This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
There must be a reason, one assumes, why post-1970 Arthur Miller plays are so rarely revived. Compared to titanic titles such as All My Sons (1947), Death Of A Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1950), names like The American Clock (1974) and The Last Yankee (1991) sound like tambourines next to timpani drums. Miller, as anyone who has read his illuminating autobiography can attest, was fiercely passionate and prodigiously productive up until his death in 2005, but looking at the plays of his that are regularly staged, one might think he slipped into a coma in the late sixties.
Broken Glass, which is currently playing at Brighton’s New Venture Theatre, hints at why. It is an astonishingly intelligent piece – the product of an astonishingly intelligent brain – but it lacks the pulsating immediacy of Miller’s early plays and, although engaging to the last, loses something essential in its cryptic complexity. Which is to say nothing negative about Jerry Lyne’s production, which is, frankly, one of the most accomplished I have seen at any fringe festival, anywhere.
Set in Brooklyn in the late thirties, Broken Glass concerns Philip and Sylvia Gellburg (Bob Ryder and Janice Jones), whose sexless marriage – along with a host of other factors – has somehow caused Sylvia to suddenly lose the use of her legs. Dr Harry Hyman (Olivier Maigniez) is fascinated by this inexplicable paralysis, and his attempts to understand it draw him into a complex subconscious network of despair and fear. Meanwhile, Jews are savagely humiliated in Hitler’s Germany and American life continues regardless, unaffected in its sublime banality.
Rarely does a play invite interpretation so readily, and rarely does it confound one’s analytical attempts so enigmatically. The truth is, Miller’s play is about a lot of things, not least himself. It’s about a crisis of male Jewish identity, with mortgage-broker Philip’s fervent rejection of his Jewish background (right down to his mutated surname) a potent symbol of his desire to fit in to the American way of life. It’s also about psychology, and the profoundly traumatic effect public atrocities can have on people’s personal health. But above all else – for me, at any rate – it is a stern critique of an America in which people are more concerned with house prices than the holocaust, and in which lives can slip away like sand in an hourglass.
Lyne’s production is slow and subtle, proceeding stately from conversation to conversation with a careful, guarded deliberation that is simultaneously riveting and frustrating. In almost Pinter-like fashion, it refuses to reveal its secrets until late on, when it has reached a tortured intricacy that ensnares the audience like a spider’s web. It also boast three superb performances: from Jones as the bed-ridden Sylvia, crippled physically but paradoxically awake to the horror of her marriage and her world; from Maigniez as the caring, charismatic Hyman, whose incessant inquisitiveness suggests a sharp and sensitive mind; and from Ryder as the desperately anxious and painfully self-loathing Phillip.
And yet, for all the play’s intelligence and the production’s polish, Broken Glass is an unaffectingly sterile piece of theatre. Whereas Miller’s early plays hit you like a train, Broken Glass needles away at you, challenging you to pin it down and irritating you when you can’t. And there is just a smidgeon too much of Miller himself in it, noticeable in the obsession with American Jewishness and in Phillip’s devotion to Sylvia; it may be a crude observation, but when he remarks how he can scarcely believe a woman so beautiful ever married him, one cannot help but make the jump to Miller’s own ill-fated marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
Call me conventional, but I prefer Miller when he is searching for the soul of post-war America with his heart on his sleeve and his flag firmly planted, not when he is cerebrally dissecting the inner workings of his own mind.