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A Conversation with Jack O'Brien

"But this work is about us and where we came from at the end of the Second World War..."

A Conversation with Jack O'Brien

A conversation with Jack O’Brien, director of All My Sons. On April 13, 2019, Jack O'Brien spoke about All My Sons with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company's lecture series. An edited transcript follows (there are spoilers below).

Ted Sod: This show hits me extremely hard emotionally. Is that happening for you as the director of it or have you become used to its impact?

Jack O’Brien: First of all, this is an exceptional group of actors. This is the acting equivalent of the Emerson String Quartet. The play is very complicated. It’s a dense, deeply difficult show and they keep finding it. I was destroyed at the end of the performance today. They’re really hitting their stride now. You can see they understand everything about it: what secrets are being held, who’s keeping the secrets and what it costs them. I had the experience over 20 years ago of doing this play for American Playhouse on Public Television. The cast was James Whitmore, Michael Learned, Aidan Quinn, Joan Allen and Zeljko Ivanek. We struggled with the text because from the very first day, the technicians were eager to get my shot sheet, asking me where I was going to put the cameras and I didn’t know the play. We started blocking in a back yard and finally I said, “Stop! We don’t know enough about this play.” Arthur was alive at the time and came up to Toronto to spend some time with us. He couldn’t have been more generous and kind with his time. It was very well received. Arthur himself said it was the most lyric production of a show he’d ever known. He was very happy with it. I never touched it until now.

The gift of Annette and Tracy and Ben and that ensemble – their patience, the time we took. It seems to me that the seeds of everything that is difficult in the world we live in now and in the state of our own dear besieged nation are in this play. The issue of deceit, of disbelief, of greed. Things like post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder -- they are here. Everything we are currently suffering, Arthur put into this play. To me, it’s as if it was written this week. We are, all of us, pretty much destroyed by it. I’m enormously proud and extremely grateful to Roundabout for the opportunity to share this monumentally great play with you under these circumstances.

TS: You’ve told me that when you direct, you try to keep a hands-off approach to let the actors find their own way. Yet, in this play there are so many things you have to discuss with actors. There are so many secrets and such an important timeline of who knows what and how it affects them. How important was table work on this production?

JO: With every play, musical and opera that I direct, I insist on table work. We sit down and look at the script as it’s written and ask questions and try to ferret out all the answers. Usually with a play, even with Shakespeare, by the fourth or fifth day you’ve pretty much been through it and parsed it all. Then you go back and read it through with that in mind. Then you get up and start to work. This play has resisted us, has challenged us, has haunted us for five weeks. We would get to the point where we are blocking or rehearsing a scene, a scene that’s going very well and suddenly you see that look of consternation appear on an actor’s face because they’re saying something that they don’t quite completely understand. I told them, “Always stop. I don’t care where we are. Stop, because you cannot lie.” For me, theatre is an act of faith. I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. I think it’s very interesting that the theatre and religion started together. We’re just acting some version of truth in front of you, and we are hoping to do it well enough that you will believe it. When we do that, you believe it. There’s nothing separating us. We’re sitting here and you’re sitting there and there’s air between us, but we’re in the same room breathing that same air. I think you’re sophisticated and smart enough to know a lie when you see it. You could even find it affectionate if the lie is a comedic lie and makes you laugh. We know that on certain nights, that transformation happens. The actors know that. I have a feeling that it was in the room today. I think they felt transformed. When that happens, that’s an act of faith. As John Gielgud said of technique many years ago, “Technique is for the nights you don’t feel it.”

TS: Miller builds this incredible community and everyone has something to add to this story. Can we talk a bit about some of the characters? The mother, Kate Keller, is the center of gravity in this family. It’s fascinating to watch her hold on to the belief that her son, Larry, is still alive and never really give up on it until she can’t do it anymore. The line that stands out to me is, “If he’s dead, your father killed him.”

JO: Unscrambling this in an afternoon with you is an act of impossibility. It’s been 20 years and I’m still learning about this play. I really do feel that when we’re all gone, it will turn out that this could be Arthur’s best play. It’s about such enormous things. Say what you will about Death of a Salesman being a masterpiece, because it is. Say what you will about The Crucible being a stunningly brave work, because it is. But this work is about us and where we came from at the end of the Second World War, when we were the good guys. You can see it becoming rancid even then. To be able to suddenly unscramble this in a way that is meaningful to you or articulate from me is herculean to say the least and I don’t know that I can do it.

The critic John Lahr has written extensively about Miller. When he found out I was doing this play again, he said to me that this play was based on Arthur’s mother. He said, “It’s her play.” Then you realize how well the neighbors are written, that we have dimensional people who are completely convincing because the material is so real, so substantial, so dimensional. Then you work your way up through the family, through the divisiveness of Joe saying, “War and peace; dollars and cents. I’m in business. A man is in business. There’s nothing wrong with this money. Did anybody work for the war for nothing? When they work for nothing, I’ll work for nothing.” In the appeal, he threw his business partner, Steve, under the bus. Why? He says, “I could live on a quarter a day, but I have a family. I did it for you, Chris.” These lines are like daggers throughout the play and we are only now beginning to synthesize them, we can understand the disparate parts of these people and the depth of their pain.

TS: It is a remarkable piece for that reason. The play makes you feel it emotionally and then asks you to intellectually break it down. The only way Kate Keller could carry on knowing what she seems to know is by holding on to that belief. It brings me to the son, Chris. I see him as a person with immense integrity. He is a young person who was changed by the war to such a degree that he has such hope for our whole nation, that we would be the caretakers of others. It’s clearly a family representing more than what meets the eye. He is so clear about what we need to do. We need to be woken up. The play asks us to wake up.

JO: How we treat veterans today, it’s right there. The extraordinary speech he has about watching his own command die and trying to put a value on what it’s worth. We sitting here don’t understand that. Maybe we can’t. Kate says at one point, “I don’t think we know him. In the war he was such a killer, and here he was afraid of mice.” There’s so much about all of us, our families, that we don’t really ever know. We live in this shade of half-truths that are the negotiations of civilization, which allow us to be civilized. There’s honor in the pain these people are protecting each other from. That’s what breaks your heart. You know they’re all fallible. They’re all wrong. The neighbor lady, Sue, says, “You know he’s wrong.” It’s very easy for her to see, but not easy for the family to see. We must all be forgiven.

TS: You bring up Sue Bayliss. I love when she tells Ann to get Chris to stop filling her husband with big ideas. She sees that it’s going to economically ruin them.

JO: This is another thing that’s astonishing about Miller’s work. In a blithe opening scene when she just walks through to get parsley, and is smartass and funny and fresh and charming, you hear Joe say, “The thing about you, Sue, is that you’re a realist. You’re too realistic.” And her answer is, “You said it.” He plants it right there! She’s the truthteller. She’s the person who calls it as she sees it. She’s not nasty or vicious. She’s just truthful. She’s truthful about her own marriage, she’s truthful about money between men and women. She lays it all out right from the beginning. And she’s a nurse. They see a lot of reality, men and women who are nurses. Arthur just takes care of everybody. If you want to go poking around in here, as we’ve been doing for the better part of six weeks now, I welcome you to do it. It will sustain all of your curiosity, it will satisfy all of your historical perspectives and it will break your heart.

TS: So many playwrights state that they don’t have the answers, they just ask questions. It seems like a lot of times, because you need tangible things to play, you and the actors have to find answers to certain things. I’m curious if there was something that surprised you during this process.

JO: Everything surprised me. I don’t mean this in a smug way, but when the assignment came to me I thought to myself, I know this piece very well and, frankly, I’ve done it well. There are pieces that you’re faced with, such as any time you go up against a Shakespeare play, that you think, am I up for this? Can I possibly do this work? In this case I thought, well, at least I know it. I know this play. I understand it. I know how it works. I think I should be able to go back and find that. But I haven’t looked at what I did. I have a copy of the television version, but I’ve assiduously stayed away from it.

If you are wondering what I am staring at, I should tell you all I’m sitting up here onstage with such gratitude because we got our new grass two days ago. I have this magnificent set. We all loved it, but we didn’t have the right grass. We had budgetarily responsible grass. It was a compromise; everything is a compromise. When you’re doing work like this and it’s real, you want everything to be real, because what’s the point in not doing it that way. I’m not interested in taking a big Crayola and writing “Jack O’Brien” all over it. I should write my own play if I want to do that. I want to do this play and honor the work of the man who wrote it. So we did it as realistically as we could, except for the grass. So when we realized the depth and voracity of everything else – and how everyone was committing to it – we all saw, including management, that we had to finish it with better grass. I’m so proud of it. It doesn’t even look like theatre grass. It looks like real grass.

TS: That’s a perfect segue to talk about Douglas Schmidt’s work on the set. How did you and he come up with us seeing characters in the kitchen, anticipating their entrances? It gives a sense of reality and depth to things. Is that something you knew you wanted from the start?

JO: Douglas and I have a creative partnership that goes back over 40 years. Doug did the design for the production that launched my career, which was the unedited Porgy and Bess in 1977 for Houston Grand Opera. I was virtually unknown. We had done work for The Acting Company before that. I’d known him for a long time. He always responds to my bugle cry. We recently did a touring production of The Sound of Music, along with Jane Greenwood, the costume designer, and Natasha Katz, the lighting designer. It’s currently still touring America. It’s one of the best things any of us has every done and I’m extremely proud of it. So I called them and said that this project had fallen in my lap and asked, “Can we do it?” Doug said yes, so we talked for a little bit, but not too much because you have to do what Miller wrote. It’s in the script. This is what he asks for. The backyard, one house, seeing the other houses, the arbor. Doug did a first pass and I thought, as is usual with his work, it’s gorgeous. It’s wonderful and real. Then we went into the rehearsal hall and I suddenly saw where we are. We’re right in front of you and I thought, oh my god, what am I going to do all night? There’s no space to act. Then I thought, oh, yes, there is. There are these buildings and life goes on inside. Maybe I’ll have people go up the driveway and disappear. Maybe I’ll have people calling from offstage. Maybe it’s bigger than we think it is. I’m going to take chances and have people’s backs to the audience. I kept saying to the cast, “Don’t be in a play.” You saw more three-quarters backs in this production than you’ve probably seen in your entire theatre-going career. I was determined to make you think that they were doing it. We even went so far as to have one rehearsal where we had a robe and slippers for Annie and had Kate sitting at the breakfast table having her breakfast in the dining room, even though only a fraction of the audience would see it. We did it until I realized, Jack, pull yourself together.

Audience Question #1: You mentioned that you believed you knew the play from the television production, but felt like you didn’t when you came into rehearsals for this. Do you think that was a function of the time we’re in and the vantage point from now versus then?

JO: Yes, I absolutely do. There are plays that get richer and deeper with time and some that don’t. How about this Boeing situation going down while we are doing this play? We couldn’t have asked for a more directly relatable situation. I recently did a production of The Front Page, which is one of the greatest plays that America ever produced, but the first act is so slow. Audiences are now used to things kicking in right away. We no longer have patience for three acts. I put that intermezzo between Acts II and III today because I thought, you should cool off a little bit before we plunge into Act III, even though I know you all like two acts. We also like one acts that are ninety minutes, but then what do I do about Arthur who wrote this play in three acts? Things do change and we change with them or we don’t. Plays go in and out of favor. This one seems to just be getting greater.

Audience Question #2: You said you met Arthur Miller when you were doing the play for American Playhouse. Did he share anything with you that gave you any insight into the ideas in this play?

JO: We didn’t get as deep in the 1980s with research and dramaturgy as we did this one. There were still things unanswered. When did the appeal happen? Where was Ann? Was she in New York? We had all these questions and because we were doing it for television, we didn’t have the time to answer them. Arthur came up the third week when we’d already done our table work and had started blocking. We took a day off and sat in a room with him, and read the play for him and then asked our questions. One of the questions was, something like, who knew what and where did that happen. He picked up the script and opened it and looked at it for a while. Then he said, “Yeah, I was a very different person then. I have no idea what I meant.” There are things that even the writers don’t know. There’s a veracity to the work and it takes hold. It has its own reality. Even he couldn’t answer all the questions for us.

Audience Question #3: The character of Chris seems to be the only one who doesn’t know about the lies until the end. He is also the one who grew up with resources and money. Is the play suggesting that integrity and innocence are a privilege afforded to those who have money?

JO: There’s something missing: the war. Don’t forget that before we find him too naïve, he was a commander in the war with men under his control, most of whom he lost. Ann’s brother, George, served in the war.  George read the law in the hospital because he was injured. Chris was injured, too. Kate says he can’t stand, you noticed he had some trouble walking occasionally, and you saw the scars on his back, which were obviously from that dreadful battle. These boys were overseas. I remember when I went to college there were older guys who were there on the GI bill. The Marshall Plan happened then. We felt we had a responsibility. We were late getting into that war and then once we were in, we did our very best. Where is that now? What happened to that? It pains me more than I can say at Chris’s struggle to say, “If you’ve got a new car and a new refrigerator, you cannot enjoy them unless you know what it costs.” He had seen those boys under his command die and was unable to do anything about it. That hue and cry that Annette produces at the end, “The war is over.” That’s a great missing character in this play and one from which we are too much removed. We’ve seen less glamorous, less black-and- white wars ensue in which our roles have been muddy and confused. We all have a lot of atoning and thinking to do. I liked us then better than I like us now.

Audience Question #4: In two of Miller’s greatest works, this and Death of a Salesman, the plays conclude with the main characters taking their own lives. When you met Mr. Miller, did you ever discuss a different ending that he was considering for this play?

JO: It never occurred to me to ask that. Under different circumstances, I might have had the courage to do that, but there is something invasive in questioning a writer I respect that much to say, “So what else ya got?” I just don’t think I would have done that.

Arthur was like good wood. He was unpretentious; he was quite beautiful even as an older man in an odd, marvelously sculptural way. He had huge hands and he talked very quietly. He went to the University of Michigan, and so did I. Arthur Miller studied playwrighting with Kenneth Thorpe Rowe who wrote a book titled Write That Play. Twenty to thirty years later, Professor Rowe was my playwriting instructor. Arthur and I shared a teacher. It worked for Arthur, but clearly didn’t work for me.

Audience Question # 5: Do you think Ann and Chris get married or are they too devastated by everything that happens?

JO: We haven’t really discussed it. She says that there’s no world for her outside here. Tragedy can bring people together as much as romance. People who have undergone very difficult things together very often find comfort and solace in sharing their burden. I would think there’s a good option that they did marry. Maybe not for a while. I’m an optimist. I’d like to think that when all this clears up and they’ve locked up his mother, that they buy a nice condo and live in Florida.

Audience Question #6: The tree is such obvious symbolism, but it works so well. Is it in the stage directions to have it?

JO: The tree is in the script, but not the prologue. I did something similar for television. I felt it was important that the storm resonate – that you focus on the fact that something had happened before the play proper begins. The storm is probably a symbol for the war. It’s turmoil, it’s chaos, it’s the unknowable taking away something that you care deeply for.

Audience Question #7: Was there a historic event or scandal that was a precedent for the faulty equipment in this play?

TS: Miller was married to Mary Grace Slattery for a while and her mother gave him an article from a newspaper about the Wright Aeronautics Corporation conspiring with Army officials to pass defective airplane engines. That article was the inspiration for this play and Miller invented everything around it.

Audience Question #8: I think the society’s idea of a parent’s unconditional love for a child is fascinating, but I don’t know that society believes the inverse – that the child will always love the parent regardless of what they do. I wonder if that interpretation at the time that this was written is different than now?

JO: It’s a very interesting observation. I think when you come right down to it, all of the major, serious dramatic works somehow cross at a family situation. The dining table is lethal.

Arthur Miller's All My Sons  is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre through June 23. For tickets, visit roundabouttheatre.org. For more information about our Lecture Series please click here.