Ducks versus sons
Henrik Ibsen’s influence on Arthur Miller is perhaps best seen in All My Sons
Christine Foster Meloni
Miller discovered Ibsen while a university student. When he became a playwright, he readily acknowledged his admiration for Ibsen. If the plot of All My Sons is compared to that of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, Ibsen’s influence is evident.
In The Wild Duck, old Werle and Ekdal are business partners until the company illegally acquires a large quantity of lumber from a farm owned by the government. Werle is responsible, but he blames Ekdal, who goes to prison. After Werle’s wife dies, he has a relationship with Gina, his servant. He then arranges for her to marry Hjalmar, his former partner’s son. When Werle’s son Gregers discovers the truth about his father’s treachery and that Gina’s child, Hedvig, is his father’s and not Hjalmar’s, he feels it his duty to tell Hjalmar the truth. Hjalmar becomes very upset and turns against Hedvig, who then commits suicide.In All My Sons, Joe Keller and Steve Deever are business partners. It is discovered that their company has sold cracked cylinder heads to the Air Force and caused plane crashes in which 21 pilots are killed. Although Keller knows about the dangerous flaw, he goes ahead with the sale anyway. When the flaw is discovered, Keller succeeds in placing the blame on Deever, who is sent to prison. Keller’s son Chris later falls in love with Deever’s daughter, Ann, and she accepts his proposal. Then Ann’s brother George discovers the truth about Keller and wants his sister and her fiancé to know. Chris becomes enraged with his father and turns against him. Keller then commits suicide.
Jodi Kanter, the director of GW’s production of All My Sons, readily acknowledges that she was affected by the Ibsen-Miller connection in the preparation of the play. She says that she was influenced by Ibsen’s proclivity for making the community the real protagonist of his plays. (She points out Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and Miller’s The Crucible as the best examples of this characteristic in the two playwrights.)
As Kanter worked on All My Sons in the context of the 2016 campaign and post-election environment in the United States, the question of what the individual owes to the people around them who are not our biological (or national or racial) family was foremost in her mind. For this reason, it was important for her that the four neighbors, whose roles in the script are minor, have a pronounced presence on stage even when they were not active in the world of the play.
The influence of the great Norwegian playwright continues to be felt in the works of his successors. His own plays, of course, remain as popular as ever.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the April 6, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.