I helped Miller piece together his Jewish play
David Thacker directed ‘Broken Glass’ — about a US couple’s reaction to Kristallnacht - in 1994. Here he recalls working with a legend
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Arthur Miller had spent a long time conceiving and writing Broken Glass - “about 40 years”
Arthur Miller was well into his seventies when he decided to write a play that focused on antisemitism. It turned out to be the first work that sprung from the core of his Jewishness. True, his canon already included Incident at Vichy, a sideways look at European antisemitism. There was also his only novel, Focus. Published after the war, the book dealt with the American brand of Jew-hatred. But it was not until the 1990s, with a play that was first called The Man in Black, then Gellburg and finally Broken Glass that Miller confronted the subject head on.
One day around that time, he sent a copy of the script to David Thacker, a British director who had a record of successful productions of Miller's plays, some of them while he was running the Young Vic. "I read the play very quickly. I immediately rang him and asked: 'So, how long has this been in your life, Arthur?'" recalls Thacker, who in 1994 directed the first UK production of Broken Glass at the National Theatre. "He said: 'About 40 years'."
This week Broken Glass is revived at north London's Tricycle Theatre with Sir Antony Sher and Lucy Cohu in the roles of Jewish New Yorker Phillip Gellburg and his wife Sylvia, who becomes mysteriously paralysed at the news of Jews being persecuted in Germany.
For Thacker, currently artistic director of Bolton's Octagon Theatre, Broken Glass was the culmination of a long relationship with Miller and his work. By the time the script arrived in the post, Thacker had staged many of Miller's plays, among them The Crucible, A View From The Bridge and All My Sons. "What struck me most powerfully was that it was the first play of his entire canon that explicitly and fundamentally dealt with his identity as a Jewish man."
The play's title alludes to Kristallnacht, the shattering of German Jewish shops and lives by the Nazis in 1938. But what sparked the writing of the play was not the persecution of Miller's fellow Jews but the atrocities suffered by Muslims 50 years later in Yugoslavia. Once again the world was paralysed during European mass murder, and only belatedly intervened after thousands had been killed. And then paralysis struck again during the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, the only post-war genocide that in terms of killing rate and objective is comparable to the Holocaust. Miller's point is that Kristallnacht was still going on, in different places with different victims. "Ethnic nationalism", he called it.
For Thacker, the man who made Miller change the name of the play, the genius of the work lies in Miller's ability to combine the political and the personal. Sometime, very personal. The Gellburgs have not had sex in 20 years. The relationship was paralysed long before Sylvia lost the use of her legs.
David Thacker working with Miller at the Young Vic in the early 1990s
"Arthur was very convincing on the condition," says Thacker. "When I directed the play, the Institute of Psychiatrists came to see it and had a seminar afterwards. They were compelled by how medically and psychologically accurate the portrayal is. The 'hysterical paralyses', as it's called, is therefore a product of both Sylvia's terror of what is happening in Nazi Germany and what is happening in her own relationship."
The play did not do well when it opened in New York, closing after just two months. But for Thacker's production, with Henry Goodman playing Gellburg, Miller wrote an extra scene at the director's suggestion. The production won an Olivier Award for best play and Thacker went on to direct a Hebrew version at the Cameri Theatre in Israel. There was also a film.
The play, he says, is saturated with symbolism, not all of it obvious. Miller was a writer who based many of his characters on real people.
"I believe Sylvia is based on [Miller's ex-wife] Marilyn Monroe," he says. "And take one of key points in the play, when Sylvia recounts to Dr Hyman a nightmare in which she imagines herself being surrounded by Nazis, attacked and ultimately raped - and the face she sees is Philip Gellburg's. At that moment, in the synthesis of personal and political trauma one finds its consummation."
It is, says Thacker, imperative that the politics and the sympathies of those doing the play are absolutely behind the plight of the Jewish people. "When I first asked Henry Goodman to read it, he was in floods of tears."
Thacker remembers productions of the play that infuriated Miller. There was one in which the role of Dr Hyman was played in a way that implied that the doctor's interest in Sylvia was not just medical, but sexual. "Why don't they get it?" raged Miller. "Hyman just wants to help her. That's it!"
Nobody would claim that Breaking Glass is Miller's best play, but is it a great play? "I would put it in the top five or six", says Thacker. "After Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, there are several great plays - The Price, All My Sons, A View From A Bridge. Broken Glass is in that brilliant group."
But for the director, Broken Glass will always represent a different kind of pinnacle. It allowed him to get close to one of America's great playwrights.
"Working with and knowing Arthur was, the most rewarding time of my professional life," he says.