A take on Miller’s take on responsibility

Broken apple tree

their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do” (J.B. Priestley ‘An Inspector Calls’)

It is hardly surprising that Miller, like so many authors of the post-war era, concerned himself with the notions of responsibility, moral and ethical dilemmas as well as the interests and place of an individual within the context of the wider world. As cracks inevitably surfaced following the disillusion many felt after two world wars, the long-held beliefs and traditional values were no longer accepted as inherent, nor solid or unquestionable, features of what we now call the Western democracies but seemed to ‘lie toppled beside it’.

Throughout the play the idea of responsibility underpins the way the characters are presented as seeing the world and their identity within it; similarly to Priestley’s famous didactic play, Miller presents his audience with a stark generation gap. Alike to Priestley, Miller appears to confront us with a sense of alienation resulting from different world views of young and old: the old consciously choosing to ‘ignore what I gotta ignore’ while the young are reaching out for ‘a kind of … responsibility’. Written within corresponding post-war timeframes, one could argue that it is not unexpected that there are correlations between the two plays. If anything, the parallels seem to reflect the very likeness of the human experience across the continents: the experience where many had ‘no hope anymore’ while others pretended there was ‘not a cloud’ on their metaphorical horizon. Miller opts to present his idea of the closed off and consciously unaware older generation ignoring ‘a universe of people outside’ through ‘a secluded atmosphere’ (much like the Birlings’ dining room), which protects the comfortable stately home. Whether ‘the poplars [that] got thick’ protect the stability of the family within, the young from the real, harsh and pragmatic world, or indeed sheltering the Kellers from facing their mistakes could itself be explored at length. Miller’s narrative is multi-layered, his characters not one-dimensional, he does not aim to teach his audience about right and wrong; Miller’s aim is to reflect reality. In this case, the shades of grey of moral dilemmas, of conscience and guilt, of compromise: all concepts audiences recognize. When studied side by side, All My Sons almost appears to start where An Inspector Calls ended: yes, the younger generation feel very much ‘ashamed’ (as is repeatedly asserted for us to recognize the genuine feeling of grief); yes, the older generation insist to ‘calm yourself’ (again, repeatedly as if the simple demand could deliver any tangible results), however …

Arguably, Miller’s voices of the younger generation are in comparison to Priestley somewhat subdued, almost half-hearted. The younger generation act as if after the initial outrage and reaching for that uncompromising and ephemeral ‘star of one’s honesty’, they realised that the belief in something beyond the daily human existence, something transcendental, does not make it any easier to put to practice and plead to ‘stay here’ in the relative safety of what they know. Perhaps we could forgive the ‘practical’ older generation for mocking Chris’ ‘phony idealism’, however endearing and epitomical of what youth should stand for it is. From the start, the play is charged with ‘a wisp of sadness’. Could it not be that very realisation that ideals, patriotism, values … lay in ashes much like the faulty planes that fanned the post-Great Depression post-war cynicism? Unlike Birling, Keller does not even ‘read the news part anymore’. It seems that the nation, the old and young alike, has been yet again sold ‘a dream’. Ultimately, and tragically, all the characters are presented as browbeaten and even the potential ‘Voice of God’ Chris eventually capitulates to become ‘like everybody else’: he lives up to the expected notion that ‘the compromise is always made.’ In Steinbeck’s approximation of Keatsian ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men gang oft agley’, the older generation themselves suffer from the results of avoiding causality of events and consequences of their, primarily personally driven, actions divorced from wider social responsibilities until the internal moral imperative finally pierces through the protective walls. In the inevitable conclusion ‘we worked and planned for you, and you end up no better than us’.

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