The play opens in the hedged-in backyard of the Keller home, with Joe Keller, head of the family, father of two boys, husband to Katie Keller, sitting outside reading the paper alongside his friend and neighbor Dr. Jim Bayliss. Keller has two sons: one, Chris, who works with him in the family business, and one, Larry, who died flying a mission in the Second World War. The play is set is a non-specified suburban American town, immediately after the war.
It is important that the name of the small town is never revealed—Miller, the playwright, wishes to make the town seem like it could be anywhere in the United States. For Miller, the town and its below-the-surface troubles stand in for the troubles the entire nation faced in the aftermath of the Second World War.
As the play begins, Frank Lubey, Joe’s neighbor on the side of the property opposite Jim’s, enters the backyard and tells Joe and Jim he (Frank) is “walking off his breakfast.” Joe offers Frank part of the paper to read—Joe himself is reading the want ads, to “see what people want”—but Frank declines politely, saying all the news in the paper is bad news anyway.
This is an important point Joe makes, one that will come back later in the play: Joe is concerned, foremost, with what the family “wants” and needs, and it is this desire to provide materially for the family that causes Joe to authorize the production of the faulty plane parts.
Frank asks Joe what’s happened to a tree in the backyard, a tree Joe reveals was planted as a memorial to Larry, his son lost in the war. Joe says a storm the previous night sheared the tree in half, and Frank remarks that this is especially poignant, since Larry’s birthday was in August. Joe is surprised and touched that Frank remembers Larry’s birthday, and Frank reveals that he is assembling a horoscope for Larry to determine Larry’s “favorable days.” Larry went missing on November 25, and Frank tells Joe that, if the 25th is one of Larry’s favorable days, this would indicate, via the horoscope, that Larry is still alive.
Frank’s astrology is perhaps not actually persuasive to Kate, but Kate seems, later on, to appreciate that Frank is holding out hope that Larry might still be alive. As will be shown, most of the rest of the neighborhood has already accepted as fact the idea that Larry died in the war, and that the Keller family must make its way in the world with only one of its two sons. Larry’s tree, then, is not a hasty memorial, but a fitting one: for a dead soldier.
Frank then notices Jim (he hadn’t seen him before in the yard), and Jim tells Frank he’s crazy for believing in astrology. Jim complains about his income as a general-practitioner physician, but he knows he would make less as a medical researcher—which was his dream career as a younger man. Jim also asks whether Ann is in the house, and Joe says she is, still getting ready for the day and eating breakfast—Ann was a girl who used to live in the neighborhood and date Larry, and she remains a friend of the Keller family.
Annie’s presence in the small town coincides not just with the shearing of Larry’s tree by the wind, but with the later revelations of Joe’s involvement in the production of the faulty parts. Annie is, in this way, the unwitting, and unwilling, catalyst of the drama that will wind up tearing the Keller family apart.
Jim’s wife Sue enters, saying there is a phone call for Jim (a patient asking for care); Jim complains that patients imagine their medical ailments, but that he needs the money and therefore needs more patients; Sue, who is overweight and sensitive about her body, feigns jealousy, since the patient on the phone is female. Lydia Lubey, Frank’s wife, enters the lawn through the hedges and tells Frank that the toaster is broken. Frank, who remarks on Lydia’s lack of technological skill, heads off-stage to address the toaster problem.
These two marriages are, to an extent, a study in opposites. Sue has “trapped” Jim in a life and career Jim does not want, and both Jim and Sue know it. But Frank and Lydia appear to be happy and blessed—they have three children, and Lydia, later on, seems unable to believe her good fortune. Frank, too, feels he must consult the stars to determine his own good luck, since he was kept out of the war, being too old, by mere months, for the draft.
Chris comes downstairs, and Joe greets him, asking how Annie’s doing; Chris says she’s doing fine and asks for the book section of the newspaper. A boy from the neighborhood named Bert enters to speak with Joe; Joe is playing a long-term game with Bert, where Bert surveys the neighborhood as part of a volunteer police force and reports any information he’s learned back to Joe. Bert asks Joe if he can see the “jail” in the basement of the Keller house, but Joe says Bert has to wait a while longer to see this fictitious basement jail.
It is never explained to whom Bert is related, or how Joe comes to know Bert. In this sense, Bert is more of a stand-in for all the children of the small town, who appear to like and respect Joe. But Joe’s relationship with Bert, as evidenced by the “jailhouse” game they play, is nevertheless tinged with the scandal that has haunted Joe since the war, the scandal that put Steve, Annie’s father, in prison.
Chris and Joe look at the shorn tree that once memorialized Larry. Chris tells Joe, to Joe’s surprise, that Kate, Joe’s wife and Chris’s mother, has already seen the tree in its broken state; she was outside when the wind broke it. Chris tells Joe, as Joe already knows, that Kate has trouble sleeping, and was pacing outside when the damage occurred the previous night. Chris tells Joe that the tree’s partial destruction caused Kate to run back inside and weep in the bathroom the remainder of the night.
Kate’s nightmares, which seem to haunt her much of the time, are no so much premonitions or reenactments of Larry’s fate; they are instead dark, shadowy summaries of the information Kate already knows: that Larry has gone missing during a flight. This is all Kate will ever learn of Larry’s whereabouts, until she reads Larry’s letter to Annie at the end of the play.
Chris continues talking to his father, saying that they (he and his father) have “made a mistake” with Kate because they have kept her under the false impression that Larry might still be alive, even though he went missing in battle three years before. Chris has given up all hope of Larry being found alive; Joe seems to think it is possible, however slightly, that Larry is still living, but he keeps up the ruse of “waiting for Larry” mostly to satisfy Kate, who will not give up hope, and who believes Larry could come home at any moment.
Here, Joe’s role in the family is made more evident. He is the peacemaker, the conciliator between Chris and Kate. Chris, for his own reasons (namely, wanting to marry Annie), believes that it is important to move on from Larry’s death. But Kate cannot bear the thought of Larry being gone. And so Joe must decide whose fragile emotional state to privilege and protect.
Chris pulls closer to his father and continues talking. He tells Joe that he invited Annie to visit because he wants to ask her to marry him, even though he knows that Annie was once “Larry’s girl,” and even though Kate will not approve of the union—since it will mean, symbolically, that Larry is truly dead, and that Chris, Annie, and the rest of the Keller family and have moved on from Larry’s death.
Joe is nervous about how this news will affect Kate, and he refuses to tell Chris, in a straightforward manner, how he feels about Chris marrying Annie—Joe is primarily worried that the news will cause Kate distress. Chris complains that Joe wants to fade into the background on important decisions; Chris also says that he has “reached for things” his entire life, and that, now, he knows what he wants, and is going to take it. Joe asks if Annie feels the same way about Chris, and Chris admits that he hasn’t talked about it explicitly with Annie, but that her letters indicate she would be open to a proposal.
Chris, here, describes himself as someone who always wanted the family to get along, even after Larry’s disappearance, and Chris believes that he has sacrificed some of his own happiness to make sure that the family has remained intact. But Chris has also benefitted a great deal from the financial success of Keller, Inc., and Chris knows this, and feels guilty, to an extent, for his wealth, which his brother never had a chance to earn.
At the high point of their argument, Chris threatens to marry Annie and run away to New York City—where Annie currently lives—in order to start a new, married life there. Joe is shocked that Chris would consider giving up the family business, one that Joe has worked hard to build up and hand over, eventually, to his son. Without their argument being resolved, Kate walks outside and sees them talking; interrupting, she asks Joe if he threw out a bag of potatoes in the kitchen, and Joe admits that he did, by accident.
New York City is the symbolic “other place” in the novel—it is far from the small-town atmosphere of the unnamed suburb in which the play takes place. Annie and George both escape to New York in order to obtain some anonymity, following the trial that put their father, Steve, in jail, and ruined the family name in the small town.
Joe grumbles about needing a maid around the house to help his wife, and Kate reminds Joe that they have a maid, and that today is her day off. Joe sits off to the side, and Chris helps Kate peel green beans for dinner. Kate complains of a bad night’s sleep and said she has something like, but not quite, a headache—when Chris tries to prime his mother about Annie’s appearance, hoping Kate will be happy to have Annie around, Kate seems confused as to why Annie is visiting the Keller home. But Kate also says she likes the fact that Annie has not moved on from Larry and gotten married. Kate complains that many women whose husbands or boyfriends died in the war wasted no time in finding new spouses.
To Kate, it is important that everyone else in her life maintain at least the semblance of waiting for Larry to return. This means that Annie cannot move on in any way from Larry—certainly not by marrying Chris—and that Chris, too, and Joe must expect Larry to burst through the door at any moment. This notion, that Larry’s disappearance could magically be fixed, even three years later, makes Kate’s psychological state, of total expectancy, essentially unbearable—she is going mad with grief. Through Kate the play is suggesting that America too, despite its post-war material wealth, is still suffering from all the absences caused by the war.
Chris becomes upset with his mother, indicating to her that, perhaps, Annie is no longer mourning Larry, and that she has waited to get married for other reasons. But Kate will have none of that. She instead tells Chris about her dream of the previous night, the dream that caused her to go outside. In it, she was up in the air with Larry, but Larry began falling rapidly toward earth, and as Kate ran outside to catch him, she saw his tree cut in half by the wind. Kate says that she knew that should have waited longer to plant a tree in Larry’s memory.
Ironically, Kate feels that they have begun memorializing Larry “too soon,” while nearly everyone else in the town, with the possible exception of Frank, believes, and has believed for a long time, that Larry is dead, and that a memorial for him is long overdue. In this way, the tree represents not just a memorial for Larry’s life, but a reminder that his death is real—that he is not coming back.
Chris is shocked to hear that Kate believes it is “too soon” to be mourning Larry. Chris says that the tree’s being cut in half has no significance for Larry’s life or death, and he says the family ought to try to move on and forget the idea that Larry might be alive. Kate asks Chris to fetch her aspirin, instead of answering him directly, and turns to Joe, still in the yard, asking Joe why Annie has come to visit. Joe claims he has no more information about it than Kate does, but Kate realizes Chris wants to marry Annie, and says she will not permit it: Annie is “Larry’s girl” to Kate.
Another important through-line running in the play—the idea that members of the family pretend not to know what they do, in fact, know deep down. Kate, here, indicates to Joe that she understands why Annie has come to visit—she wants to marry Chris—even though Kate pretends to all those assembled that she has no idea what Annie could want with the Keller family.
Kate reminds Joe of the other Americans presumed lost in the war who have returned home, but Joe says the chances of Larry returning are very slim. Kate still believes, or wants to believe, that Annie, too, is waiting for Larry to return. As the two are talking, Bert comes back to report to Joe on his sweep of the neighborhood, and asks again to see the jail in the Keller cellar, but Kate snaps at Bert, claiming there is no jail there. Joe is upset, saying he has “nothing to hide,” and Kate agrees that Joe has nothing to hide; Bert seems confused by these cryptic comments and by Kate’s shouting, and leaves the property.
A first foreshadowing of the fact that Joe’s guilt is a major thing, something else the family has been keeping quiet for several years. In their very insistence that Joe has nothing to hide, Kate and Joe make it seem, quite naturally for the audience, that in fact Joe does have something he needs to explain—it will be revealed that this has to do with Steve and the manufacturing fiasco that placed him in prison.
Just then, Annie comes out with Chris to say hello to Joe and Kate. Joe is happy to see Annie and tells her how beautiful she is, but Kate seems upset and wants only to critique Annie’s appearance, especially after Chris says how beautiful she is, too. Jim comes over and meets Annie, and Annie remarks that it wasn’t so long ago she and her family lived in what is now the Bayliss house, and played around with the Keller boys along with her brother, George. Jim is called back to his house by Sue, for another phone call with a patient.
Kate, once again, is shown to be a masterful manipulator, and an armchair psychologist. She realizes that Chris wants her to say that Annie looks beautiful, because Chris himself is in love with Annie. Kate, wanting their relationship not to continue, decides instead to critique Annie’s appearance, to make her feel not wanted in the Keller home.
Annie tells Chris, in front of Joe and Kate, that she’s surprised he has so many clothes, but Chris reveals that Annie is staying in Larry’s old room, and that the clothes and shoes, still shined by Kate, are Larry’s—Annie seems shocked by this, and wonders aloud whether Kate is still waiting for Larry to return. Annie admits, after some prodding by Kate, that she is not dating anyone seriously, but when Kate sees this as evidence Annie is waiting for Larry to return, and tells Annie as much, Annie replies, flatly, that she is not waiting for Larry, and that Kate must be the only mother still in America to do so, after three long years.
An especially poignant scene. It is so hard for Annie to imagine the extent to which Kate still grieves for Larry—and expects him to return—that Annie cannot believe Kate would have kept Larry’s clothes and continued to shine his shoes, as if he might walk through the door that evening. This is the first indication, to Annie, that she has underestimated Kate’s opposition to the idea that Annie and Chris might be married.
Joe and Kate also ask after Annie’s father, Steve, and mother—there seems to have been some trouble in their relationship, and Annie tells them, obliquely, that her parents won’t get divorced, that she doesn’t want anything to do with her father, and that eventually her father will get out of jail, where he is incarcerated for an as-yet-unrevealed crime, and will join Annie’s mother in New York.
Little is heard in the play about Annie’s mother, who appears simply to be waiting patiently for her husband to return to her. Annie’s mother has moved to New York, however, to get away from the overwhelming attention paid to the Deever family in the small town.
Frank comes over and says hello; Annie remarks that Frank is growing bald, and Kate tells Annie that Frank has three kids with Lydia now. Annie and Frank appear uncomfortable around one another, especially Frank, and it seems they had some kind of courtship, or the inkling of one, in the past. Frank bids Annie a hasty goodbye after asking about her father in prison, saying he should be let out soon.
Frank, in his guileless attempts to be nice to Annie, doesn’t realize that, in fact, he’s stepped right into the hornet’s nest that Annie’s visit has occasioned—by bringing up Annie’s father’s imprisonment. Frank will come back later, also at a dramatic time, to tell Kate about Larry’s astrological data.
Annie turns to Chris and asks him if the neighborhood is still talking about her father’s trial and imprisonment. Although Chris assures her that they aren’t, Annie worries that the issues have never gone away in the small town. Joe, who seems also to have been involved in the trial, says that, when he was exonerated after a re-trial (the trial which appears, also, to have sent Steve to jail), he walked home with his head held high, and although some women in the block refused to speak to him at first, and considered him a “murderer,” Joe kept on doing his business in the community, and eventually regained all the friends he had appeared to lose during his trial. Joe does not go into specifics about the nature of the trial, though—the audiences is left guessing as to its true nature.
Now Joe reveals more of the story—that he and Steve worked together, and that only Joe had the “guts” to walk back through the community pretending as though nothing was wrong. Joe was right, in a way—he was of a strong enough disposition that he was able to carry on in the small town as though his name had not been sullied by the scandal at the manufacturing plant. But Joe has only buried his wrongdoing, and he seems to sense, even at this point in the play, that the truth will come out, and that it will not paint him as being completely innocent of the charges against him.
Joe tells Annie that her father and mother should move back to town after her father is released from jail. Joe says this is the only way to “lick” those who would call her father a traitor, a murderer, an evil man. Joe asks if Annie ever talks to her father in prison, and Annie says she does not; she thinks he is a murderer, and Chris appears to agree, saying that Steve “killed” 21 American pilots in the war. Again, this fact is not explained further.
It is interesting to note that the only character in the play to differentiate between murder and unintentional homicide is Joe, who claims later that, though Steve made a mistake, he did not kill those American pilots in cold blood. Apparently, the courts, too, chose to try Steve on a low-degree murder count.
Annie goes so far as to wonder whether her father’s negligence didn’t kill Larry, who happened to go missing in a plane crash. But Kate begs Annie never to say again that her father’s negligent act was responsible for Larry’s going missing—Kate cannot handle this possibility and goes inside, clearly upset. Joe turns, somewhat angrily, to Annie, and explains to her that she knows Larry never flew P-40s, and that the malfunction for which Steve was apparently responsible—a manufacturing error—had nothing to do with the kind of plane Larry would have flown.
This is the nerve that ties together the Larry plotline and the Joe-Steve plotline: the idea that, somehow, the problem at the manufacturing plant had something to do with Larry’s disappearance. Later on, Kate will state that it is simply “unnatural” for a father to kill his son, even by accident, and the knowledge that Joe has indirectly done just that is enough to send Joe to suicide in the final act.
Joe continues, explaining to Annie what her father has done (and, simultaneously, providing the audience with more context): Steve and Joe worked together in Joe’s business (Steve was Joe’s direct subordinate), and Steve OK’d the production of parts he knew to be flawed for placement in American airplanes, since he was afraid that, if the flaws were discovered, the company would lose the contract and a great deal of business. Thus Steve painted over the cracks in a small batch of parts, making them appear whole; they were then installed in American fighter planes, 21 of which crashed, killing their pilots. Steve and Joe were both charged with criminal wrongdoing in the pilots’ deaths, but Joe managed to be exonerated, claiming that the idea to pass off the faulty parts was entirely Steve’s, and that Steve acted alone.
Here the nature of the drama between Joe and Steve is revealed, in full. Steve, here and elsewhere, is described as a man who seems to know right from wrong, but is too nervous to stand up for what he believes in, especially in the face of the overwhelming pressure that Joe seemed capable of asserting within the company. If Joe was something of a control freak and a bully, then Steve was someone who let himself be controlled and bullied by his superior—for, after all, Steve could have stopped production himself, had he felt it necessary at the time.
Joe tells Annie that her father is not a bad man, that he just made a mistake, and that he’s no murderer. Chris becomes angry with his father for even bringing up this whole mess, which seems to have been a major event in the Keller family and in Annie’s, but Annie tells Chris that Joe is just trying to keep the peace and make everyone around him happy. Joe peps up—the “heavy” conversation is over, and he tells Chris and Annie to get ready for a nice dinner they’ll be having that evening.
Here, Joe makes the distinction between making a mistake—an instance of wrongdoing—and being a “bad” person, or someone who is incapable of doing the right thing. Joe makes this distinction, we find out later, because he himself feels that, though what he did was wrong, he nevertheless did it for a good reason—to help his family.
Joe goes inside, leaving Chris and Annie alone. Annie tells Chris he’s been acting strange so far on her visit, and Chris, with Annie’s urging, bumbles into his revelation: that he’s in love with Annie and hopes to marry her. Annie has figured this to be true all along, and tells Chris she loves him, too, and that she has waited for Chris because they have started up a correspondence again over the past two years. They kiss, and Annie tells Chris to kiss her like he means it, and not like he’s just Larry’s brother. Annie asks Chris if Chris is ashamed about their union, and Chris says no, but that he is worried what his parents, especially his mother, will say when they announce their engagement.
Another secret that someone has done a bad job of hiding. This time, Chris is hiding a happy secret from Annie, but she is smart and has great interpersonal intelligence, and she rapidly realizes exactly why Chris has asked her to come visit the family. Chris and Annie then decide they must figure out a way to break the news to Joe and Kate in a convincing fashion, and Annie senses, rightly, that Chris must confront his relationship with his own father before the wedding can take place.
Chris tells Annie that he’s not “ashamed” to be courting his brother’s girl, but that he feels guilty, somewhat, at the life he leads now—a life that only those who survived the war can have. He tells Annie a brief story about a young soldier, in the war, who lent him his (the soldier’s) only remaining pair of dry socks; this kind of brotherhood, Chris says, was commonplace in the war, but now, he feels he can only live a kind of sterile American fantasy: make money, drive a fancy car, and continue his life in the family business.
A very important scene in the novel. Here, Chris seems not to recognize just what he’s saying—he wants the world of the post-war era to resemble the moral certitude of the war itself. But Chris does not recognize how complicated the war was, as well—that it was manufactured as a battle of good vs. evil for the sake of the soldiers, but that, like anything else in life, the war contained moral ambiguities and moral choices.
At that, however, Chris turns to Annie and says that he will make her a fortune—Annie replies that she doesn’t need a fortune, and wouldn’t know what to do with one, and Chris, having snapped out of his reverie about war-time versus peacetime life, kisses Annie. Joe comes outside again and briefly teases the two of them for kissing, then tells Annie that her brother, George, is on the line, long-distance, from Columbus. Annie is doubly shocked: to hear that George is calling to her, and to know that George is in Columbus, which is where her father is in jail.
George, in this sense, is the consummate bearer of bad news—he arrives with new information from his father, and, like Annie, he comes into the Keller family with information that can tear it apart. But whereas Annie does not want to harm the Keller family, George expressly does—he wishes to make up for the wrong he feels Joe has done to his father, Steve.
Annie goes inside to answer George’s phone call. Chris tells his father that he and Annie are getting married, and Joe seems unaffected by this news, as though he has something more important to tell Chris. Joe asks if Chris, too, doesn’t find it a bit of a coincidence that Annie comes to visit at the same time George is visiting Annie and George’s father in jail. Chris isn’t sure of what his father is insinuating; Joe asks, straight-out, if Annie still harbors a grudge against Joe for her father’s prison term, since Joe averred that Steve acted alone, without Joe’s input, in OK’ing the production of the cracked parts. This was what enabled Joe to get off scot-free, and what put Steve in jail.
Joe begins to worry that Annie is on some kind of “spying” mission for the Deever family, and that she and George are working together, attempting to pay the Keller’s back for what they’ve done to Steve and his wife. But Chris refuses to believe that Annie could do that to him or to the Kellers, and, as it turns out, Chris is right: Annie has come to visit with the purest of intentions, and it is only George, with his desire for revenge, who wants explicitly to harm the Kellers out of a sense of retribution.
After Chris insists that Annie’s visit would have nothing to do with George, and that Annie harbors no grudge against Joe for her father’s fate (in fact, she strictly blames her father), Joe appears cheered, saying he wants to build Chris a big house, wants to change the name of the company from J. O. Keller to Christopher Keller, Inc., and announcing that he is excited about Chris’s wedding to Annie.
Joe’s way of dealing with difficult emotions is to rely on a sense of “love” for his family that he expresses through material goods or wealth. Thus, here, Joe shows Chris that he loves him by saying that he’ll give Chris a larger share of the company, and will build him a home as a physical representation of fatherly love.
Annie comes back on-stage and announces that her brother is taking the seven-o’clock train from Columbus to the small town, and that he has something important he wants to discuss regarding his father with Joe. Annie, clearly shaken, tells Chris she wants to go for a drive, and the two exit to do so. Kate comes outside and warns Joe that George’s arrival can’t bode well—George, now a lawyer living in New York, would need a significant reason to visit his father in Columbus (his first visit in three years to his father’s jail cell), and then to visit Joe in the small town. Joe, agitated, says all will be well when George visits, but Kate warns him that he’d “better be smart,” prepared to answer whatever questions George has for him.
Here, again, Kate’s comments to Joe seem to indicate that, in fact, Joe does have something to hide from George—or, at the very least, that Joe has a certain amount of explaining that will change the way George looks at the manufacturing fiasco and his father’s imprisonment. George’s presence, as will be shown later in the play, is a destabilizing one, and the family begins to rally when he arrives, attempting to cover their tracks and many of the dark secrets they’ve been hiding (knowingly or unknowingly) the last three years.