Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass
Broken Glass is a brave, bighearted attempt by one of the pathfinders of postwar drama to look at the tangle of evasions and hostilities by which the soul contrives to hide its emptiness from itself.
Kristallnacht -1938 – the Nazis in Berlin smash the windows and destroy the contents of Jewish shops and synagogues. Old men in the city are put to work cleaning the sidewalks with toothbrushes. At the same time in the home of a Jewish couple in Brooklyn, New York city, a vivacious and caring woman, a wife and mother, is suddenly unable to walk.
Miller’s play examines how these two situations mirror each other. Sylvia Gellburg, in her wheelchair, is an exact image of the paralysis everyone, but in particular the American Jewish community, showed in the face of Hitler.
Phillip Gellburg, the husband, is a “miserable little pisser” and a “dictator”, according to Margaret Hymen, the wife of Sylvia’s doctor. He is a repressed and prickly character, a man who is both proud and ashamed of his heritage, and who humiliates and represses his wife.
Broken Glass is an interesting but disappointing drama, like many of Miller’s later works. It does not have the stamp and authority of his masterpieces but still manages to combine the power of realism with the resonance of metaphor, for which the author was justly famous.
We are shown how fear can, literally, cripple a life.
We are reminded of the inevitable and shocking consequences of public and private denial.
This is a difficult play in many ways, not least because the issues with which it deals have been aired many times before. Miller gives us much to think about and the play is mostly engaging and cleverly constructed, but there are holes in it, left uncorrected by an ageing dramatist. Phillip’s heart-attack, for example, is so passé that it’s almost funny. And Broken Glass simply doesn’t need a shock ending. A younger and more self-confident Arthur Miller would have known that.
The version, at York Theatre Royal, was mostly ably directed by Damian Cruden, who had an excellent cast to work with. Though he failed to engender enough sympathy for Phillip Gellburg, a mistake which cannot be blamed on the script. Patrick Connellan’s set design was uninspired and often tedious. Sylvia Gellburg was played with warmth and compassion by the top half of Barbara Marten, and her performance alone would have made the evening worthwhile.