Conversation with Mark Lamos
Tony Award-winning director talks about Arthur Miller and his only “Jewish” play
By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – This year marks a century since the birth of Arthur Miller, a longtime Connecticut resident and one of the most influential American playwrights, who died in 2005.
In celebration of Miller’s centennial, the Westport Country Playhouse will present “Broken Glass,” one of his most arresting and psychologically penetrating works and a powerful account of what happens when the lines between what we believe and what is true, between our private fears and public fixations, begin to fade away.
Phillip and Sylvia Gellburg are a Jewish married couple living in New York in the last days of November 1938. Phillip works at a Wall Street bank, where he specializes in property foreclosures. Sylvia suddenly becomes partially paralyzed from the waist down after reading about the events of Kristallnacht in the newspaper. Dr. Harry Hyman is contacted by Phillip to try to help Sylvia recover. Hyman believes that Sylvia’s paralysis is psychosomatic, and though he is not a psychiatrist, he begins to treat her according to his diagnosis. Throughout the play, Hyman learns more about the problems that Sylvia is having in her personal life, particularly in her marriage.
“Broken Glass” was first staged in a world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven before moving to the Booth Theatre on Broadway in April 1994. It debuted in London at the Royal National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre later that year.
The Westport production is directed by Mark Lamos, the acclaimed artistic director of the Playhouse under whose leadership the Hartford Stage won a Tony Award. Lamos, who knew and worked with Miller, spoke with the Ledger about how the Jewish playwright dealt with – and avoided – Jewish themes in his work.
Q: Why did you choose “Broken Glass” to commemorate Arthur Miller’s life and work?
A: We went to the Arthur Miller Estate when we knew that we wanted to do a Miller play and of course, we started with The Crucible because it’s about New England and it hadn’t been done in the area for a while, and the British production had just opened and there was talk that it was going to be brought over, which in fact is happening.
So we began to look at his other works and Annie Keefe, our associate artist, had been the stage manager for the original production of “Broken Glass” at the Long Wharf in New Haven when it premiered. She knew the play well and we all read it and we were so intrigued by it.
I was intrigued by Arthur’s last play, “Finishing the Picture.” Arthur had invited me to a reading of it in New York, before it was done at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It failed critically, but I thought it was a very important play because he was finishing the picture about Marilyn [Monroe].
“Broken Glass” emerged [as a choice] because I became very interested in the one play where Arthur deals with Jewish identity. I found that increasingly interesting because in all of his other plays, that’s just not on the table. Arthur was raised in a Jewish family, he had immigrant parents, and I thought it would be interesting to explore this example of his later work, in which he deals with where he came from. “Broken Glass” also deals with this idea that the identity of a Jew is something that a Jewish person could have been ashamed of at one time, which I found really interesting – the “self-hating Jew.” I wondered, in fact, if there was something of that in Arthur.
I knew a little about the play because I was running Hartford Stage when it premiered. I think I staged a scene from it with students at the University of Michigan, Arthur’s alma mater, because I was organizing a big celebration in conjunction with them raising money to build a theater they were going to name after him; ultimately it was not. Because he was an alum there, he came to visit. I did an interview with him for television and had my student directors put together lots of scenes from many different plays, and one of them was from “Broken Glass” and it was quite beautiful. That was my only real knowledge of the play before I started to study it for this production.
“Broken Glass” was very much of its time: it takes place in 1938 and you have these cataclysmic things happening to Jews in Europe hitting the headlines of papers in America and nothing was really being done. You realize how antisemitic this country was, along with the rest of the world at that time, or more would have been done than was done: whole boatloads of refugees were turned away to their deaths.
In the midst of all this, you have this character of Phillip Gellburg, who continually is pointing out that his name is not “Goldberg,” actually making disparaging comments about the Jews of Berlin. At one point, he says, “Well, you know, they’re so uppity.” And that was what really fascinated me: this conundrum of identity issues and politics at this moment in American life.
Q: In his 1994 New York Times review of the play, critic Vincent Canby describes the staging of character of Phillip Gellburg with these words: “Mr. Miller places him at stage center and, with the awful gentleness of a surgeon operating without anesthesia, skins him alive.” How do you, as a director, interpret the two central characters, Phillip and Sylvia?
A: I remember reading the review and thinking, “Well, he got that right.” The challenge with Gellburg, in directing him and acting him, is that he says and does these reprehensible things and he lies and he hates himself and he hates his Jewish background. And yet, you have got to be near tears for his situation: he’s in so much pain and he’s so trapped and so sexually repressed. Everything about this man is a tragedy and that’s the real challenge of finding the essence of Phillip Gellburg, but you have to love him while you’re aching with him; otherwise, he’s just a son of a bitch.
In some ways, Sylvia Gellburg is a sort of goddess. There’s something about her that can’t be reached; that has to be sort of worshipped. Then there is something about her that is extremely healthy and easy, and then there’s the mystery of her physical condition – whether she’s brought it on herself, whether it’s been influenced by these events halfway across the world, whether it’s an expression or manifestation of her marriage.
She’s a very interesting person and I really look forward to exploring her with Felicity Jones, a fantastic actor who’s agreed to play her. We’ve talked about the mystery of the woman and I said, “Let’s just not answer any questions and let’s not unlock any doors or solve any mysteries for as long as possible so that we stay in this realm with her. Maybe she doesn’t know herself what’s going on; why she’s been doing this; if she’s been doing it or if she’s been affected by it. It’s one of the most mysterious characters I’ve ever encountered – where, as soon as you try to connect the dots, they start to sort of roll off the table; the key for me right now is letting the mystery be palpable for us and not trying to answer too many questions about her.
Q: Canby also suggests that Sylvia’s paralysis may stem from the “atavistic memory” raised for American Jews as the Holocaust was unfolding. How do you think “Broken Glass” addresses this concept of the collective American Jewish experience during this tragedy?
A: You have to remember that the American theater was essentially very much a Jewish enterprise when Arthur started working: Jewish producers, directors, playwrights who wrote everything from flippant little goyishe comedies to The Jackie Gleason Show to Molly Goldberg. But the business of shows was essentially a Jewish enterprise and they were covering all kinds of issues, not just that.
When you look at postwar plays, you don’t see plays about these issues. Not until the movie, Gentleman’s Agreement, do you see some part of American mainstream culture addressing the issue of Jewish identity. All the plays and movies during the war – in The Dark Is Light Enough, you have these noble people playing refugee countesses. It was powerful in its day and obviously, it was keenly felt and sincerely written and acted and directed and felt by audiences, but none of it had anything to do with the plight of the Jews. It’s really kind of astonishing when you look back at it and again, it’s a sign of how buried all this was in the American consciousness.
I was speaking with Michael Yeargan, our set designer, about the era of the ‘30s – we were both born in the ‘40s – and he said, “Until I was in college, I didn’t realize how everybody in America was told that this was going on; I thought that those newsreels of soldiers going into Buchenwald and Dachau was when the whole world discovered what was going on in Nazi Germany with the Jews. I had no idea that the news about this was all over the world for years and years and nobody was doing anything about it.” That’s how repressed it was.
Q: Does Arthur Miller address his Jewish identity in any of his other works?
A: His Jewish identity just never comes up. “Broken Glass” seems a one-shot deal in terms of this thematic thread in his life. The plays that he wrote after this don’t go back and address it at all.
Knowing him when he was alive and working with him, he never brought that sort of stuff up. He talked about a whole lot of stuff: what was going on in the world, what was happening in Israel, what was happening in the Middle East – but never anything about his identity as a Jew. You don’t find it in the other plays. Even the play I was in on Broadway as a young actor, “The Creation of the World and Other Business,” you have the characters of three angels who are like these alte Kacker old Jewish guys, this conceit of three old Jews who are kvetching angels in the Old Testament. He takes these stereotypes and then uses them in this wonderful Vaudeville way. But all the other characters – God, Adam, Eve – are played “non-Semitically,” if that’s a word. So he’s trading on a kind of Jewish theater stereotype, I guess, in this comedy, but it’s never dealt with as anything serious.
He used to tell marvelous jokes, he could be like a standup comedian sometimes. He would tell the most wonderful jokes and the punchlines would land with the brilliance of a real comedian, just around the dinner table or having drinks. And a lot of them would be Jewish jokes, but in terms of anything serious about the issues that are brought up in this play – nothing.
I was reading a book by Martin Gottfried about Miller’s work and even in an interview he did while this play was running in New York, he just said, “I never thought of myself as a Jew first and an American second; I’m an American who happens to be Jewish.”
One of the issues in “Broken Glass” is how much American Jews were keeping the Holocaust under the radar as much as they could so that they would be distinguished from the people who were being persecuted. How Jews in this moment were attempting to assimilate themselves into the American culture, whatever that was – [for example,] the elevation of Chanukah from a kind of minor holiday to something that could sort of match this big, extravagant Christmas that Americans were so enamored with. And suddenly you have this annihilation and repudiation of everything that is Jewish on the other side of the world. It seems to me that the natural thing for most American Jews would have been to cling to this sense of an “American identity.”
There are other examples of this: Irène Némirovsky, who wrote Suite Française, was a European Jew who, up until she was suddenly thrown into a concentration camp right near the end of the war and died, fought very much her Jewish identity as long as she possibly could and kept insisting that she wasn’t even like other Jews. She actually wrote an antisemitic novel, David Golder, a portrait of a Jewish businessman that is absolutely shocking to read, especially when you realize that it was written by a Jewish female writer.
I think that one of the many things that happened post-Holocaust was that Jews and non-Jews completely rethought identity and began to completely rethink assimilation. The formation of the State of Israel all of a sudden gave a kind of identity where there hadn’t been one before. One of the things that interests me about “Broken Glass” is that you are back in this period where, until the Holocaust was hitting the headlines, you were just going about your business, being, as Arthur said, “an American first and a Jew second,” for the most part.
Q: Did any other aspects of the play make a particular impression?
A: What is also interesting – and it seems heavy-handed symbolism – is trying to work out in the theme of the play why Arthur is entwining the problems in the marriage with the horrors of Kristallnacht. It suddenly occurred to me that, in the Jewish wedding ceremony, the groom breaks glass. So there’s some connection there – though it’s never made explicit in the play – between this union of a man and a woman in a central Jewish metaphor for what the man and woman ought to be, that culminates in breaking glass, and then this breaking glass that’s happening that’s destroying lives. I don’t even know if he [created this metaphor] consciously.
“Broken Glass” by Arthur Miller: Oct. 6-24, Westport Country Playhouse. For ticket information: westportplayhouse.org (203) 227-4177.
Celebrating Arthur Miller…all month long
This fall, the Westport Country Playhouse celebrates the centennial of Arthur Miller, one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, who was born in 1915 and died in 2005, with a month-long series of programs entitled “The Individual & American Society: Celebrating Arthur Miller at One Hundred.”
Held at various local venues, all programs in the series are presented in conjunction with the Playhouse’s production of Miller’s play “Broken Glass,” the series will include workshops, films, book discussions, parties and more. It will kick off on Thursday Sept. 24 with a book discussion around Miller’s classic 1945 novel, Focus, one of the first literary works in America to deal with the problem of antisemitism. The program, which will include a complimentary light lunch, is free and open to the public and will be held at noon at Norwalk Public Library.
Among the program’s highlights are three events listed below that are presented in collaboration with the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County.
For more information on these and other events in the Arthur Miller series visit westportplayhouse.org or call (203) 227-4177.
Author Talk: A Guest at the Shooter’s Banquet by Rita B. Gabis
Tuesday, Oct. 13, noon
At the Library Westport Library, 20 Jessup Road, Westport
Poet and historian Rita Gabis, the daughter of a Lithuanian Catholic mother and Russian Jewish father, shares her journey to unravel the truth about her beloved grandfather who, from 1941 to 1943, had been the chief of security police under the Gestapo in a Lithuanian town where eight thousand Jews were murdered over three days in the fall of 1941. FREE.
Author Talk: I Didn’t tell Them Anything by Aleena Rieger
Wednesday, Oct. 14, 6:30 pm
At the Westport Country Playhouse, Sheffer Studio
World Wear II child survivor Aleena Rieger reads from her new memoir, sharing long-held family secrets of their harrowing flight and narrow escapes from two totalitarian regimes,Nazi and Soviet.
Arthur Miller’s American Jewish Experience:
A Discussion with J.J. Goldberg, Editor-at-Large of the Jewish Forward
Sunday, Oct. 18, following the 3 p.m. matinee performance
The Jason Robards Theatre, Westport Country Playhouse
A discussion of the historical and cultural contexts of some of Miller’s most enduring works, from “Death of a Salesman” to “The Crucible” to “Broken Glass.”