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Broken Glass

Judith Elliott

Arthur Miller
Vaudeville Theatre, until 10 December

In the early years of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, so the story goes, had a succession of patients - all Jewish - who were suffering from terrible dreams and premonitions of hideous violence committed against their race: horrors that made the usual pogroms, common enough in Europe, seem almost trivial by comparison. Freud, a Jew himself, was so disturbed by the terrible visions presented to him by these patients that he found it impossible to treat them and was forced to send them away. The veracity of the story was much discussed by intellectual and academic groups throughout Europe and beyond. It formed the basis for DM Thomas's harrowing novel The White Hotel. Did the young Arthur Miller hear it talked about among his own Jewish community in New York? It's more than likely, as Sylvia, the heroine of Broken Glass, seems to be suffering from the same dreadful premonitions, fuelled by reports she reads in the US newspapers of  the fate of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Sylvia is so overcome by  fear and terror that she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

In this new production of Broken Glass, Sylvia is played by Tara Fitzgerald with heart-breaking sensitivity, as her bewilderment and fear of her paralysis mingles with her terror of  what is happening to the Jews in Europe. Her husband Phillip is played by Anthony Sher as a man unable to show his wife any kind of affection or understanding of her plight. He has sent her to a local doctor, Harry Hyman, for treatment. Dr. Hyman is not a psychiatrist or analyst but seems fascinated by Freudian theories and determined to apply them to Sylvia's case, appropriate or not. In fact he seems to be applying them a little too enthusiastically as he suggests to Sylvia during a home visit that she should 'imagine that we've made love'. His body language at that moment indicates how much he wishes that were true.

By introducing a Freudian theory of sexual repression as  a possible cause of Sylvia's paralysis, Miller presents his audience with the psychological mystery that is at the heart of the play. Is her identification with the plight of European Jews in 1938 at the root of her condition, or is it her unhappy marriage to Phillip? Miller skillfully leads his audience towards a dramatic - some might say melodramatic - conclusion which some reviewers have blithely revealed, unfairly I think for those yet to see the play.

Miller also gives us an unsparing analysis of the anti-Semitism rife in America in the 1930s. Phillip works for a brokerage company, where he has become the only Jew ever to reach a senior management position. But his promotion has come with a price: he has had to endure the condescending racism of his colleagues who constantly refer to him as one of  'you people'. There's a disturbing exchange between Phillip and his boss, resplendent in his yacht club captain's uniform, as Phillip desperately begs him for a reference for his son who is trying to get into West Point, another exclusively WASP stronghold.
The production design has gone for a non-representational approach, with a bare stage and minimum of furniture. The walls are peeling, the space is lit by bare bulbs. To one side a lone cellist covers the breaks between scenes with some nerve-jangling atonal music.  Centre stage is Sylvia and Phillip's bed, the symbol of their dysfunctional relationship. While all this undoubtedly adds to the unease of the play, I was left wondering if a more naturalistic set might have given a stronger sense of the mounting evil facing the world in 1938. The solid and seemingly unchanging bourgeois life of German Jews made it unimaginable for them that  such total destruction could be visited upon them by their own country and fellow citizens. Sylvia  too would have had such a solidly comfortable home in Brooklyn, making her husband and sister's impatience with her all the more believable. 'It's in Germany', says Harriet her sister, 'it's 3000 miles away.'

This is one of the strongest of Miller's (many) late plays, and this production with its fine cast is well worth seeing.  Whatever its minor flaws, Broken Glass still towers above most of the other West End offerings this season, consolidating Miller's reputation as a giant of American drama. 

Judith Elliott