Joe Keller

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‘I thought I had a family here? What happened to my family? (Act Three)

Not an obvious villain, everything is about the family at whatever the cost. His world view is so narrow, that he becomes acutely frustrated when his choices aren’t appreciated or shared.

Joe is often described as a classic Greek Tragic hero. The tragic hero is someone of good standing, who through poor judgement falls. The fall is always the fault of the hero. The hero learns from their mistakes but it is always too late and dies at the end. Oedipus is an example of a greek Tragic Hero.

This is the Wikipedia definition of the Tragic hero. also has a definition.

I do not fully agree that Joe is a tragic hero. Yes, his poor judgement brings about his own fall. But I do not agree that Joe learns from his mistakes in the end. His death is an escape rather than an acceptance of his crimes. What do you think?

Activities and Exercises

  • As a group, think of the physical side to Joe Keller. Think of him as a boxer. How does he move? How does he use his fists? Have everyone move about the space as Joe. How do the physical portrayals differ? How do the girls see him?
  • Perform Joe’s speech in Act Three that begins, ‘What should I want to do? Jail? You want me to go to jail?’ As you perform the speech move as a boxer would move. This should be done by both girls and guys.
  • How does Joe say the line, ‘That was a very happy family that used to live in your house, Jim.’ Knowing Joe singlehandedly destroyed the Deevers, does that come into play? Is there any wistfulness or regret? Or does it say the line with what he believes is full honesty?
  • Joe says in Act Three that he was put out when he was ten years old. Is this the truth? Is it an exaggeration? In groups, come up with a timeline for Joe’s life up to the beginning of the play. How do the groups differ? What is similar? When and where did Joe and Kate meet? What was his relationship with his own family?
  • Outline the relationship between Joe and his two sons before the war. What would they do? How was Joe’s relationship with Larry different than his relationship with Chris?
  • Write a conversation between Joe and Larry as he leaves for war, and then between Joe and Chris. Does Joe say the same thing to each boy? How does the two conversations show the relationship between Joe and his sons?
  • In groups discuss whether you agree or disagree that Joe is a classic Tragic Hero. Compare and Contrast Joe to Oedipus Rex.

Questions To Answer

  1. Is Joe a tragic hero?
  2. Is Joe evil?
  3. How do the moments between Joe and Bert show Joe’s likability? Is he likeable?
  4. Why is so Joe surprised that Ann refuses to write to her father?
  5. Does Joe really believe Steve doesn’t hate him? Does he really believe Steve would come back to work for him? Why or why not?
  6. How does Joe view the world?
  7. Do you agree with the ending? Should Joe be allowed to escape through suicide? How would the play change if he decided to turn himself in? How does the suicide affect Joe’s character arc in the play? Do you believe that by the end of the play Joe really has come to reconcile he needs to take responsibility for his crime? Is committing suicide taking responsibility?


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