The play opens in the back yard of the comfortable Keller home one Sunday morning in August 1947, two years after the end of World War II. In one corner of the yard is an apple tree that has been snapped off in the storm the previous night. Joe Keller and Dr. Jim Bayliss are sitting in the yard, reading a newspaper. Frank Lubey enters and chats with Joe and Jim. Frank notices the broken apple tree. His interest in astrology prompts him to mention that Larry was born in August, and now his tree has snapped off in the same month. At Kate’s request, Frank is working out Larry’s horoscope. He is trying to find out if November 25, the date that Larry went missing, is a favorable day for him. If it was, Larry may still be alive. Jim is dismissive, as he does not believe in astrology.
Jim, Joe, and Frank excitedly discuss the arrival of Ann Deever, who has come to visit the Kellers at Chris’s invitation. Lydia, Frank’s wife, asks Joe if Ann has got over Larry’s disappearance. Joe replies that she seems to have recovered. Lydia comments on how strange it is that Ann is not married. Joe says that is what war does, implying that the war has robbed Ann of a husband and himself of a son.
Chris enters and reports that Kate is giving Ann breakfast. Joe asks Chris if he has noticed the tree, and Chris gives a matter-of-fact reply.
Bert, a neighbor child who likes to play “jail” in the Kellers’ yard, turns up. Joe has made Bert into an imaginary policeman. Bert arrests Joe with the words, “You’re finally up.” Bert wants to see the make-believe “jail” that Joe claims is in the basement of his house, but Joe tells him that is not allowed. Joe tells Bert to go out into the streets and keep a close watch on everything, but Bert is mystified as to what he should be looking out for. Bert leaves.
Joe is worried about what Kate will say when she sees the broken tree, but Chris explains that she has already seen it, as she was out in the garden at four in the morning, when it snapped. Chris heard her crying afterwards. Joe notes that she is dreaming about Larry again. Chris says that they should never have played along with Kate’s delusion that Larry is alive. He feels they must tell her honestly that everyone thinks Larry is dead, but Joe is unwilling. Chris explains that he has asked Ann to visit because he intends to propose to her, but he is worried about how his mother might react. Joe backs up Kate, saying that Ann is “Larry’s girl.”
Chris refuses to back down, saying that too often, he has denied himself in case others might be hurt. Joe tries to discourage Chris from marrying Ann. To do so, he says, would be as good as pronouncing Larry dead, and the effect on Kate could be serious.
Chris says he is prepared to marry Ann and leave town with her if Kate cannot accept their marriage. Joe cannot believe that Chris would walk away from the family business, but Chris says, “The business doesn’t inspire me.” Joe is shocked, pointing out that all his work has only ever been for Chris’s sake. Joe realizes that he has never understood Chris.
Kate (Mother) enters and gently rebukes Joe for throwing out her potatoes on the grounds that he thought they were garbage.
Kate has a headache. She reflects that this month has seen the last of the roses and the beginning of the fall, Larry’s birthday, the destruction of his memorial apple tree, and Ann’s arrival. She says, “Everything that happened seems to be coming back.” Kate is suspicious about why Ann has come to visit, though says she loves her for (as she believes) staying faithful to Larry and not marrying. Chris says they cannot assume that she is still mourning Larry, but is unwilling to speculate about Ann’s reasons for not marrying.
Kate tells Chris and Joe about her dream the previous night. She dreamt that Larry had flown over their house, so low that she could see his face, and that suddenly he had fallen from the sky, crying out to her. She had come out into the garden half asleep, and the tree had snapped in front of her and woken her. She says that they never should have planted the tree for Larry, as this was a sign that they had given up hope of his being alive. Chris suggests that it is time to forget Larry and goes to fetch her an aspirin. Kate asks Joe why Chris invited Ann to come. She is determined that Chris should not marry her, as she still belongs to Larry. Kate demands that Joe and Chris act in front of Ann as if Larry is coming back. She says she would kill herself if she thought he was not.
Bert rushes in, accusing another boy of having said a dirty word. He wants Joe to arrest the boy. Kate scolds Bert and angrily sends him away, saying, “There’s no jail here.” Hysterical, she tells Joe to stop playing jail with Bert. Joe defensively says he has nothing to hide.
Ann and Chris enter from the house. Ann greets the Kellers with affection and remarks on the changes to the Bayliss’s house, where she used to live with her family. Jim enters and is introduced to Ann. Sue calls to Jim to come and talk to a patient on the phone, and as he leaves, Jim grimly warns Ann that when she marries, she should never count her husband’s money. Ann suggests that they all go and eat at the lakeshore, as they used to when Larry was alive. Kate is pleased that Ann remembers Larry, but Ann is mystified as to why she would not. Ann is shocked to learn that Kate has kept Larry’s clothes and even shines his shoes.
Kate and Ann converse. Ann says that when her father gets out of prison, he and her mother will live together and not divorce, as previously planned. Ann does not care what they do. Kate asks Ann if she is still waiting for Larry to return, and Ann says she is not. Ann is stunned to find that Kate believes he will come back, and steadfastly refuses to play along with Kate’s delusion.
Frank enters and greets Ann. Ann reports that her brother George (who is a lawyer) has his own office. Frank asks Ann when her father is coming out of prison. Ann is uncomfortable, as she is estranged from her father. Frank tells Kate he will finish Larry’s horoscope, and leaves.
Ann asks Chris whether everyone in their neighborhood still talks about her father and the faulty airplane parts case. Joe says only Kate talks about it, but Kate blames Joe, for playing jail with the local children and keeping the subject lively in people’s minds. Joe explains that when he got out of prison as a result of his appeal, the children became interested in him because he had been in jail. As time passed, they got confused and thought he was a detective. Ann is delighted to see Joe laugh about it, as she only remembers a neighbor yelling “Murderers!” at him and her father. Joe recalls that when he first got out of jail, everyone thought he was guilty. But Joe explains that he had the appeal court verdict of his innocence in his pocket, and he soon built up his company and won back everyone’s respect.
Joe says he would like to see Steve move back to the neighborhood, too, so that people will come to forgive him, as he himself has done. Ann is incredulous, as both she and her brother have cut off all contact with their father. At first, she had cried over her father, but when the news came that Larry was missing, she realized that he could have been one of those killed by Steve’s supposed crime. Kate insists that Steve’s actions had nothing to do with Larry, as Larry is not dead.
Joe angrily says that Larry never flew the type of plane that used the faulty cylinder heads. He gives his version of the incident at the factory. It had been difficult to keep up with the production schedule demanded by army officers in the war. Steve was a “little man,” who on the day in question had been alone in the factory and was unable to stand up to the officers’ demands. When he noticed the cracks in the cylinder heads, he was afraid to hold up production, so he welded over the cracks. Joe says Steve believed they would hold together: “That’s a mistake, but it ain’t murder.” Joe is angry that Ann has not forgiven her father.
Ann and Chris are left alone together. Chris tells her that he asked her here in order to propose marriage, and asks her if she has got over Larry. She says that she has, and that she has wanted to marry Chris since he started writing to her two years ago. They kiss. Ann feels that Chris is holding something back from her. He confesses that he feels ashamed at having lost his entire company of loyal men during the war. He feels bad that he alone survived. When he returned home from the war, “nobody was changed at all,” as if their sacrifice meant nothing. Everything seemed as if it had their blood on it, including Ann herself. Ann assures him that he has a right to whatever good fortune and money he has.
Joe appears and tells Ann that her brother is on the telephone and wants to speak to her. Chris and Ann quietly agree to tell Kate about their marriage plans that evening. As Ann goes off, Chris tells Joe that he and Ann are getting married. Joe says he is glad, but is distracted. He has learnt that George has just visited his father in jail for the first time, and at the same time, Ann has come. He wonders what it means. Joe asks Chris if Ann holds anything against him, as in court, Steve had blamed him for the faulty cylinder heads incident. Joe fears that Ann has been sent here by her father or brother “to find out something” and to re-open the case.
Joe says he wants “a clean start” for Chris at the family firm, and he is going to rename it after Chris. He wants Chris to enjoy the family money with joy, and without shame. Chris says that Joe does not need to say this, but he seems frightened. Reassured, Joe says that he will get Kate drunk that evening and ensure that Chris’s wedding goes ahead.
Ann’s voice is heard trying to calm George down. She finishes her conversation, comes out and announces that George is arriving by train tonight. Kate is suspicious and fearful. She wonders why George would suddenly take an airplane to see his father. Kate warns Joe to “be smart.” While Joe claims not to care what Steve might say, there is desperation in his voice. He goes into the house, slamming the door behind him. Kate is left stiffly sitting in a chair, “staring, seeing.”
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.