Analysis of Act One
The play opens in a carefully constructed normality. The Kellers appear to be a prosperous, happy family. Chris and Ann are intelligent, good-looking, and worthy people who love each other and want to marry. Joe reads the Sunday newspaper peacefully in his well-ordered backyard with his friend Jim Bayliss.
Though all seems calm, certain elements are introduced to show symbolically that all is not as it seems and that there are disruptive hidden elements at work. Even before anyone speaks, the broken apple tree is a visible symbol that the current order is about to break down. The storm that destroyed the tree is symbolic of the chaos that is soon to engulf the Kellers. Frank, a believer in astrology, enters and draws a link between Larry and the tree the Kellers planted in his memory: “Larry was born in August. He’d been twenty-seven this month. And his tree blows down.” Astrology is about how the past (the moment of birth) affects the present, so there is a sense that the past has suddenly come alive in the present.
Everyone worries about what Kate will say about the tree, and Chris reveals that she was out in the garden when it cracked. Joe knows that she is dreaming about Larry again. This tells the audience that Kate is an unquiet soul and that the source of her disturbance is her obsession with Larry.
Though Kate is described as having “an overwhelming capacity for love,” there are two dominant traits of her nature that are visible in Act One, neither of them qualifying as love: the first is her unhealthy obsession with the thought that Larry is still alive, and the second is her suspiciousness. She is suspicious of Ann’s reasons for visiting them and about Chris’s intentions towards Ann. The first leads to the second, as she is determined that everyone around her should share her delusion that Larry is alive, and feels threatened and fearful at any sign that they do not. To accept that Larry is dead would be to accept that Joe might have been responsible for his death, and this thought is insupportable.
It becomes clear that Kate and Joe support each other in their delusions: Joe supports Kate in her expectation of Larry’s return, and Kate supports Joe in his claimed innocence regarding the faulty cylinder heads incident.
The banter between Joe and the local child Bert mirrors the backstory (the history behind the situation at the start of the play) of the play. Bert has been encouraged by Joe to imagine that there is a jail in the basement of the Keller home. This is symbolic of Joe’s having falsely incriminated Steve, who has been in prison ever since. Joe tells the story of when he first got out of jail, and everyone thought he was guilty. The local children treated him as the expert on jail, and over time, they got confused and thought he was a policeman or detective. Joe has played into this new role, instructing Bert to go out into the streets and look for criminals. Joe’s game with Bert mirrors his real-life treatment of Steve: Joe, the guilty one, took the role of the policeman and had Steve arrested and imprisoned for a crime that he had himself committed. Thus Joe, in the children’s game and in real life, transformed himself from prisoner to policeman, from a convicted man to a respected member of society.
This idea is reinforced by the symbolism of Joe’s eagerness to throw out the garbage (he throws out Kate’s vegetables by mistake). In his determination to pretend innocence, he is attempting to distance himself from his own crime, to throw it out of his life.
Joe’s concealment of his crime and his assumption of innocence contrasts with Chris’s more open and conscientious attitude towards what he sees as his own crime, of losing his entire company of men in the war. Chris feels that he has betrayed his men by surviving (this phenomenon is known in psychology as “survivor guilt”). He confesses his feelings of guilt to Ann, saying that he does not feel entitled to what he has: everything seems to have their “blood” on it, including Ann herself. Perhaps Chris’s feelings reflect an intuitive knowledge of the truth about his father’s crime, which the audience may also suspect. Thus there is irony in Chris’s words, as everything he has does indeed have blood on it: the blood of the men killed by the faulty cylinder heads that Joe ordered to be shipped out.
Chris’s openness about his perceived crime contrasts with Joe’s hypocrisy and determination to cover up his own guilt. Inwardly, Joe knows his guilt, though he has not yet admitted it to himself or to the world. His angry insistence at the end of the Act that he does not care what Steve might have told his lawyer son, followed by his door-slamming exit, convinces no one. Though Joe has, figuratively speaking, slammed the door on his crime, that door is about to be opened.
Suspense is created by the expected arrival of George, who has visited his father in jail and is angry, judging by Ann’s attempts to calm him down during their telephone conversation. George is a lawyer, suggesting that he is both concerned and knowledgable about justice. The final stage direction describes Kate’s sitting “stiffly, staring, seeing.” At some level of her being, Kate knows what is to happen, and fears it.