Arthur Miller’s ‘Sons’: Do they seem Jewish?


After Arthur Miller’s first Broadway play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” bombed, closing after just four performances, the aspiring playwright vowed to find “some other kind of work” if his next play also failed.

Fortunately, his next play was “All My Sons,” which ran in 1947 for 328 nights on Broadway and was both a critical and commercial success.

Encouraged, Miller went on to write “Death of a Salesman,” which ran two years straight on Broadway and sealed the young Jewish writer’s reputation.

“All My Sons” became a movie in 1948, with Edward G. Robinson in the lead role, and has been performed all over the world. This October and November, it will be revived by the acclaimed A Noise Within (ANW) theater company in Pasadena.

When Miller’s two plays first were seen, one of the popular tribal cocktail games was to guess whether the key characters — Joe Keller in “All My Sons” and Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” — were meant to be Jewish.

The case for a “Jewish” Loman was buttressed by the fact that, by critical consensus, the two definitive interpretations of the role were by two Jewish actors — Lee J. Cobb (nee Leo Jacob) in the original Broadway production, and Dustin Hoffman in the acclaimed 1985 TV version.

However, the case for a Jewish interpretation of “All My Sons” is more difficult, so the Journal talked to Rafael Goldstein, who will essay the crucial role of Chris Keller in the ANW production.

In the play, Chris is one of two sons of Joe Keller, a successful businessman, who has been indicted for knowingly shipping defective engines for the P-40 fighter aircraft widely used in World War II.

The defects caused the planes to crash, causing the death of 21 American pilots, among them Joe Keller’s older son, Larry, who is officially listed as missing in action.

Based on an actual wartime scandal, the play’s Joe Keller manages to shift most of the blame onto a business partner and neighbor, who goes to jail while Joe remains free to build up his business.

Chris, himself a war veteran, eventually learns the truth, but cannot bear to confront and indict his own father.

 “Above all, this [play] is Chris’ story, and all the action swirls about him,” notes Geoff Elliott, ANW’s artistic co-director, who plays the role of Joe Keller.

“ ‘All My Sons’ is among the most personally meaningful plays I have ever directed,” Elliott said, “and is a wonderful introduction to Arthur Miller and the work we do here at A Noise Within.”

In portraying Chris in the upcoming production, Goldstein said he sees his character as a survivor. “He’s been through the war and comes home to find that the war isn’t really over.”

The play itself, Goldstein added, “is among the most trenchant works by an American master. It is a story about grief and sin and redemption that rivals the Greeks in its power.”

Goldstein, 29, a Pasadena native, is a “homegrown” resident artist, who joined ANW when he was 15. His Jewish father, an English professor at CSU Los Angeles, used to bring home books of plays to give his young son an early start, and Goldstein had his first speaking role at 3 as the son of Adam and Eve.

Since joining the company, he has acted in a series of Shakespearean classics, and in other venues has portrayed Frankenstein’s creation in “Monster” and Juror No. 5 in “Twelve Angry Men.”

His mother, a psychologist, is Catholic, and he grew up “bi-religious,” as he put it, which includes a Passover seder each year, and recitation of the ha-Motzi prayer.

An interesting analysis of Miller as a “Jewish” writer comes from Enoch Brater, who, in his book “Arthur Miller’s Global Theater,” explains the playwright’s immense popularity in Israel.

“Miller is a particular kind of Jewish writer,” Brater noted, “one who offers the same insistent moral imperatives and legalistic thrust — and, at times, biblical rhythms and elevated rhetoric — reminiscent of those ancient texts sacred to the Jewish people.”

Among all his works, Miller expressed his Jewish angst most explicitly in his 1945 novel, “Focus.” Its underlying anxiety is based on Miller’s own experience working the night shift at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, where the pervasive anti-Semitism he encountered among his multiethnic co-workers made him deeply apprehensive about the future of American Jews.

As in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” in which the protagonist only pretends to be Jewish, the main character in “Focus,” Lawrence Newman, is actually a solid gentile who, after putting on his first pair of glasses, suddenly “seems” Jewish, even to his wife.

As a result, he loses his longtime job as a manager, can’t find new work and neighborhood members of the Christian Front beat him up.

Miller himself foresaw a postwar “new politics of race and religion, and not in the South, but in New York.” The pessimistic scenario did not materialize and in the mid-1980s, he could write, “When one is tempted to say that everything in the world has gotten worse, here is one shining exception.”

 

A Noise Within will present “All My Sons” Oct. 11 through Nov. 21 at its theater, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. For information and tickets, call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org.

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