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Plays

Arthur Miller on the small screen 5: Broken Glass (BBC, 1997)

Broken glassThis post is the fifth in a series which documents and discusses a variety of engagements with Arthur Miller on British television. The series is based on my (rather leisurely) viewing of productions of Miller’s plays during my recent maternity leave (in preparation for writing a chapter on Miller on the British small screen for the forthcoming Screen Plays edited collection) and it therefore seems fitting to post this last of five instalments in my first month back at the desk!

The 1997 production of Broken Glass – presented as part of the seventh Performance season which was transmitted annually on BBC2 from 1991 – is the most recent (or, in other words, the last) British television production of an Arthur Miller play. It is also important to note that it was produced by the BBC in association with WGBH Boston, a non-commercial educational Public Broadcasting Service television station located in Boston, Massachusetts. Because of the much later date of its production, and its location within the Performance season, Broken Glass is inevitably a very different animal from the earlier television productions of Miller’s plays, such as Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, on which my earlier Screen Plays blog posts focus (and please follow the links for the posts).

The Performance season

The television production was hotly anticipated in the press although it does not seem to have been reviewed in the broadsheets. (I look forward to seeing if there is a file on the television version of Broken Glass in the RNT Archive in due course, for this was a version of one of its productions.) On the day of transmission, Broken Glass made the ‘Critics’ Choice’ column and ‘Pick of the Day’ in The Times; it was also previewed in The Guardian. Robert McCrum declared that it would be the ‘best thing by far on television tonight’, considering that the play had been ‘superbly adapted for television by David Thacker’ (‘Saturday 29 March’, The Observer, ‘Life’ section, 23 March 1997, p. 78). Not only this, the production is ‘a triumph: brilliantly acted, superbly directed, memorably staged and shot’. The production is ‘a cause for celebration’ at a time when, McCrum considers, ‘Plays on television can be an embarrassing mismatch of genre and medium’.

This last statement is interesting, referring as it does to the dominant view that theatre on the small screen is but an intrusion – no longer, in a sense, belonging there. It is this view that James Christopher discusses in an article on the BBC’s latest Performance season in The Times, an article that asks – in the page header – ‘Do West End plays work in our living rooms?’ (James Christopher, ‘Performing Small Miracles’, The Times, 24 February 1997, p. 19). Christopher holds Broken Glass to be one of the particular successes of the latest season of the Performance series, then in its seventh year, the purpose of which was to bring the highest production values of studio drama to excellent scripts originally written for the theatre. He considers that productions like Broken Glass and the award-winning comedy My Night with Reg ‘work superbly as studio dramas, shot for the most part in the rooms for which they were imaginatively intended’.

Broken Glass, RNTThe play and the RNT production

Broken Glass received both its American and British stage premieres in 1994, at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut and the Royal National Theatre’s Lyttleton, respectively. It was just three years later, on 29 March 1997, that BBC2 screened a studio version of the RNT production (see the image of the poster for this stage production, below). Both the stage production and the television production were directed by David Thacker (and, incidentally, the television version was transmitted just a year or so after Thacker’s five-part BBC Schools version of Death of a Salesman, which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog).

Thacker, who is currently Artistic Director of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, had by this point developed a long-standing and close working relationship with Miller: not only had he tackled many of Miller’s other plays on the nation’s foremost stages, bringing the playwright into rehearsals in several instances, but he had also worked with Miller on important revisions to the script of Broken Glass before its transfer to the UK. Miller had himself revised the play several times during the New Haven run, and before the RNT production Miller wrote a new scene at Thacker’s specific request: ‘He was bothering me for a scene [near the end of the play] so I gave him one just to shut him up. You see I trust David to understand the work and follow the themes and not just add something which isn’t quite necessary’ (Claire Armitstead’s interview with Arthur Miller and David Thacker entitled ‘Double Visionaries’, The Guardian, 27 July 1994, p. 4; see The Christian Science Monitor, 26 April 1994, on the New Haven revisions). Miller has described their relationship as like that between a grandfather and his grandson (see ‘How We Met: David Thacker and Arthur Miller’, The Independent, 30 April 1995; also published online).

Set in Brooklyn in 1938, the play opens with a mysterious paralysis of the legs suffered by a middle-aged Jewish woman, Slyvia Gellburg. The condition is diagnosed by her doctor Harry Hyman as being psychosomatic, and intimately linked with her terror at newspaper and radio reports (in these pre-television days) on the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, and specifically Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in which Jewish stores and synagogues in Berlin had their windows smashed (from which event, of course, the play gets its title).

Gellburg dies, Sylvia standsThe play also reveals a (not unconnected) coldness in her marriage to Philip and her specific discomfort at her husband’s apparent rejection of his Jewish identity, a situation which is thrown into relief by the attraction between Sylvia and her warm-hearted doctor. Sylvia’s paralysis and its diagnosis is one focal point of the play, but increasingly the play focuses on the identity anxieties of Philip, whose clumsy professional error means that his company loses out on a big business deal to a Jewish competitor, a stress-inducing mistake which, he perceives, leaves him open to professional criticism; indeed, he is eventually sacked and he soon after suffers a heart attack. He revives only briefly, and it is at the moment of his death that Sylvia breaks free of her paralysis: see the adjacent image for the rather stylized way she rises from her wheelchair; in this sequence, we can interpret her thoughts, from her body language and eye-line, moving from ‘My husband is suffering another heart attack’ to ‘I’m standing up!’, with her arms floating out to the sides of her body as if they are wings keeping her afloat. This rather melodramatic ending to the play, although not without its power, does not serve to rank the work amongst the finest examples of Miller’s dramatic writing on personal tragedy and public life.

Interestingly, and importantly, in addition to Thacker directing both the RNT production and the BBC television adaptation of this production, the English actors Margot Leicester and Henry Goodman played the roles of Sylvia and Philip both on the stage and on television adaptation; the role of Dr Hyman was, however, on television taken by the American Mandy Patinkin (most recently on our screens as Saul in Homeland).

An elaborate and powerful, but invented, ‘prologue’

Miller’s play opens with a scene in Dr Hyman’s waiting-room, where Philip Gellburg waits impatiently to discuss his wife’s illness with the doctor. He quickly reveals himself to be a rather unfriendly and uptight character in the conversation he has with the doctor’s secretary (and wife), Margaret. In David Holman and David Thacker’s television screenplay, however, before we get to this point some nine minutes of expository scenes eloquently lay firm foundations for the development of some of the plays themes and concerns.

article in LibertyThe opening shot foregrounds the importance to the play of contemporary events in Nazi Germany and, further, hints at their impact on Sylvia incredibly efficiently, and without a word being spoken. The opening shot is a close-up, from the perspective of the reader, of the popular illustrated magazine Liberty: A Weekly for Everybody. The as yet unknown reader flicks through the magazine, pausing on the article entitled ‘Why Hitler Persecutes the Jews’ by William E. Dodd (1869-1940) – see adjacent image – then closing the magazine to reveal the front cover on which the article’s title is shown to the left of an illustration of a smiling, ‘all-American’ blonde woman sat astride a diving board in a yellow swimsuit against a blue sky (see the next image). The persecution of the Jews by Hitler is therefore neatly contrasted with the word ‘Liberty’ at the top of the page, a concept which is represented visually by the carefree, sunny figure whose bare legs kick out from the diving board like those of a child on a swing. The wooden sideboard and polished silver trinkets in the background may serve to suggest to the viewer a life of comfort and order, far away from Nazi persecution.

Cover of LibertyThis establishing shot has further resonances for the viewer alert to American-German relations at this time: Dodd, an American historian, served as the US ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937 and in this capacity was entreated by many Americans to do what he could to ameliorate the situation of European Jews. His personal view, however, was that Jews on both sides of the Atlantic had an over-prominent role in public life, a position which underscores Philip Gellburg’s sensitivity, verging later on paranoia, about the effect his Jewish ancestry may be having on his professional position (and it is clear that senior colleagues define him as apart from them in some way: see the two references to ‘you people’ on p. 30 of the 1994 Methuen edition of the play; although the suggestion of any professional ‘persecution’ is vehemently denied by these characters the matter is left somewhat ambiguous). See also, in the image adjacent, the headline ‘Doctors Don’t Know’, which is a very relevant comment on Sylvia’s initially mysterious paralysis.

The camera examines the face of the magazine’s reader via the dressing-table mirror. The image of this worried-looking woman in her middle age, fresh from her bath and without make-up, is interspersed with quickfire shots (almost snapshots) from her imagination of the Nazi’s treatment of Jews in Berlin, accompanied by the angry noise of a crowd. As can be seen (although perhaps not very clearly) in the first image in this post, above, the camera looks through a shop window at a shopkeeper, for example, holding on to (presumably) his young daughter: the window immediately shatters, thus illustrating visually the reference to Kristallnacht in the play’s title.

After this quick succession of images, set to a rousing score by Adrian Johnstone and accompanied at points by the imagined noise of Kristallnacht itself, we see Sylvia, now made-up and dressed smartly, move around her spacious and comfortable house. Newspapers feature in all of these opening shots featuring Sylvia: in the living room, in the hallway, on and indeed underneath the marital bed. These shots are interspersed with brief shots of a man, her husband, approaching and entering the house, thus suggesting that there will be more to this drama than the link with Nazi Germany. Once he enters the house, new dialogue (not in the original play) conveys several things – that they are preparing to go out for the evening with her sister and their nephew, that Sylvia is a caring and empathic employer of their African-American maid Flora, and that Philip is a man who has work on his mind even after hours.

Article in TribuneMoments after Philip is shown discovering the pile of newspapers under the bed, pausing on one front-page headline about the Nazis burning and looting Jewish stores, killing those inside (see adjacent image), Sylvia collapses on the steps outside the front door, shouting that she can’t move her legs. The following scenes establish Philip as impatient with his (clearly ill) wife and Sylvia as incredibly apologetic to her family about her condition, as she is kept warm with blankets and the fire for which Philip uses her newspapers as kindling. The next scenes are, again, expository, being written especially for the television production: shots of Philip at a plumbing firm pursuing investigations relating to his work and of Dr Hyman examining Sylvia at home. The intercutting of moments from these two scenes emphasizes the fact that Philip has left his wife at this crucial time in order to pursue business interests: she is not alone, being cared for by her sister and Flora, but the direction and camera-work here makes very clear that she does not have the immediate, intimate support of her husband, a fact which is important in the play.

These imaginative additions to the play serve as a prologue, setting up the themes and concerns of the play in televisual terms. The adaptation to television and expansion of some aspects of the stage play also, inevitably, offer a certain interpretation, or emphasis, of certain of the play’s themes. The concurrency of Philip’s entrance and exit to the plumbing firm with Dr Hyman’s entrance and exit of his wife’s bedroom emphasizes, for example, Philip’s marital remoteness and lays the ground in which intimacy will grow between patient and doctor. Certainly the complex and speedy succession of shots filmed in a number of different, beautifully decorated locations (including a brief segment on a street, and another on a beach) mean that this production of Broken Glass doesn’t feel studio-bound: the world of the play has expanded in the screenplay writers’ imagination, and to good effect. These additions, I think, only augment the play in a positive way, and most appear to spring from some suggestion in lines of the original stage play.

Interweavings and further elaborations

It is at nine minutes into this television production that we find ourselves in Dr Hyman’s waiting-room with Philip Gellburg – or, in other words, at the beginning of Arthur Miller’s Scene One. The text of the stage play is somewhat abbreviated in order to focus attention on the most salient aspects of conversation; furthermore, within the action of Scene One are interspersed clips taken from the action of Scene Two. The fluidity of this cut-and-paste approach works well, and it is used later in the production just as nimbly. Following Gellburg’s first heart attack, for example, parts of the dialogue between Sylvia, Margaret and Harriet in Scene Ten are represented as happening simultaneously as the conversation between Gellburg and Dr Hyman in Scene Eleven, via the perspective of the nephew David who moves from one doorway to another in the hallway, listening in to portions of conversations. This technique brings a certain amount of dynamism to the production.

Gellburg, waiting for the doctorThe television medium allows for some startling juxtapositions of shots which, at times, bring a brilliantly energetic dimension to the play. For example, following the intense exchange between Sylvia and Philip in which they, at last, try to address the long-standing problems in their marriage (his impotence, his early yearning for freedom and her long unhappiness), culminating in Philip – out of a combination of rage and guilt – forcing her to her feet only for her to collapse heavily on the ground where he addresses her angrily, we cut to a wide-open vista, a sea-shore still wet from rain or the retreating tide. A distant figure on horseback – Dr Hyman, we presume – powers towards the camera to strident orchestral music and the sound of seagulls. This – an evocation of the freedom to blossom that Sylvia has not had in her marriage and which Dr Hyman will increasingly come to symbolize – is an effective televisual unfolding, we might say, of the resonant suggestion in the stage direction ‘Dr Hyman’s office. He is in riding clothes’, given at the beginning of Miller’s Scene Three.

Dr Hyman on horseThis vision of manhood offered by Patinkin’s easy, bear-like frame serves to offer a neat contrast between the character of Dr Hyman and the smaller, tidily suited Gellburg, played by Goodman. Following the invented beach scene, we cut to Philip at work. In this world of heavy oak furniture, old portraits and brandy in crystal decanters, Philip cuts an optimistic but uncertain figure, attempting to connect with his senior colleagues with stories of his son’s achievements … but they don’t recall his name at first and then express surprize at his choice of career (the army) on account of his Jewish identity. This is the world he values dearly, and to which he has devoted much of his life, but it is a world where, it seems, he doesn’t entirely belong, being asked to leave the room during incoming business calls, where he is not comfortable being truthful about his wife’s health and in which, despite long service, he is not invited to join his boss on his sailing trip.

Again, usefully interwoven, here, in order to develop the contrast between the two men, is a short scene in which Dr Hyman talks with Sylvia’s sister in the kitchen (a re-thinking of the original scene in the play): she flirts gently and he is warm, if a little coy, while they discuss his past romantic adventures. This man, it is clear, knows how to connect with women. There follows immediately – and naturally on television – Scene Five in which the increasing mutual attraction and admiration between Sylvia and her doctor is laid clear, alongside the expression of her deep unhappiness in her marriage and in herself.

Gellburg hovers above his wifeAlso worth mentioning is the dramatization of the moment when Gellburg, in Scene Six, reports to Dr Hyman that ‘About the loving. […] I decided to try to do it with her’ (p. 39) – i.e. to follow the doctor’s advice that he should revive his and his wife’s sex life. To a haunting score that would almost suit a crime drama, if not a horror film, the camera follows Gellburg as he gets out of his car and climbs the stairs of his house in darkness, observing the determination on his face as he arrives outside the bedroom and slowly, silently passes through the doorway. He pauses over her sleeping body, lit by the light of the window (see adjacent image). The sense here is overwhelmingly of intrusion, not passionate, or even fond, marital love.

Reporting this memory to Hyman, he admits his past sexual impotence in a scene which locates the large, comfortable presence of the physician in a relaxed position, with his rolled-up shirt sleeves and braces, sat low down in a leather armchair. Gellburg, by contrast, appears in his customary black suit and tie, sitting higher in a hard-backed chair in the middle of the room, reflecting his uptight nature, his nervy and tense state-of-mind (‘This whole thing is against me’, p. 40) and increasing isolation.

Gellburg and HymanGellburg relates how he lay down next to his wife, kissed her on the mouth and began love-making. The camera shows us how, at the start of these events, two decades of pent-up frustration and withdrawal melts away with his tenderness. This moment is incredibly powerful, owing to the televisual flashback, the ‘performance’, we might say, of Gellburg’s memory. In the play, of course, Sylvia has no memory of any love-making in the past twenty years, and the acting-out of the memory leaves it entirely possible that he, as she later insists, invented the story of their love-making. Cut to the Hymans who, by an effective contrast, are found naked in bed, having a post-coital cigarette: the camera slowly moves around the bed, closing in on their faces as they discuss Sylvia’s condition. Their marriage, though not faultless, clearly operates as a foil to the Gellburgs’ stagnant, cold relationship, and this is further emphasized as we shift back to Gellburg sitting alone in the kitchen, eating, still fully dressed and not, therefore, looking at all post-coital, despite his supposed ‘recollection’. This shot of Gellburg adds a further layer of understanding when he, clearly upset, crumples up the newspaper he is reading on hearing his wife screaming ‘No, no, no!’ as she, presumably, dreamed about the Nazi atrocities.

Later in the play, Sylvia relates these night terrors to Dr Hyman: as she talks of being chased by a crowd of Germans, one of whom pushes her down, kisses her, and then begins to cut off her breasts (p. 51), the action of her dream is dramatized. Although she relates that his man, in her dream, looks like her husband Philip, the camera and lighting leaves this point to her imagination by not allowing her attacker’s face to be seen. Memories, recollections and dreams are therefore usefully dramatized, or performed, in the play in order to explore more fully the inner lives of the characters; and despite the Hymans’ potential problems (relating to his past infidelities, his current attraction to Sylvia and his wife’s suspicion of his motives) the marriage is set up in the television version as a pretty good, working partnership – mutually supportive and sexually active – representing everything, in other words, that the Gellburgs are not.

Gellburg breaks downGellburg’s boss never overtly suggests that he has worked against the interests of the business in order to ensure the deal went to another Jew, but his increasing sensitivity surrounding his identity, plus and fear that his boss may secretly believe him of professional betrayal, overwhelms him: he walks away from his boss, standing alone in a grand foyer. The camera approaches him for a head-shot ever-so-slightly unsteadily, giving an impression of a downward turn in his mental stability, a sense deepened by the early introduction of some snatches of incomprehensible sound which, it becomes clear, are actually carried over from the next scene (in which his wife listens, happily, to Eddie Cantor on the radio). This seems to be a pivotal point in the television production: a moment of breakdown after which his demise is inevitable, but not before he comes to a greater awareness and acceptance of himself (in a rather Greek tragic way).

Adaptation as reinvention?

This production is, unmistakably, a production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass. It not only has theatrical provenance via the script but also via the director who presented this television production as a version of his earlier RNT production. And yet, the television production raises a lot of interesting questions about the processes of adaptation from the stage to the small screen. In some ways this television production seems to be a powerful ‘re-make’ – or, perhaps, ‘re-invention’ – of the play, and the RNT stage production. But its patchwork qualities (by which I mean dramatic strategies such as the cutting-and-pasting of dialogue between characters and the chopping up and interspersing of scenes), alongside the significant trimming of the full complement of lines in the original play which works in tandem with the intelligent use of televisual languages which go some significant way to underscore themes and set up emphases and interpretations, raise important questions about the processes of adaptation of theatre works from the stage to the small screen – questions which, I hope, John and I will increasingly seek to explore and theorize on the blog over coming months.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Arthur Miller on the small screen 5: Broken Glass (BBC, 1997)

  1. Watched this again recently. Makes me long for a Performance-type season to run again. Sky Arts have Playhouse Presents but it isn’t quite the same thing.

    Posted by Louise | 29 November 2013, 11:03 pm
    • Wouldn’t that be great, Louise? What did you think of the production? And had you also seen the play at the RNT? (I hadn’t, which perhaps I should have mentioned in the blog, above.)

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 3 December 2013, 8:56 am
      • Hi Amanda, actually I have an off-air recording of this from the 90s which is in questionable shape now but still watchable. I thought it was an excellent play – I’ve seen it on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and didn’t find it as convincing or as well-acted. I didn’t see the NT production.

        Posted by Louise | 3 December 2013, 10:45 am
  2. Dear Amanda, I came upon this by accident. This is such an interesting, perceptive and intelligent analysis of what we were trying to do in our attempt to make a film version of Arthur Miller’s wonderful play. Thank you. I’d love to meet if you have time now you’re back at work. Best wishes, and thank you again. David Thacker

    PS you may be interested to look at the Miller Shorts series. Also made for BBC Schools broadcast.

    Posted by David Thacker | 24 August 2014, 6:08 am
    • Dear David, I’m delighted – on returning to my desk after the long weekend – to read this message from you and to have the opportunity to meet and discuss further. This would be very valuable for me, especially now that I’m turning my Miller-writings into a chapter for a book. I’ll message you about that. Thanks also for the reminder about the Miller Shorts, which I need to turn to next! Thanks so much for connecting.
      all best, Amanda

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 26 August 2014, 9:24 am

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