‘Broken Glass’ by Arthur Miller – a play (1994) – 161 pages
Although several of the most famous of the plays of Arthur Miller including ‘All My Sons’, ‘Death of a Salesman’, ‘The Crucible’ and ‘A View from a Bridge’ were written quite early in his career, he wrote this play that most directly addresses what it means to be Jewish in the United States, ‘Broken Glass’, in 1994 when he was 78 years old.
“Well, all the plays that I was trying to write were plays that would grab an audience by the throat and not release them, rather than presenting an emotion which you could observe and walk away from.” – Arthur Miller
‘Broken Glass’ takes place in November, 1938, when the American newspapers had just reported on Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated deadly attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria. For anyone who was paying close attention, none of the subsequent events that took place in these countries would come as a surprise.
After reading and becoming terrified by these Kristallnacht news stories, Brooklyn Jewish housewife Sylvia Gellberg suddenly loses her ability to walk. There is no physical reason for the paralysis, so it must be psychosomatic. Her husband Phillip calls in the family doctor Dr. Harry Hyman to determine the root cause of her hysterical paralysis. Arthur Miller actually based this doctor on one of the many physicians who had treated his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe.
“I just get the feeling sometimes that she knows something. It’s like she’s connected to some . . . some wire that goes half around the world, some truth that other people are blind to.”
The husband Phillip is a successful mortgage banker, the only Jewish banker within his company. It turns out there are deep-rooted problems in the marriage of Phillip and Sylvia, stemming from Phillip’s discomfort with his own Jewishness.
After a disastrous short run on Broadway, a separate production of ‘Broken Glass’ opened in London to near universal acclaim, and the play went on to win the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for best new play. There have been several recent revivals of the play including one in London in 2010. The play was also turned into a TV movie.
As with so many of Arthur Miller’s plays, ‘Broken Glass’ achieves a depth and edge that is missing from so many modern plays. I wish there were more new plays that are this cerebral and heartfelt. It is still possible to deal with serious themes and yet have small moments of humor.
I listened to the audio version of the play with JoBeth Williams, David Dukes, and Lawrence Pressman in the main roles, and as always the audio proved a fine substitute to actually seeing a live production of the play.