“I can harden the muscles but I can’t lift them . . . My whole body seems . . . I can’t describe it. [. . .] Like a deep, terrible aching . . . (She stares ahead.) They are making old men crawl around and clean the sidewalks with toothbrushes. [. . .] they’re smashing up the Jewish stores . . . should I not read the paper? The streets are covered with broken glass!"
“Everything I did is stupid and ridiculous. I can’t find myself in my life. (She hits her legs.) Or in this now, this thing that can’t even walk. I am not this thing. And it has me. It has me and will never let me go."
Throughout the play, the other characters wonder about Sylvia’s sudden, emotionally and physically crippling affinity for persecuted Jewish people across the Atlantic:
“Margaret [the doctor’s non-Jewish wife]: Getting this hysterical about something on the other side of the world is sane?
Hyman [the physician]: When she talks about it it’s not the other side of the world it’s on the next block.
[. . .] It’s like she’s connected . . . to some wire that goes half-way around the world, some truth that other people are blind to."
Weisband, like Sylvia, comes from an old Jewish family and brings a tremendous knowledge of Jewish traditions and wisdom—but also suffering—into her performance. For example, one of Weisband’s aunts and uncles from Poland—the Geminders—together with their two little boys, tried to survive the Warsaw ghetto:
“Teamed with dogs, soldiers often searched the ghetto for those they considered undesirable. Geminder’s grandmother knew the Germans were coming one evening. She had the boys hide in a pantry, then piled wood in front of the door. The wood disguised the boys’ scent and saved their lives," according to “An Unprivileged Childhood" by Paul Browning. In 1942, Weisband’s aunt heard news that the entire ghetto was going to be “liquidated." She quickly devised a plan to escape: “My mother hid me under her skirt and put my brother under her friend’s skirt. Then they walked out of the ghetto to go to work," said Robert Geminder, Weisband’s cousin.
Unfortunately, Weisband’s aunt and uncle and their two little sons were caught and sent to Auschwitz where her cousin, young Robert Geminder, managed to lift the latch of the train and open the cattle car so that the family could escape and hide in a farm house, until eventually Weisband’s relatives came to the United States.
The collective knowledge of the Holocaust, especially the infamous Kristallnacht, but also Arthur Miller’s multifaceted, if not troubled marriage to Marilyn Monroe, plus his public image which got shattered in 1956 when he was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers he had met at one of the two communist writers’ meetings he had attended many years before saw him being dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee—events which imbued this drama to such an extent that even today one can sense the tension and the existential angst that drives this play.
Broken Glass leads to a lot of hidden but also several explosive encounters, shifting and shattering the main characters’ perceptions of reality, especially those of the Brooklyn couple Sylvia Gellburg (Renee Weisband, the essence of Jewish suffering and liberation, and the driving force behind this production) and Phillip Gellburg (the mercurial husband Barry Brait who controls not only his wife but even the audience with his precision and staccato use of language).
It seems that Miller, after decades of writing a wide range of plays, including Death of a Salesman and The Crucible—at the age of 79 in 1994, almost 50 years after the end of WWII—gave himself permission to openly discuss both his Jewish roots and philosophy as well as his relationship with a non-Jewish woman. This cross-cultural relationship is also reflected in the marriage between Dr. Harry Hyman (Joe Guzman, a popular Philadelphia actor who, in his riding boots charmed not only his wife and his patient, but also the audience with his seasoned good looks and seductive manners) and Margaret Hyman, his wife, the Shiksa (the beautiful Michelle Pauls whose snappiness added an important down-to-earthness to the play), and especially in his portrayal of Phillip Gellburg who wavers in his acceptance of his Jewish heritage, even fighting it by criticizing those Jews whom he does not understand.
Insecurity, authoritarian personality, and wavering anti-Semitism
Sylvia’s husband, Phillip Gellburg—embarrassed by his Jewish heritage, and yet somehow a little proud of it—lives in an emotional and societal strait-jacket whose modus operandi consists of acting in two contradictory ways: He either exhibits a slavish submission vis-à-vis his anti-Semitic boss, Mr. Stanton Case, the wealthy entrepeneur (Steve Gulick, a teacher, a peace and social activist in real life, and an actor who played the bigoted industrialist and exploiter), or he lets his authoritarian personality dominate and make miserable both his marriage and family life, as reported by (the sister of Sylvia Gellburg) Harriet (Mindy Ginsberg, the loveable and womanly sister who was so convincing that I wanted to invite her for a strudel and kugel afternoon, except that I can’t bake).
Dr. Hyman’s wife, Margaret, refers to Phillip as “one miserable little pisser" who is “a dictator." New York Times critic Canby refers to Phillip Gellburg as “a small man but [. . .] a gigantic mess": “Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the hero of Broken Glass hasn't misread society's signals so much as he has blindly accepted them."
“Harriet: Well, God forbid you have an opinion—you open your mouth and he gives you that Republican look down his nose and your brains dry up. Not that I don’t like him."
“Hyman: You’re very unusual, (Grinning.) you almost sound like a Republican.
Gellburg: Why? The Torah says a Jew has to be a Democrat? I didn’t get where I am by agreeing with everybody."
In his conversation with Phillip’s sister-in-law, Dr. Hyman tries to learn more about possible reasons for the physical and emotional paralysis of Phillip’s wife:
“Hyman: He doesn’t like being Jewish.
Harriet: Well yes and no—like Jerome [his son] being the only Jewish Captain, he’s proud of that. And him being the only one that ever worked for Brooklyn Guarantee—he’s proud of that too, but at the same time . . .
Hyman: He’d rather not be one."
Indeed, Gellburg vacillates between a timid pride in his Jewishness and an outright rejection of Jewish life. In German, that attitude is called “the bicycle driver mentality": bowing to the ones above and kicking the ones below. For example, when interacting with his powerful Christian boss, Mr. Stanton Case, Phillip kicks his verbal pedals, even when he gets belittled for his Jewishness:
“Case: It’s quite surprising for one of you people [. . .]
Gellburg: [. . .] I’ll never know how to thank you.
Case: No trouble at all. The Point can probably use a few of you people to keep the rest of them awake."
Even when talking about the powerful Mr. Case, Phillip can’t praise enough the anti-Semitic boss who had thrown a few crumbs his way: “Gellburg: For a Jewish boy, West Point is an honor. Without Mr. Case’s connections, he’d never would have gotten in. He could be the first Jewish General in the United States Army."
However, the Jewish Uriah Heep, ever so “’umble" with his cloying humility when facing authority figures—like Dickens’ infamous character in David Copperfield—Gellburg can also get outright nasty and anything but humble when he talks about German Jewish immigrants whom he considers arrogant, or Orthodox Jews who both attract and disgust him:
“Gellburg: But there are some days I feel like going and sitting in the Schul with the old men and pulling the tallis over my head and be a full-time Jew the rest of my life. With the side locks and the black hat and settle it once and for all. And at other times . . . yes I could almost kill them. They infuriate me I am ashamed of them and that I look like them (Gasping again.)—Why must we be different? Why is it? What is it for?
Hyman: And supposing it turns out that we are not different, who are you going to blame then? [. . .] I’m talking about all this grinding and screaming that’s going on inside you—you’re wearing yourself out for nothing Phillip absolutely nothing!"
Miller does not present his main characters as caricatures. Rather, he presents them as people with strength and flaws, and does not shy away from showing both husband and wife playing dangerous stereotyping games. For example, Sylvia, meaning well by trying to comfort her husband, uses an old stereotype, “A Jew can have a Jewish face." Similarly, her husband asserts, “I wouldn’t know you were Jewish except for your name," only to have that glib stereotype followed by a deeper question, “Why is it so hard to be a Jew?" Even when Dr. Hyman explains that “It’s hard to be anything," Gellburg insists that being Jewish is different: “Being a Jew is a full-time job."
In several flashbacks to his earlier life, Gellburg, who fights anyone who dares calling him Goldberg, because of the strong Jewish association that some non-Jews seem to have with gold-related names and the subtle jealousy and latent anti-Semitism that it tends to bring up, gets confronted by both his wife and Dr. Hyman whom he fights, but from whom he eventually learns to reflect on his life as a very unhappy person.
“Gellburg: God, it’s almost twenty-five years ago [. . .] It’s funny, I felt so at home and happy there that day a street full of Jews, one Moses after another. [. . .] I wish we could talk about the Jews. [. . .] I don’t know where I am."
“Hyman: [. . .] these remarks you’re always making about Jews [. . .] like not wanting to be mistaken for Goldberg.
Gellburg: So I’m a Nazi? Is Gellburg Goldberg? [. . .]
Hyman: No but continually making the point is kind of . . . [. . .] All right you want the truth? Look in the mirror sometime! [. . .] You hate yourself that’s what scaring her to death [. . .] I think you helped paralyze her with this “Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew," coming out of your mouth [. . .] and at the same time [. . .] it’s coming out of the radio day and night?"
Jewish canary in an apolitical America
Against the background of a predominantly unresponsive U.S. public in 1938, Sylvia acted, however subconsciously, as an American-Jewish canary in a coal mine of rapidly deteriorating humanity, caring deeply and alerting her environment about the atrocities committed against the Jewish community overseas—long before the public became aware of toxic gases that killed millions of those who were forced to wear the Star of David.
Although not trained as a psychiatrist, Dr. Hyman believes that Sylvia’s physical paralysis is connected to something that could go beyond her over-identification with the victims of Nazi Germany. He therefore encourages her to share with him any possible reasons. Simultaneously, he becomes very physical with her to help her regain her strength in her lower extremities to such an extent that we witness several erotic scenes as both physician and patient develop strong feelings for each other:
“Hyman: I want you to send your thoughts into your hips. [. . .] you still have tremendous power there.
[. . .] Now tense your thighs. [. . .] Come on, raise your knees. [. . .] Do it for me. (With an exhaled gasp she gives up.) [. . .] Sylvia, I know you know more than you’re saying, why can’t you open up to me?"
Sylvia, after decades of having been neglected and berated by her impotent husband, responds to Dr. Hyman—willing to probe into her inner-most being, willing to follow her physician’s seductive, deeply erotic lead to discover the reason for her physical and emotional paralysis:
“Hyman: I want you to imagine that we’ve made love [. . .] I’ve made love to you. And now it’s over and we are lying together. And you begin to tell me some secret things. Things that are way down deep in your heart. (Hyman comes around the bed bends and kisses her on the cheek.) [. . .] Sylvia lays there inert for a moment. Then she tenses with effort, trying to raise her knee. It doesn’t work. [. . .] Then she lets her knees spread apart . . ."
Slowly, the physician discovers the connection between Sylvia’s obsessive concentration on Nazi atrocities which she projects, however, subconsciously, onto her self-loathing, almost self-hating Jewish husband who, in her mind, becomes a Nazi who is destroying her:
“Hyman: I’m beginning to wonder if this whole fear of the Nazis isn’t because she feels . . . extremely vulnerable; [. . .] a woman who doesn’t feel loved can get very disoriented, you know?—lost."
“Sylvia: I could tell you a dream [. . .] there’s a crowd of people. [. . .] they’re Germans [. . .] I begin to run away. And the whole crowd is chasing me [. . .] Then just as I’m escaping around the corner a man catches me and pushes me down . . . [. . .] He gets on top of me. And begins kissing me [. . .] and then he starts to cut off my breasts [. . .] (discovering.) I think it’s Phillip. [. . .] but how could Phillip be like . . . he was almost like one of the others? [. . .] Would it be possible . . . because Phillip . . . ( A little laugh.) he sounds sometimes like he doesn’t like Jews? (Correcting.) Of course he doesn’t mean it, but maybe in my mind [. . .]."
Eventually, Sylvia is coming into her own by recognizing her dysfunctional and destructive priorities, her dangerous, self-effacing behavior throughout her marriage. As a result of her awareness, she begins to take control of her life, becoming a strong Jewish woman in her own right, openly defying her authoritarian husband:
“Sylvia: [. . .] How stupid it all is; you keep putting everything off like you’re going to live a thousand years. But we’re like those little flies—born in the morning, fly around for a day till it gets dark—and bye-bye."
“Gellburg: What’s this tone of voice?
Sylvia: (Trembling out of control.) It’s a Jewish woman’s tone of voice.
Gellburg: A Jewish woman . . .! What are you talking about, are you crazy? [. . .]
Sylvia: Nevermind. Don’t sleep with me again [. . .] I can’t bear it. You give me terrible dreams.
Gellburg: Sylvia you will kill me if we can’t be together . . . [. . .] Stop that! Don’t say anymore.
Sylvia: I’m going to say anything I want to [. . .] what I did with my life! Out of ignorance [. . .] a whole life. Gave it away like a couple of pennies—I took better care of my shoes [. . .] You want to talk to me about it now? Take me seriously, Phillip."
Multi-faceted, liberated, Jewish physician
Miller has created a strong balance of his play by making Dr. Hyman the voice of reason, the bridge-builder between husband and wife, the peace-maker between Jews and non-Jews, even though Hyman’s suggestive name and behavior show him to be anything but a grown-up choir boy.
“Hyman: If you’re alive you’re afraid; we are born afraid [. . .] but how you deal with fear, that’s what counts. [. . .] I think you tried to disappear into the Goyim.
Gellburg: . . . You believe in God?
Hyman: I’m a socialist. I think we’re at the end of religion. [. . .]
Gellburg: God forbid. But how can there be Jews if there’s no God?
Hyman: Oh, they’ll find something to worship. The Christians will too—maybe different brands of ketchup. Some day we’re all going to look like a lot of monkeys trying to figure out a coconut."
Given the oppressive quota system in U.S. universities which discriminated badly against bright Jewish students who were not allowed to study, Hyman completed his MD in Germany before he returned to the United States—pro-German and somewhat doubtful that the people from the land of Goethe, Bach, and Beethoven could do damage to their minorities.
“Hyman: I simply can’t imagine those people marching into Austria, and now they say Czechoslovakia’s next, and Poland . . . . But fanatics have taken Germany, I guess and they can be brutal."
“Sylvia: But you say they were such nice people how could they change like this!
Hyman: This will all pass Sylvia! German music and literature is some of the greatest in the world: it’s impossible for those people to suddenly change into thugs like this. So you ought to have more confidence, you see?"
Hyman, whom Miller imbued with a great deal of wisdom, in spite of the physician’s short-comings, makes some remarkable observations: “Everybody’s persecuted. The poor by the rich, the rich by the poor [. . .] and of course all of them by the Jews," concluding that “what’s really amazing is that you can’t find anybody who’s persecuting anybody else."
Hyman shows extraordinary awareness about the frailty of human life: blaming others, especially Jews, instead of looking into the mirror to become aware of one’s own short-comings and, as a result, no longer blaming Jews for one’s own evil.
“Gellburg: So you mean there’s no Hitler?
Hyman: [. . .] Hitler is the perfect example of the persecuted man! [. . .] They’ve turned that whole beautiful country into one gigantic kvetch! [. . .]"
Asked for the solution of such human frailty, Miller turns Hyman into a kind of sage who answers the vital question, “So what’s the solution?" with a plea for forgiveness of Sylvia, adding, “But that’s the easy part." In answer to Gellburg’s question, “What’s the hard part?" Miller gives us his testament through Dr. Hyman’s voice: “To forgive yourself, I guess, and the Jews. And while you’re at it you can throw in the Goyim. Best thing for the heart you know."
Even the obstinate, at times self-hating Jewish Everyman Gellburg reaches a powerful epiphany in this confession to his wife: “I wasn’t telling you the truth. I’ve always tried to seem otherwise, but I’ve been more afraid than I looked. [. . .] I think I was more afraid than you are, a hundred times more [. . .] I tell you if I live I have to try to change myself."
Thumbs up, thumbs down: Wide-ranging responses by critics to Broken Glass
Considered to be one of the greatest and most widely performed American dramatists of the twentieth century, Miller has received many divergent reviews. For example, John Lahr, senior drama critic for The New Yorker, summarized Miller’s Broken Glass as “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."
However, not everyone took to Miller’s reflection in the latter part of his life. For example, Rhoda Koenig, a New Yorker, now resident in London, a former night-club singer, travel writer, literary editor, and theatre critic for Punch and The Independent, more famous for her biting wit than for her philosophical depth, wrote this clever condemnation of Miller’s Broken Glass, perhaps ingratiating herself to her British audience: “Why do the English love Arthur Miller? Or, at least, why does he keep getting major productions and respectful, even reverent, reviews? English audiences usually admire wit, charm, cleverness, and eccentricity—with which Miller has not even a nodding acquaintance. Or they look to foreign authors for the moral or emotional force often lacking in the local product. Yet Miller doesn't exhibit either of these: instead of passion, he gives us hand-wringing."
Howard Shapiro, usually a very kind and thoughtful theatre critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, apparently disliked Miller’s play so much that he wrote: “the script feels like it came from a freshman playwriting major. [. . .] Moreover, Miller gives [Sylvia] a tightly coiled, sexually unwilling husband who never rants about being Jewish in the script, although in the end, we're supposed to accept that he's done so all along." (Oy vey! Howard, would you like my copy of the script?)
Having seen the Isis production of Broken Glass, I concur with Vincent Canby, who in his New York Times article—“Arthur Miller Still Holds to His Moral Vision"—concluded that the famous playwright is “still remarkable for the acuity and scope of his moral vision. It's this vision, as well as the Miller voice, which remains as strong and unrelenting as a prophet's, that distinguish Broken Glass and give it a poignance so rare these days that it's almost new-fashioned."
Directed by Neill Hartley (actor, QVC spokesperson, director of Acting Without Boundaries, a theatre company for young adults with physical disabilities, who has also directed at many theatres in the area), shared with me some of the challenges with the direction:
“The first was trying to not let this become a ‘museum’ piece. I have heard of productions where the director projected images of the Holocaust and of Kristallnacht. I really was interested in the human experience and the mystery surrounding the series of events in the play—both in the Gellburg home and in Germany, and how they are related. The second challenge was working in a small space such as the Walnut Street Studio 5. Creating several locales in a black box can be difficult. I decided that the tight, claustrophobic spacing worked well for these scenes, as the characters are all trapped in their own way. I also wanted to give the audience a sense of all of these worlds being linked together, as we are to the world around us."
The Isis production of Broken Glass is supported by Bill McKinlay’s lighting design, Alex Hartley’s sound design, and Brian Strachan’s costume design.
The production runs through April 4, 2010. For Tickets call: 877-260-1116 or purchase online.