“Broken Glass”: What it means to be a Jew in America

Theater Review

Arthur Miller is our very own American Shakespeare. He is best known for Death of a Salesman, his 1949 scathing critique of capitalism; All My Sons, his acerbic look at war profiteering; and his two metaphorical McCarthyism dramas: 1953’s The Crucible about the Salem witch trials and 1955’s A View From the Bridge. He’s also rather famous for his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

Broken Glass is one of Miller’s lesser-known works – it ran only 73 performances when it opened on Broadway in 1994, although it was Tony-nominated – and is probably this Jewish playwright’s most Jewish play.

At its core Broken Glass, set in the 1930s, explores what it means to be a Jew in America and is, appropriately, being presented by the West Coast Jewish Theatre.

Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Burleigh) hasn’t changed his name, but this equestrian physician who wears riding boots in his medical office and rides his trusty steed in the rural hinterlands of 1930s Brooklyn (!) is a self-avowed atheist who married the non-Jew Margaret (Peggy Dunne) from Minnesota.

Phillip Gellburg (Michael Bofshever) is a self-denying Jew, who is introduced to us in a scene where he spells his name, in order to dispel the notion that he’s a “Goldberg.” Phillip has broken glass ceilings by working for a gentile firm in the property foreclosure racket (now there’s a timely reference), and using the influence of his WASP boss (a Tory yachting enthusiast played by Stanton Chase) to get his son into West Point to become a career Army officer.

But then there’s Phillip’s wife Sylvia (Susan Angelo); although not particularly religious she internalizes the looming fate of her people as Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question” engulfs European Jewry. Despite being “safely” ensconced thousands of miles and an ocean away in America, she is literally paralyzed by newspaper accounts of the Nazis’ 1938 night of terror called Kristallnacht or “the Night of Broken Glass.”

Miller uses paralysis to probe the condition of the Jews as the Holocaust approached. He seems to have a Reichian analysis, cannily linking political repression to sexual and physical dysfunction. The play’s title refers to Kristallnacht, but also to the symbolism of the Jewish wedding custom of the groom stomping on a drinking glass wrapped in a cloth, which may represent deflowering. Interestingly, Dr. Hyman, who has a reputation for being promiscuous, calls himself a socialist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich was a German Jewish Communist who believed the revolution would liberate libido. It’s all grist for the Miller mill.

While Sylvia’s hysteria is intensified and amplified by the Nazi pogroms, her marital problems long preceded the Shoah. In illumining her soul Miller reveals that Phillip’s refusal to allow his wife to continue her career once they married has contributed to her inner paralysis.

But by 1994, a generation after the rise of the feminist movement, this and some of Miller’s other observations are hardly original: By then in his late 70s he may have lost something of his moral edge. (Miller died at age 89 in 2005.)

Nevertheless, Broken Glass is a rare and powerful drama adroitly directed by Elina de Santos, and the 99-seat Pico Playhouse was sold out the night I attended.

WCJT’s production of this lesser known Miller play is well worth seeing and well acted by an ensemble cast. Peggy Dunne skillfully reveals the ruefulness beneath Margaret’s mirthful mien, which conceals a painful nervousness caused by her husband’s philandering. Broken Glass is at its best when it delves into the impotence of the Jews as they confronted fascism’s floodwaters.

More insightful and revelatory is the playwright’s depiction of the psychological dilemma and anguish of the Jews in America. Should they assimilate? Or embrace their heritage and legacy? In Broken Glass, Arthur Miller shows himself to be on a par with those other great Jewish-American writers, notably Phillip Roth, who grappled with these tense, thorny issues. But you don’t have to be Jewish to love Broken Glass!

Broken Glass is being presented by the West Coast Jewish Theatre Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 17 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064. For tickets and info: (323) 860-6620; www.wcjt.org or www.picoplayhouse.com/.

Photo: Michael Bofshever and Susan Angelo. Photo by Hope Oklahoma.







Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.