Theme: Past vs. Present.


‘We’re like at a train station waiting for a train that never came in.’ (Chris, Act One)

Thorton Wilder writes in The Skin of Our Teeth, ‘If anyone tries to tell you the past, they’re charlatans!’ (Fortune Teller, Act Two) This is an excellent and relevant quote when referring to how the characters in All My Sons deal with the past.

The characters in the play are highly affected by the past. Some are so affected they can’t accept the present such as Kate: ‘He’s not dead so there’s no argument!’ (Act One) Kate keeps Larry’s room exactly as it was when he left to the point of regularly shining his shoes.

Some have to re-write the past, such as Joe: ‘What have I got to hide?’ (Act One) For Joe, the past is nothing more than a series of events and he gets angry when others don’t share his view of the past.

Some carry the past with them and aren’t sure how to deal with it, like Chris and his feelings about the war: ‘They didn’t die. They killed themselves for each other.’ (Act One) His feelings about the war are what have caused him to take so long to express his love for Ann.

Some have to acknowledge their past dreams are gone, such as Jim: ‘It’s hard to remember sometimes the kind of man I wanted to be.’ (Act Three)

Even those who have left get drawn into the lure of the past. Both Ann and George show extreme wistfulness when they speak of the past:

‘I guess I never grew up. It almost seems that Mom and Pop are in there now. And you and my brother doing algebra, and Larry trying to copy my home-work.’ (Act One, Ann)

‘Kate, you look so young, you know? You didn’t change at all. It…. rings an old bell.’ (Act Two, George)

It’s important to bring up the characters of Frank and Lydia at this point. These are the only two characters, who have been around just as long as the Kellers (at least Lydia has as she dated George before the war) and aren’t affected by the past. Especially Lydia, who while glad to see George when he comes, doesn’t seem to feel she’s missed something by marrying Frank.

The Keller family does not address the past, nor do they move on from it. They are in a holding pattern.

Not only that, they are in a holding pattern of a version of the past that is only a version of the truth. In this version, Larry is alive and Joe had nothing to do with the scandal. The neighbourhood supports this version completely (in public at least); it’s as if the street is frozen in time and no one wants to do anything to change it.

When something threatens this holding pattern, Chris and Ann wanting to marry, George returning to confront Joe, the majority of characters scramble to maintain the frozen past.

Kate pushes Ann to say she’s still waiting for Larry. When she won’t, Kate does whatever she can to get Ann to leave. She even goes so far as to pack Ann’s suitcase.

Joe states that Ann’s father should move back and take up exactly where he left off. He wants to give Steve a job back at the plant when he gets out of jail.

Sue tells Ann that if she and Chris marry they should move far away.

When George arrives there is a desperate attempt to lull him with past memories and joining them to eat at the shore.

Notice how many times the characters talk about ‘going to the shore.’ It’s something they used to do before the war and demonstrates a happier time. Joe goes so far trying to get George back into the fold he wants to get George a job at one of the town’s law firms.

But the consequences of maintaining this holding pattern are inevitable. When the full truth is revealed the frozen version of the past cannot hold. The characters are forced to move forward into the present whether they like it or not.

Activities and Exercises

  • List the events of the play that happen in the past and affect the present. When was the last perfect moment for each character?
  • In groups, go through the play and pick out any details that give a hint as to what the characters were like before the war. Create an improv that shows all these characters in that time. Imagine there’s a garden party and it just so happens all the characters are there (knowing full well that Jim and Sue wouldn’t be) Show Jim as a medical researcher, Chris, Ann, George, Lydia and Larry as teenagers. Are there any characters who are exactly the same as they are in the present? Any completely different?
  • In groups create a scene around the moment it’s decided to plant Larry’s tree. During the play, Kate says she never wanted the tree planted because it was too soon. When was it planted. What was the conversation? Afterwards, run through the lines in Act One that address the tree, especially when Kate tells her dream.
  • Circle Answer: The class stands in a circle. Go ’round the group and each person answers quickly on a question. If there is momentum, go ’round the circle two or three times. If someone is truly stuck they can pass. Questions: What is your favourite moment from your past? Your least favourite moment? Is there a past moment that rules your life? Is there a moment you wish was frozen in time? Would you ever change the present to regain the past? Can the past be forgotten? Can the past be forgiven?

Questions To Answer

  1. What is the most significant moment in the past for each character? How does each character act in the present based on that moment?
  2. Does Joe believe the past that he has re-written?
  3. Do any characters in the play not live in the past?
  4. What does Ann feel about the past?

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