All My Sons and The Misfits
by Arthur Miller
The title of Arthur Miller’s first book, Situation Normal (1944), alluded to a well-known saying in the army—Situation Normal: All Fucked Up (SNAFU)—but it might be applied more widely to Miller’s view of American life in general and American family life in particular. It’s true that Philip Larkin [Hull, page 24] used the same vocabulary to describe English families—“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”—but Miller saw tragedy, not just humor, in the postwar American scene. Perhaps no major writer understood better than Miller why America could not be one happy family. In his plays of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Miller depicts the postwar nuclear family in a state of fission. His characters in All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and A View from the Bridge suffer from a kind of psychological radiation sickness, invisible but deadly. War profiteers, failed businessmen, and dockworkers kill themselves or get killed over secrets they cannot bear to admit to their families or themselves. Foul deeds rise in the collective consciousness of a nation that erases and repeats its history—another way of saying that the sins of the fathers and mothers will be visited on the sons and daughters and unto the generations.
What vexed Miller were the stories Americans have told themselves about the power of positive thinking, the instant money and spiritual purity that are sure to follow from unfettered entrepreneurship, the decency of the profit motive, the goodness of the national past, and, when all else fails, the possibility of escape and reinvention in the West. This land is your land: Henry David Thoreau crosses uneasily with Norman Rockwell; the tenets of Ayn Rand crash into the gospel of Jesus Christ; the Book of Mormon reads strangely in parallel with the Bill of Rights; Huckleberry Finn lights out for the territory but never becomes the Marlboro Man, exactly. Above all, Miller responded to a culture that cherished a sanctimonious and noxiously sentimental vision of family life as a beacon of health and wealth.
Yet it’s clear from Miller’s screenplay for John Huston’s movie The Misfits—a film celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year—that Miller didn’t see the American family as a problem that had an answer. Flee the traps of family life on an Eastern stage, and you might find yourself wandering lost and mangled in a film set in the deserts of Nevada, atomized and disconnected, drifting among strangers from divorce court to highway to rodeo to whiskey bottle to bed with fast friends. The myth of the family and the myth of self-reliance—how does the same culture hatch two such irreconcilable dreams? Miller’s characters are always being crushed by conflicting motives and impulses, forced into impossible situations by self-delusions or the repression of past betrayals. In his Eastern plays, blood relations doom one another, acting like planets circling closer and closer to moral black holes. In the movie script that heralded the end of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, absolute freedom from family ties in the West appears to be another kind of American disaster—one papered over with a Hollywood ending.
During the 1940s and 1950s, American family drama flowered in the works of Miller, Tennessee Williams, the final plays of Eugene O’Neill. Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, said to draw upon his own family’s life, opened in 1945, while O’Neill’s posthumous masterpiece of filial horrors, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, premiered in 1956. Miller’s most important plays fall into the years between these two dates, a golden age for American theater. The postwar scene may have been influenced more generally by the popular acceptance of Freudian philosophy, but the stage has always been a logical location to look in on houses and families. It is finely attuned to those confined spaces in which audiences witness relationships imploding and kinship unraveling. The meaning of home as a place where the disasters of one generation haunt the next applies to many classics of world theater, including more modern masterpieces such as Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1882) and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904), never mind the ancient but actively volcanic source material in tragedies like Hamlet or Oedipus Rex.