The end result of a well-crafted tragedy has to offer hope for a better world inhabited by people whose trajectory moves us closer down the path toward our Maker.
All My Sons is far more than a cautionary tale. Any piece of literature with a universally true thematic statement is timeless. It tells us our choices matter, and we owe our integrity not only to God, but to the brotherhood of all humanity. That truth speaks to us perhaps even more strongly now than it did to the first audiences of post-war 1947. We find woven in the pages of All My Sons an object lesson of “instruction to us on whom the ends of the ages have come.”
All My Sons is CU Theatre Arts upcoming production, October 11-14. For more details: https://www.calvary.edu/theatre-arts/