By Pat Launer
He was the moral conscience of our country, writing searing plays that confronted McCarthyism, war profiteering, the immigrant experience, the myth of The American Dream.
Playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005), an American icon, won every major award imaginable, including the Pulitzer Prize, three Tonys, an Emmy and the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts.
He was the second son of an Eastern European immigrant, Isidore Miller, an illiterate but highly successful Manhattan clothing manufacturer (successful, that is, until the Depression hit) and his wife Gussie, was the New York-born daughter of German-Jewish immigrants.
In a career that spanned more than half a century, Miller insisted that his work was not autobiographical, and it wasn’t until his later plays that he began exploring his Jewishness more explicitly, in plays like “The Creation of the World and Other Business” (1972) and “Playing for Time” (1980), though he’d certainly approached Jewish issues in “After the Fall,” (1964), “Incident at Vichy” (1964) and “The Price” (1968).
Miller wrote about everyday Americans, but there was a strong political angle in almost all his work. During the McCarthy witch hunts (his opinions of which were barely concealed in “The Crucible,” written in 1953, ostensibly about the Salem witch trials), he was called before The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and accused of being a Communist.
In 1957, Miller was found guilty of contempt of Congress, for refusing to name the names of Communist writers. He denied being a Communist, but testified that “there were two short periods — one in 1940 and one in 1947 — when I was sufficiently close to Communist Party activities so that someone might honestly have thought that I had become a member.”
His contempt conviction was overturned on appeal the next year. Much later, Miller wrote that his marriage to Marilyn Monroe had “some connection with being subpoenaed,” a suspicion that was confirmed “when the Chairman of HUAC sent word to my lawyer that he would be inclined to cancel my hearing if Miss Monroe would consent to have a picture taken with him.”
In 2000, at 85, Miller was still railing about injustice. We can only imagine what he’d be saying today.
“My heart was with the left,” he wrote, “if only because the right hated me enough to want to kill me, as the Germans amply proved. And now, the most blatant and most foul anti-Semitism is in Russia, leaving people like me filled not so much with surprise as a kind of wonder at the incredible amount of hope there once was, and how it disappeared and whether in time it will ever come again, attached, no doubt, to some new illusion.”
Self-delusion is a recurring theme in Miller’s works, as is social responsibility, authenticity, individual integrity and political repression. One play, less known than some of his ‘greats,’ contains all this and considerable Jewishness, too, in addition to allusions to his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
That’s the rarely-produced “Broken Glass,” which won an Olivier Award (the London equivalent of a Tony) for Play of the Year in 1995, and a Tony nomination on Broadway when it premiered the year before. The piece is finally making its San Diego debut, at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
The play didn’t do well on Broadway (despite the Tony nomination for Best Play); Miller went back and reworked it. When “Broken Glass” opened in London, The Daily Telegraph called it “extraordinarily moving… nearly flawless.” The Times found it “mesmerizing” and said it “grips like a thriller.” The earlier version in New York, which starred Amy Irving and Ron Rifkin, only ran for 73 performances.
The New York Times accused Miller of “wearing his conscience on his sleeve” in this “spiritual detective story” which is all about what it means to be a Jew in America. The amended version is having something of a revival these days.
The play’s ten suspenseful, intensely escalating scenes are set in 1938, the year of the Anschluss, when Hitler took over Austria. Much of the action takes place in the Brooklyn home of a middle-aged Jewish couple, Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg.
She’s a beautiful, smart, charismatic. He’s a first generation Jewish American who’s embarrassed by his Jewishness, the only one of his tribe who works at Brooklyn Guaranty and Trust, where he specializes in mortgage foreclosures. He’s as blind to the world as Sylvia is sensitive, aware and perceptive to the small and larger surroundings. Over the course of the play, their lives fall apart.
It all starts when Sylvia reads about Kristallnacht (“the night of broken glass”), the coordinated attacks aimed at Jews throughout Germany and parts of Austria, which left the streets strewn with shards from the shattered windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues.
She’s obsessed by a newspaper photo of two elderly, bearded Jews being forced by snickering Nazis to crawl on the ground and clean the street with toothbrushes. On the Kurfurstendam, “the equivalent of 5th Avenue.” One of the men looks just like her grandfather.
Horrified and frightened by that scene, as well as the more general intimations of what’s going on abroad, Sylvia loses all feeling in her legs and can no longer walk. Otherwise healthy, and not particularly neurotic, she’s diagnosed by local physician Harry Hyman as having “hysterical paralysis.” But as events unfold, we learn that hers is not the only paralysis: there’s numbness and insensibility in her marriage, her life, and on a broader scale, in the reaction to the atrocities by other American Jews.
From New York to Solana Beach
“It was one of the best of Miller’s later plays,” says North Coast Rep artistic director David Ellenstein. “It had been recommended to me by numerous people over the past dozen years,” but the timing just wasn’t right.”
Now he’s ready to produce the drama, which will be directed by Rosina Reynolds, with Ellenstein playing the (not-so-good) doctor. (They’ll be switching roles in the next Jewish-themed play at North Coast Rep: Next spring, Ellenstein directs Reynolds in the world premiere of Lionel Goldstein’s “Mandate Memories”).
“It’s a tough play,” Ellenstein says of “Broken Glass.” “But thematically and structurally, it’s in the vein of Miller’s really great ones: ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘All My Sons.’
“It’s about identity and the denial of identity. The avoidance of a confrontation with identity. It’s probably his most Jewish play; it’s very much about Jewish identity. Miller is examining how what happened, happened during the Holocaust, from the perspective of the oppressed. In a bleak way, he’s talking about the consciousness of American Jews.”
Each of the characters represents a particular Jewish perspective on what was occurring in Europe and America in the late 1930s.
Here’s how Ellenstein describes the various viewpoints:
“‘I’m one of them,’ says the highly assimilated doctor, an avowed atheist who got his medical degree in Germany. ‘All this can’t affect me.’
“Phillip dismisses the gravity of the situation abroad by saying that he never liked German Jews anyway; he finds them awfully snooty for refugees (“and they can’t even speak English!”). In his ambivalence, he shows that he’s both ashamed – and also viscerally drawn to – Ashkenazi Jews. He’s so silly and paranoid, he keeps disavowing any similarity of his name, Gellburg, to what he perceives to be the more Jewish Goldberg. He insists that his people are from Finland, and he’s proud that his son is the only Jew at West Point.”
The two men in the play are polar opposites in more than their thoughts on Jewishness; one is very buttoned-up and repressed, and has “Republican” views; the other is something of a libertine.
“Hyman is a philanderer,” says Ellenstein. “He’s virile, strong, a horseman, a ‘scientific idealist’ (as Miller puts it) who considers himself an American before a Jew.
“Hyman’s wife is a non-Jew, a lusty, energetic nurse who met him in the ‘scientific world.”.
“Phillip Gellburg is a little, torn-up, ill person, who’s tortured himself most of his life. He doesn’t know who he is.
“Sylvia, Gellburg’s gorgeous, voluptuous wife, represents the more conscious, hopeful nature of the Jewish world at that time. She internalizes the looming fate of her people, but is literally paralyzed to do anything about it.
“Sylvia’s sister Harriet represents the more typical path of Jewish women at the time. Unlike Hyman’s wife, Margaret, who pursued a career, and Sylvia, who gave up a promising career when she married, Harriet became a dutiful wife and mother, and focused on that rather than seeing what was going on in the larger world.
“All of them have marginalized themselves, so they can’t be effective, can’t intercede in the Jewish world or the world at large. People tend to marginalize themselves because they think that’s what their place is supposed to be.”
Miller uses paralysis and impotence to highlight the inaction of American Jews as the Holocaust approached, linking political oppression to sexual and physical repression.
Tickle your Intellect – and your Conscience
“What’s exciting about this play,” says Ellenstein, “is that it gets your brain swirling. A good play makes you walk out thinking about yourself and your life. It makes the audience examine their own world: Where am I at? Do I take enough action? Am I involved enough in what I believe in? Am I hiding or denying things about myself?”
The themes were brought home by Ellenstein when he tried to explain Kristallnacht and the rounding up of Jews to his two sons, ages 9 and 11, whose mother is not Jewish.
“They said, ‘We’re only half-Jewish, so they’d leave us alone.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t get a choice in the matter. With your name and half your blood, you’re Jewish.”
It was yet another theater-inspired teaching moment for Ellenstein: “How to talk to your kids about people in the world who think you have no right to live. The anti-Semitism in the play led me to talk to my kids about these things.”
Anti-Semitism takes various forms in the play, says Ellenstein.
“There are, of course, the reports of the Nazi actions against Jews. Then there’s Gellburg’s WASPy boss, who’s casually disdainful and distrusting of his only Jewish employee. And there’s the self-loathing of some of these Jews, who haven’t come to terms with who and what they are.”
The play is haunted by fear (‘fear,’ ‘frightened’ and ‘afraid’ are the most frequent words in the text): fear of The Other, fear of inadequacy, fear of anti-Semitism.
Miller said that when he wrote the piece in 1993, he was motivated by events unfolding in Rwanda and Serbia. Once again, he felt, atrocities were occurring far from our comfortable existence, and we just looked on helplessly. How much, the play is asking, do we allow to happen, personally or politically, before we take action? What does it take to move us to act?
As with the characters in the play, these are questions we each have to grapple with for ourselves.
• “Broken Glass” runs at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, from Oct. 19- Nov. 10. Performances are Thursday-Sunday. Purchase tickets at (858) 481-1055, northcoastrep.org.