Joe Keller lives on denial. As Miller has said, “The truth and mankind are cousins, not brothers and sisters. ” He is a survivor doing what he has to, to get by and, to Miller, that is an entirely recognisable, if, finally, unacceptable, motive. In an early draft we are told that Keller had been poor until 1938, a victim of the Depression. The war had thus made him and he knew what it was to have nothing. That fact is removed from the final version but not the fear of losing everything. Nor was he the only person cutting corners during the war. In small ways many people were compromising, cheating on rationed goods, ven profiting from the conflict. It is worthwhile recalling that Miller began this play during the war and expected it to be produced during the war.
He thought, therefore, that he would merely be speaking aloud what everyone knew on a daily basis, though he suspected that the play might cause something of a furore. Joe Keller justifies his actions in terms of the family, to which alone he acknowledges responsibility. Like so many of Miller’s characters, he wishes to leave his mark on the world, to justify his existence, and how else but by passing the business onto his sons. He forgets, however, that he has a responsibility hich extends far beyond the family. Indeed, in some senses, this had been a central theme of the 1930s literature with which Miller was so familiar. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was about the need to look beyond the family, as was Clifford Odets’ play Awake and Sing.
For Karl Marx, the family had been a primary hindrance to social justice and Marx had been a point of reference for many in the 1930s. Joe Keller denies his guilt in public. How far does he also deny it in private, deny it, that is, to himself? Certainly he seems to be a man for whom appearances matter more than reality. It s clear, however, that he no longer exercises true power in the family. That has moved to his wife, Kate. Kate Keller Kate carries the burden of knowledge. She knows, and yet denies, that Joe is guilty. She denies that her son, Larry, is dead.
She does so partly as any mother might resist such a truth but also, perhaps, because if she acknowledges his death she might also have to confront the death of those other airmen who died because Joe supplied faulty parts. She has stopped the clock, and that has consequences. Her other son must not marry, or at least not marry Ann. Her husband must be made to play the part of an amiable fool, nfantilised so as to be free of responsibility. She turns herself into an actress, performing the role in which she has cast herself.
It is her strength, however, or at least her determination, which sustains the illusion of a carefree family. But only just below the surface, barely suppressed, is a truth that can destroy them all. The other side of her determination, however, is cruelty. Inclining to one son she disregards the needs of another. She fights to drive Ann out, and with her a reminder of Larry’s death and her husband’s guilt. She is fighting for her survival and the survival of a family which, in truth, no longer exists.
At the end, she has lost everything: both sons and her husband. She is bereft. In struggling to sustain her version of the family she has destroyed it. Chris Keller Chris Keller comes back from the war having seen men sacrifice themselves for others. There, he feels, was a functioning idealism. But in the name of what did men fight and die? He returns to find a world going on as if nothing has happened, to discover people dedicated to nothing more elevated than making money. In an original draft we learn that he had concealed the fact of his family’s wealth, guilty that they were profiting from the war, and this before here was any question of fraud. He returns shocked by the huge plant that has been built up.
Those details disappear from the final text but there is still a sense of unease which eventually deepens into a confession of guilt. He is an idealist, and sees himself as such, while oddly suggesting that he has always had to stand back, to sacrifice his needs for those of others. There is, however, a cruelty in this man, as in so many of the other characters. In an early draft he was unforgiving in the war. Where others would let enemy soldiers go, he was unrelenting. Indeed he was known as “Killer Keller”.
Again this is stripped out of the final version but that relentless cruelty is, finally, what drives his father to his death. It is not George Deever, son of the imprisoned man, who precipitates Joe Keller’s suicide: it is Chris Keller. Beneath the social play, there is an elemental Greek drama being enacted here as fathers and sons destroy one another and society trembles. The Neighbours The neighbours are a chorus, commenting on the action, but they also resonate the central themes of the play. Frank, we are told, is “uncertain of himself… thirty-two and balding;” Jim, a doctor, “wry, self-controlled… but with a isp of sadness that clings to his self-effacing humour”. There is an air of disappointment, of failed aspirations, regret.
They contain in themselves the conflicts at the heart of the play, acknowledging, as they do, a tension between the pragmatic and the ideal, and recognising the compromises that seem an inevitable aspect of daily living. Marriage itself, on the basis of those in this play. offers an image of such compromises, a fact that will surely cast its shadow over the proposed relationship between Chris Keller and Ann Deever. The doctor, especially, has sacrificed his idealistic vision of his profession for hard cash and the ord ‘money’ echoes through the text.
George Deever Miller has said that George represents the return of the repressed. It is he who breaks into this apparently happy family, bringing with him the past, except that the past has never been laid to rest. He, too, has been guilty of cruelty in abandoning his father, and comes to insist on justice. In the end, however, he is easily deflected, pulled into the play that Kate scripts and stage manages. Though he appears to be the figure who can smash the apparent serenity of this embattled family, he is no more than a catalyst. He lacks the relentlessness of his sister and of Kate.