Everybody feels persecuted. The odd thing, Arthur Miller’s character Dr Harry Hyman tells us, is that nobody admits to doing the persecuting.
Certainly Phillip Gellburg, the main protagonist in Broken Glass, feels persecuted.
He feels persecuted by his wife Sylvia (played perfectly by Susan Danford) who has lost the use of her legs upon reading in the papers of the concurrent events of Kristallnacht where the Nazis smashed the windows of thousands of Jewish-owned shops, homes and synagogues before rounding them up into concentration camps. But mostly he feels persecuted because he is a Jew in the white Anglo-Saxon world of Brooklyn, New York, circa 1938. And he hates Jews. That he is impotent to change the his identity has deeper ramifications, and given Sylvia’s paralysis, it could be argued that it is impotence, not a sense of being personally persecuted, that is at the heart of the play.
But a perusal of some of Miller’s better known plays such as The Crucible, Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge, combined with an overview of events in his life, lead to a hypothesis that a false sense of persecution and its accompanying self-deceit and paranoia is a recurrent theme in his work. But perhaps impotence and a false sense of persecution go hand-in-hand.
“The world is against me, what can I do?” Is a line that could well exist in this play (spoken in a broad Brooklyn accent – the kind which all the actors maintained a mastery of through all their lines).
Miller certainly appeared to have been deeply disturbed by the paranoiac McCarthy era during which thousands of Americans were unfairly persecuted (and rendered impotent). McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) denied him a passport to see the opening of The Crucible in London in 1954. Miller was sub-poened to appear before the HUAC in 1956 and, after refusing to provide them with names, he was found guilty of contempt of Congress in 1957, fined, blacklisted and had his passport taken from him.
At the very least, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an English Masters thesis on Miller and the themes of persecution and impotence gathering dust on a university library shelf somewhere.
But by 1994, when Broken Glass was published, Miller appears to have come to terms with the psychology underlying the personal view that ‘the world is against me’. In the lack of clearly evident persecution such as that taken against the Jews in Europe, he appears to indicate that such a view is a self-deceit, an ever-ready excuse for failure, a justification for impotence. It is also an unnecessary tragedy, replicated in countless lives.
He tells us this through Phillip Gellburg, the man who blunders toward enlightenment as his life unravels.
In playing the part, Sir Antony Sher shows us why he was knighted. After watching acting of this calibre it is only natural to call him ‘sir’. People probably called him ‘sir’ for ages until the Queen finally gave in and laid a sword on his shoulder to make it official.
The persecution, the self-loathing, the paranoia of the character, shimmers off Sher like a mirage, making you thirst for the emotional release you hope will arrive.
Witnessing a performance like his, so superbly supported by the South African cast, is like reaching an oasis of sweet water from which you can drink deep before trekking in search of the next well.
But laying aside metaphors and similes, the production of Broken Glass at The Fugard is an example of truly magnificent theatre. It is the reason theatre exists. It is the reward we hope for every time the lights go down.
Directed by Janice Honeyman, the play also features the masterful acting of Stephen Jennings as Dr Harry Hyman, Claire Berlein as Harriet, and Patrick Lyster as Stanton Case, with Cheryl de Havilland playing a haunting Cello. –Steve Kretzmann/WCN
Broken Glass runs at The Fugard until April 16