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Reflections on Broken Glass
By Ellen Morgan Peltz

By the time Arthur Miller wrote Broken Glass in 1994, he had been mulling over the story for 50 years.  “I haven’t written it before because it always seemed to be part of the past,” Miller explained at his preopening “Platform Lecture” at London’s Royal National Theater in July 1994.   “Until two years ago, when ethnic cleansing came into the news, and suddenly it became part of the present.” Miller’s motivation for writing Broken Glass when he did is the same motivation behind Theater J’s decision to produce this play at this particular moment in this particular city: it tells a story that is – once again – part of the present.

Set in Brooklyn in the fall of 1938, the play centers around Sylvia Gellburg, a Jewish housewife stuck in a repressive marriage, whose obsession with reading the newspaper accounts of Kristallnacht results in her losing the ability to move her legs. While Sylvia’s paralysis is brought on by her fierce and subconscious identification with the Jews victimized during Kristallnacht, her husband, Philip, suffers a different type of paralysis – his inability to accept his own Jewish identity.

As the play approaches its climax, the doctor treating Sylvia shares the following advice with Philip which is, perhaps, more timely today than it was when Miller wrote it: “I have all kinds coming into my office, and there’s not one of them who one way or another is not persecuted. Yes. Everybody’s persecuted… sometimes I wonder, maybe that’s what holds this country together! And what’s really amazing is that you can’t find anybody who’s persecuting anyone else.”

When Philip asks for a solution to the problem of persecution, Dr. Hyman answers “I don’t see any. Except the mirror. But nobody’s going to look at himself and ask “what am I doing.”

On its own, Dr. Hyman’s insight makes this play a valuable contribution to today’s political and social conversation. Persecution – while admittedly not as extreme as the Rwandan genocide that prompted Miller to write this play in the 1990s – is a daily reality for many in today’s divided America. The reminder to take an honest look in the mirror in order to determine how we as individuals might be enabling the persecution of others is a message that is currently gaining traction across the country. 

But Miller takes the conversation one step further by converting insight into action. In the final moments of Broken Glass, both Philip and Sylvia take Dr. Hyman’s advice and make a radical shift from persecuted victim to pro-active revolutionary. It’s a transformation that requires them to confront the roles that each of them has played in the brokenness of the world around them. It’s a transformation that we – as a nation – would do well to emulate.

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