In the Miller canon, this is not among the best known of the plays. One obvious reason is that it was not written until the 1990s and, as a latecomer, has not had the time to mature into a classic in the category of The Crucible, Death of A Salesman and All My Sons.
Yet here is a piece which, though not completed until he was pushing eighty, tackles themes that had been preoccupying him for decades. These had to do with marital relations and their capacity for despair; a climate of Jewish anxiety mounting to existential proportions through the 1930s; the limited ability of the professions, be they medics or money men, to improve the lot of their clientele. There is a crucial linking word here and it is impotence.
Since Broken Glass sees Miller apparently mining on the unhappiness and incomprehension he experienced in his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and since this is a play packed with exchanges of sexual psychology, it is tempting to say that the mature Miller was freeing himself of a writer’s self-imposed repression. If this sounds a strange judgement on a male author who always seemed at home in what came to be called emotional literacy, Broken Glass visits private places, in particular the bedroom, with a particularly ruthless forensic ear.
For this is the story of Phillip Gellburg, who runs the mortgage department at a real estate company in Brooklyn. It is late 1938 and he is the only Jew in the firm. The combination of these two facts is significant because we are on the eve of the most brutal (so far) of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany.
Prosaically, Miller at first named his play after the main character’s surname, when something richer was staring him in the face. This was the deceptively poetic word Kristallnacht, as this prelude to worse atrocities was called, and it translates as Broken Glass. As Watford Palace’s storming revival makes plain in set and sensibility, everything is fracturing, or on the point of doing so, no
matter how far America may be from Europe in miles and mentality. From Gellburg’s vantage point, the globe is as fragile as an eyeball.
To say nothing of his wife Sylvia, whose onset of lower-half paralysis appears to have been brought about through her terror of what will happen next. She doesn’t need a psychiatrist to confirm this – though she sees one – as she has diagnosed the condition herself. So, in giving the play its new title, Miller was surely also tapping into the symbolism of a goblet being smashed under the heel
of the groom in a Jewish wedding ceremony.
As a late replacement in the part of Sylvia, Amy Marston gives a quite harrowing performance as the wife whose body is registering her opposition by its refusal to bear is own weight or move itself to another place. Opposition to what? Well, to steal from Marlon Brando’s Johnny in The Wild One, “What’ve you got?”
She has a husband who hasn’t had relations (another key word) with her for, like, ever, and who trades in dead matter for a Goyim outfit. He lies about everything to blind himself to the truth of the American dream curdling to a nightmare, much as it does, or did, for his virtual forbear Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Now her legs don’t work and the psychiatrist, whom she fancies unrequitedly, is telling her it’s all in the mind so, face it, she’s a head case. Oh yes, and Germany’s about to roll over like a murderous sow and crush all its Jews. Us next, therefore.
No, it’s not a bundle of laughs, and yet in director Richard Beecham’s deft handling, it becomes, as it surely should be, a domestic drama, a Situation Tragedy, rather than a socio-political tract. Hence there is room for the dire hilarities of marital kvetch and the painful angst of the husband being sussed by the shrink and his confounded arts. Thanks to Michael Matus’s Gellburg and Michael Higgs’s Dr. Hyman, the trading between these two is a chastening collision of old denial and new, supposed, enlightenment.
With Simon Kenny’s suitably edgy design and Ben Ormerod’s jagged lighting, or lightning sequences, the bedroom does transcend its walls, as Miller intended, and makes common cause with a world at its own throat.
Review by Alan Franks
Brooklyn, 1938. Phillip and Sylvia Gellburg are a married couple living increasingly separate lives.
Phillip is obsessed with getting ahead, in a real estate company where he is the only Jew.
Sylvia is disturbed by news of Kristallnacht from Germany. In a single night, the Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish homes and businesses, smashing windows and burning synagogues. Haunted by these images, she becomes ill and is unable to move.
Phillip takes her to see the popular and attractive Dr Harry Hyman, whose ‘talking cure’ has unexpected consequences.
Arthur Miller is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, author of Death of A Salesman, A View From The Bridge, The Crucible and All My Sons. Broken Glass was first performed in 1994. It received the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and was nominated for a Tony. Our production marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Amy Marston – Sylvia Gellburg
Clara Francis – Harriet
Andrew Hall – Stanton Case
Michael Higgs – Dr. Harry Hyman
Rebecca Lacey – Margaret Hyman
Michael Matus – Phillip Gellburg
Susie Blankfield – Cellist
1 – 24 March 2018
Press night: Tuesday 6 March at 7.30pm.
Watford Palace Theatre
Director: Richard Beecham; Designer: Simon Kenny
Lighting Designer: Ben Ormerod; Composer and Musical Direction: Ed Lewis