THEATRE / Nothing to understand: Rhoda Koenig on Arthur Miller's Broken Glass at the Lyttelton, National

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The Independent Culture
Why do the English love Arthur Miller? Or, at least, why does he keep getting major productions and respectful, even reverent, reviews? English audiences usually admire wit, charm, cleverness, and eccentricity - with which Miller has not even a nodding acquaintance. Or they look to foreign authors for the moral or emotional force often lacking in the local product. Yet Miller doesn't exhibit either of these: instead of passion, he gives us hand-wringing.

Anyway, the mystery of Arthur Miller is far deeper than that of Broken Glass. In Brooklyn, 1938, Philip, a Jewish property valuer, consults a doctor about his wife, who has lost the use of her legs. Dr Harry Hyman says that Sylvia suffers from a hysterical paralysis, and, though he admits 'I barely know my way around psychiatry', he decides to 'give it a try'. After repeated house calls, Sylvia takes a step, then suffers a relapse. Meanwhile, Philip, in an upsetting confrontation with his gentile boss, has a heart attack. When, recovering at home, he has another attack, Sylvia finally stands up, trembling.

Now, ostensibly, the play sets out to discover the cause of Sylvia's illness, but, in fact, it is apparent from the first scene that she has chosen paralysis as a way of withdrawing from her sterile marriage. Philip's arrogance at the consultation ('He's a dictator,' says the nurse), his nervousness at being asked about their love-life, tell their own story, one that is confirmed by anecdotes that illustrate his sexless tyranny. We are also told that Sylvia is withdrawing in response to her fear at the Kristallnacht attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany. Miller has said that the immobilised woman 'seemed an exact image for the paralysis we all showed then in the face of Hitler'. But Sylvia, unlike the unresponsive American public, is terrified. And if the problem is Philip, of what relevance are the Nazi atrocities except to provide an excuse for Sylvia's belated response to events that happened many years ago and to give the play an unearned gloss of social significance. It's odd, as well, that in this high-toned moral atmosphere, Dr Hyman (a blundering egotist, but a really nice guy) is never reproved or made to feel shame for his learn-on-the-job approach to psychoanalysis.

There are, however, worse problems with Broken Glass than Miller's limp and unconvincing narrative. His characters are wooden and inarticulate, city yokels afflicted with galloping naivity. 'This Crosby's the one I like. You ever hear him?' Sylvia asks the doctor, which in 1938 would be like asking, 'What do you know about this Franklin Roosevelt?'

'Huh] I'd never thought of that,' says Philip when Hyman makes a commonplace observation. 'A doctor must get a lot of peculiar cases, I'll bet.' 'The depth of your flesh must be wonderful,' Hyman improbably tells Sylvia, and, when she says opera 'must be hard to understand, I bet', he assures her: 'Nothing to understand - either she wants to and he doesn't or he wants to and she doesn't. Either way one of them gets killed and the other one jumps off a building.' Much of the rest of Miller's wit is delivered by Julia Swift as Sylvia's sister ('God gave Sylvia all the brains and the rest of us the big feet]') in a grotesque caricature of lower-middle-class Jewish coarseness; mouth gaping, shoulders hunched, one arm extended, elbow bent and palm upward. Margot Leicester's bewilderingly ladylike Sylvia seems to belong not just to another family, but a different species.

But Henry Goodman, his magnificent intensity unsettlingly blurring the borders between love and egotism, possessiveness and hatred, manages to convince us, against all odds, that Philip exists. The whole play, though, is corroded with phoney sentiment. Why should attention be paid to such an unpleasant, dull character as Philip? To show sympathy for persecuted Jews? It may be the same sort of sentimentality, confusing earnest solemnity with seriousness, that has led director David Thacker and others to think so highly of Arthur Miller.

'Broken Glass' continues in repertory at the Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1. Booking: 071-928 2252

(Photograph omitted)