Monday, November 21, 2011

All My Sons (and now Daughters): the complex industry of war and peace

I think that instead of his now famous farewell speech to the nation, his “military industrial complex speech” televised on January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower should have instead broadcast a performance of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, first performed in 1947. This play will be remembered, will possess a resonant posterity, beyond any speech delivered from the Oval Office.

Kansas City’s Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre presents this play over the coming days. In the midst of Nutcrackers and carols, this piece may seem maudlin and sad. Yet at this holiday time, when many of our daughters and sons serve overseas, as we contemplate the decade of war, this story, which takes place after a war reminds us that war is hell beyond the firebases and foxholes. There’s much too much to spoil in summarizing Miller’s play, so no summary here. It’s too grand in narrative and too poignant in performance to deconstruct or critique. Some pieces of art defy analysis.

This play, which takes place in an American home, will hit you close to home. A fractured apple tree, snapped by the wind, with its apples strewn on the ground, gives bittersweet fruit.

Sailors, Marines, and Soldiers never die in vain. But often, their deaths feel preventable to the living. Or so, we survivors often feel. Vain is a complex concept. Guilt is a terrible ghost that haunts. Loss is a hole in the heart that allows the blood to circulate, while reminding us we’re half alive. War requires business, a military industrial, technical, and now contracted human complex. Ours is no longer Arthur Miller’s conscripted and volunteer enhanced military of World War II. This business of war is serious business now; an all-volunteer force since 1973.

See this play and consider how art can transcend generations, how even what is not said can ring clearer and truer than any political speech. Arthur Miller was no prophet when he penned this prophetic play. He was an artist. That’s what playwrights do; they hold up a mirror for us, and light a stage with a powerful bolt of lightning.

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