The Act opens on the evening of the same day. Chris is outside, in dress pants but no shirt, clearing away the brush from Larry’s sheared tree. Kate comes out, not yet dressed for dinner, to see what Chris is doing. Kate tells Chris that Joe is sleeping—that he always sleeps when he’s worried—and that Chris has to “protect” Kate and Joe from whatever George wants with the family, when he visits. Kate believes that George has never given up the idea that Joe is the one who ordered Steve to OK the faulty parts; Kate worries that George has come with new information about the trial and Steve’s imprisonment. Kate also wonders aloud whether Annie is “in on” George’s plan to ruin the Keller family.
Because the action of the play takes place entirely in one 24-hour period, it maintains something that Greek tragedians and philosophers (namely Aristotle) called the “unity of action.” Miller’s plays are often built upon the fundamentals of the Greek dramatic tradition, and the family drama of All My Sons, the death of a son and eventually the death of a father, are motifs that play out time and again in Greek plays from before the common era.
Chris forcefully but still politely objects, to Kate, to the idea that Annie has anything to do with George’s visit. Annie comes outside, and Kate goes inside to get ready for dinner. Annie and Chris agree that they will inform Kate formally, tonight, of their intention to marry; Chris then goes inside to put on a shirt for dinner. Sue comes into the yard, where Annie is now alone, looking for Jim; they begin having a conversation. At first, Sue appears to be happy Annie is visiting, and the conversation is civil, but very quickly Sue takes on an accusatory tone. She tells Annie she finds it “odd” that Annie would consider marrying the brother of her old sweetheart.
The dinner that everyone in the family seems to want to have together will never come to pass—George’s entrance will thwart it, and though Kate will do what she can to convince George to “be civil,” they never do sit down at one table and break bread together. Dinner, in this sense, represents the possibility of reconciliation between George and Annie, between George and Joe—and this reconciliation will never come to pass.
Annie brushes off this criticism, but Sue continues, saying that, if Annie and Chris do marry, Sue and Jim want them to move somewhere far away. Annie is shocked by this, but Sue continues that Jim, who does not make much money in his general practice, but who nevertheless wanted an even lower-paying job as a medical researcher before Sue made him start seeing patients, envies Chris a great deal. Sue is not sure that Jim could stand having Chris married to a beautiful girl, living next door in the successful Keller household.
Although in the beginning of the play Sue appeared to be kind, she is in fact quite the gossip, and she seems to think it is her duty to inform Annie of the way the neighborhood feels about Chris and Joe. Annie cannot believe that Sue would feel this way, but more importantly, Annie can’t believe that Sue would hide her true feelings from Chris and Joe, and would pretend, as she does, simply to be their “good friendly neighbor.” Behind the veneer of cheerfulness and neighborliness of the postwar boom is something more complicated.
Sue then becomes even more pointed in her criticisms: she tells Annie that she and Jim “know” that Joe merely lied to get out of jail time and to put Steve in prison; she says she hates living next to the “Holy Family,” the Kellers, and she finds Chris’s “phony idealism” to be immensely frustrating. Annie cannot believe what she’s hearing, but as Sue is winding up her complaints, Chris comes back outside, dressed, and Sue is polite with him, then leaves to go back to the Bayliss house. Chris seems happy to be outside with Annie, but Annie is upset at Sue’s comments.
The first strong indication that Joe is hiding his guilt in the Steve case—here, Sue seems to indicate that Joe’s guilt is common knowledge, although Sue respects the fact that Joe had the “guts” to return to the small town and carry on with life as usual. Jim will echo this sentiment to Kate in the final act, when he tells her that Joe is simply a good and well-equipped liar, and that perhaps Chris is not.
After Sue leaves, Chris begins saying how much he likes her, and that she’s a good nurse, but Annie snaps, immediately, that Sue “hates” Chris and the Kellers—she doesn’t understand how Chris can be so nice and forgiving to everyone. Annie asks Chris why he pretended that the whole town had forgotten about the Joe-Steve affair, and Chris says he was worried, at first, that Annie would find it strange to come back to town to visit, if she knew the neighbors were still thinking about the faulty parts scandal.
But, here, is evidence not of Chris’s lying, but of his willingness to withhold key information in order to get Annie to do what he wants. In this case, Chris did not tell Annie the extent to which the town still stewed over the case involving her father and Joe. Chris did this out of self-interest—because he wants nothing to come between himself and Annie.
Annie tells Chris that he must be prepared to “leave his family behind” if it is revealed that Joe had something to do with the faulty parts. Chris takes this news hard, and is unwilling to abandon his family in that way, but Annie replies that she has given up her own father; she also says that George’s visit is probably not in the form of a marital “blessing,” and that Chris must be prepared for a bitter confrontation with him.
Annie, like Kate, has a sense that George has not come to chit-chat with Joe, or to catch up casually. In this way, both the “women” of the play, the strong female leads of Kate and Annie, recognize George’s motives before the male leads, Chris and Joe, have a chance to do so—perhaps Chris and Joe merely want to think the best of people—or, more likely, they bury their heads in the sand when confronted with the truth.
Joe comes outside and seems happy at the idea, now, that Chris and Annie are in love—he seems them together and assumes they are once again sharing a quiet moment outside. Joe tells Annie, quite seriously, that he’s been thinking, and that he could set George up with a lawyer job in the small town, and, additionally, could probably find a job for Steve back at Keller, Inc. Annie is surprised that Joe would want to do anything for either man, and Chris says it is Annie’s right to not want to talk to her own father, but Joe becomes immensely upset at this, saying that “a father’s a father,” before calming himself and walking back inside to shave.
More evidence of Joe’s desire to let bygones be bygones—and to bury his head in the sand. Joe’s offer to welcome Steve back into the company fold is an impossible one, and Annie appears most surprised that Joe would believe, even for a moment, that her father could accept such an offer. Joe, for his part, truly does believe that such an offer is feasible—in fact, Joe believes this is the only way the family can move on after the whole terrible ordeal, by sticking to the plan, by staying in town.
Jim arrives with George—he has picked George up at the train station—and, leaving George in the car, Jim walks up to Chris and Annie, still outside, to tell Chris that he ought to drive George somewhere farther away and try to “talk sense” to him at a remote location. Jim is worried that George’s anger, which Jim believes to have to do with the Joe-Steve affair, will only cause Kate grief, and Jim is worried about Kate’s fragile state of mind. But Chris says George ought to come inside, and as he almost exits the stage to find George in the car, George enters, looking anxious and bedraggled, barely acknowledging his sister Annie.
The delay between George’s arrival in town, as telegraphed by Jim, and his arrival onstage, is an instance of the building of dramatic tension—something of which Arthur Miller was a consummate master. It is more exciting for the audience to know that George lurks in the wings, than it is to be confronted with George’s yelling, screaming, and fuming all at once. Miller manipulates these instances of drama in order to catch and hold the attention of the audience member.
George then says hello, gruffly, to Sue, and asks whether she and Jim are the people that bought their old house (the Deever house). Sue says they are and invites George to see the changes they’ve made; George says he liked the house better before. George drinks some of the grape beverage Kate has set out for him—an old favorite—but announces sourly to Ann and Chris that he’s been to see his father, who looks “smaller” now in prison; George also says, cryptically, to Chris, that one should expect only to make a sucker of a man once, not twice. Chris presumes George is talking about Joe’s relationship to Steve.
George announces, from the start, that he is on a mission of vengeance. George’s notion of retribution is also a very “Greek” one, in the sense that, unlike a Christian notion of reconciliation, George is demanding that Joe pay for the damage he did to Steve’s life and to George’s entire family. George’s belief that Annie cannot associate with the Kellers is another instance of a “Greek” notion of family bonds, which are unbreakable, and which rely first on blood, rather than marriage. What was revolutionary about Miller is that he applies the classical Greek template, which in Greek plays always focused on royalty and heroes, to a common American family.
George then asks Annie, gruffly, if she’s married yet to Chris; Annie says she’s not yet married, and George announces that Annie will not marry Chris at all, and implies that, before Annie left New York to visit the small town, she told George that she was going with the intention to marry Chris. This prompted remorse in George, who wanted to tell Steve of Annie’s impending marriage; thus George flew to Columbus to see Steve, where Steve told him, in person, the true story of the Joe-Steve affair.
George uses the prerogative reserved for older brothers in many societies, including some in the present day: that an older brother must agree to have his sister married off to another man. Although this is not in line with contemporary values, or even with the values of the 1940s, it is very much of a piece with a “Greek” sensibility the play uses for tragic effect.
George tells Annie and Chris, in the yard, that Joe ordered Steve, on the phone three years ago, to weld over the defective parts, then Joe pretended he was sick with flu, keeping him from going down to the factory himself to oversee the welding. Joe knew he could always deny the phone call, and that Steve would be made the “patsy” while Joe would get off scot-free. Chris does not believe George, telling him that this is the same story Steve told in court, but George has a new fire in his eyes, and now believes that the Keller family ruined the Deevers.
George’s belief, that his father was merely a patsy, is not, after all, the exact truth; the real truth is more complicated, and is not flattering either to Joe or to Steve. If Joe gave the order to shellac the parts, then Steve followed that order, even though he knew it was wrong to do so—and this means that Steve bears some of the moral culpability for his actions. But George prefers to think that Joe is entirely to blame.
Chris tells George that his father is a timid man who wants to shift the blame to someone else; but George counters that Joe was such an overbearing and exacting boss, it seems almost impossible that he would have let over 100 parts roll of the line without inspecting them himself. Chris admits to George that he has considered, in his quieter moments, whether his father was perhaps guilty of passing off the defective parts, but Chris says that, despite this, he believes in his father’s innocence. George is insistent that Joe is guilty, however, and says he will take Annie away—that Annie is the last “prize” that the Keller will not be allowed to take from the Deevers.
Chris here, for the first time, acknowledges that he has considered the possibility of his father’s guilt. This seems an honest response—for his father was a control freak in the factory, and it appears unlikely that something so important as the shipment of over 100 parts would happen without his supervision. But Chris is also loyal to his father, and though the possibility of Joe’s complicity in the crime is sensible, Chris doesn’t want to be sensible—he wants his father to be innocent.
But Kate comes outside and, sensing there is trouble, tries to soothe George, talking about his favorite foods, which she says she’ll cook for him, and about the old neighborhood. George seems at least temporarily placated, and Kate agrees that they will have a dinner at the house that night, instead of going out; but Chris tells George that, if he stays for the evening, there will be no more arguing. Lydia comes over and shyly says hello to George; it appears that, like Annie and Frank, George and Lydia had a long-ago courtship, and George is surprised to learn that Lydia has three children.
An instance of dramatic foils in the plot. Just as Annie and Frank are “paired” way back in the past—a courtship is hinted at, and Frank seems to maintain some amount of affection for Annie—George and Lydia were also “paired” before the war, but George, with his lack of luck, was sent off to battle, while lucky Frank was left at home to marry Lydia and start a family. In this sense, George feels, once again, that the war has stolen this too, from him.
Lydia tells George that she wound up with Frank, in part, because Frank never went to war, but always “just missed” the draft by a year (he was too old); that was why Frank took up an interest in astrology, since he believed that birth-dates had a great deal to do with a man’s future. Lydia demurely goes back to her house, and George seems wistful that he did not marry her.
Frank, although he is given very little space in the drama, suffers from a more severe form of “survivor guilt” than Chris, for Frank never fought at all, and he will be dogged for the remainder of his life with the notion that he did not give of himself for his country.
At this, Joe comes downstairs and strains his “joviality” to welcome George. He asks how George is doing, and how Steve is; George says Steve seems “sick” in his soul, and that he hates Joe’s guts, and would never accept the offer, which Joe makes to George, of a place for Steve at Keller, Inc. when Steve is released. Joe tells George that, though his father is a good man, Steve was never able to take the blame for his actions; Joe lists several instances in the past when, as a subordinate of Joe’s, Steve made mistakes and then attempted to shift blame to someone else.
George formally disabuses Joe of the notion that Steve would be willing, under any circumstances, to accept a job from Joe, after what Joe has done to him. Although Joe acts as though this is surprising to him, on the surface, the audience seems to realize that Joe knows Steve would never accept the offer, and that Joe is merely offering it to Steve as a gesture of generosity—one that makes Joe seem like the bigger, and not guilty, man.
Kate comes outside again and finally convinces George to stay for dinner and get on the midnight train instead; George seems ready to agree, and, looking at Joe with a kinder eye, says Joe has not changed at all over the years. Kate jumps in to say that Joe hasn’t been sick at all for fifteen years, and immediately George wonders about the time Joe called in sick, to the plan, the night of the production of the faulty parts. George corrects Joe and Kate, saying Joe was sick, once, and though Joe and Kate attempt to cover their tracks, saying that had forgotten about that single incident, George is once again suspicious that Joe and Kate are lying.
The dinner has thus achieved a kind of symbolic importance in the play—if Kate can manage to convince George to stay for it, then George is willing to let bygones be bygones, and perhaps no family secrets will be revealed the remainder of the day. But this dinner is simply not fated to happen, and the small slip of the tongue—related to Joe’s illness, leads to the revelation of all the secrets related to the plant, and, later, regarding Larry's death.
Kate goes inside for a moment, and comes back out to announce that she’s packed Annie’s bag, and that Annie can leave with George. Chris and Annie both say that Annie will only leave when Chris wants her to, but George is now saying he wants to take Annie away immediately. Frank comes over, at this inopportune moment, to say he has finished his astrological calculations, and that November 25th was in fact a favorable day for Larry, meaning Larry “can’t” have died on that day. Kate appreciates this information and sends Frank back to his home; Kate then turns to Joe and Chris, while Annie walks to the driveway to George to talk sense to him, and says that Chris will never marry Larry as long as she lives, because Larry is alive and Annie is Larry’s girl.
Once again, Frank emerges at the least opportune possible moment. It appears that Frank’s desire to find Larry’s “fortunate day” is a genuine one, but at this point, even Kate appears tired of keeping up the charade that she cares about Larry’s astrological charts. What Kate really cares about is the idea that, if Larry is dead, then, in her mind, Joe had something to do with that death; and a father killing his son, in Kate’s words later on, is not permissible, it is an act against God. This is the true reason why Kate cannot let go of Larry.
Kate then screams to Joe and Chris that Chris has to understand something: if Larry is dead, then Joe “killed” him, and “God doesn’t allow fathers to kill their sons.” At this, Kate runs inside, distraught, and Chris realizes that Joe probably had something to do with the production of the faulty parts. Joe says, meekly, once again, that Larry never flew a P-40, the plane into which the defective parts went, but Chris presses him, and finally Joe confesses that he did give the OK order to produce the faulty parts and ship them, and that he did so to save the business, because he was worried about losing the government contract.
Joe’s revelation, that he sped up the production of the faulty parts because he did not want to lose the government contract because he did not want to harm the family business and, by extension, his family—these are sensible reasons in the abstract, but they are used, here, to describe a monstrous act. Joe is responsible not just for the deaths of the pilots—he is responsible for ruining the life of a man, Steve, who deserved some but not all the blame heaped on him.
Chris can’t believe that his father is responsible for the murder of 21 pilots, and though Joe keeps arguing that he’s not responsible for Larry’s death, Chris is too horrified by his father’s actions to believe anything he says anymore. Chris tells his father, as the act ends, that as he (Chris) was out nearly dying in wartime to protect his country, his own father was selling bad parts to the army that ended up killing soldiers. Chris is devastated by this news, tearful and enraged.
Chris is horrified not just because of what his father his done. He is perhaps more horrified to know that his deepest fear—that his father was guilty—has been proved true, and that, now, Chris feels there is nothing in his life he can trust—his foundations have been so thoroughly shaken, he must go for a drive to think out his relationship to his family, based on this new information.