Stress Illness and Arthur Miller (1)

On Saturday, June 18, 2011 many NPR stations around the US will broadcast a play that, during intermission, I comment on.  Starting Friday night, the audio be available for a week on the website of The L.A. Theatre Works who produced it.  The play is Broken Glass by Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005), an American playwright most famous for four plays he wrote in his 30s: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and, my personal favorite, All My Sons.  His notoriety increased further at age 40 when he left his wife of 16 years and, weeks later, married Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn had a difficult life, which has some relevance to the play.  Her mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia when Marilyn was age 8 and she never knew her father.  She grew up in foster care and poverty and suffered incidents of sexual abuse.  As an adult she suffered from depression, insomnia and heavy use of barbiturates.  She and Miller divorced after less than five years and she died of an apparent overdose a few years later, aged 36.  Two years later, Miller’s play After The Fall opened in New York with a character named Maggie who was reputedly based on Monroe.

Thirty years later, Miller wrote Broken Glass which had only a two month run on Broadway but was named play of the year in England.  The central character is Sylvia Gellburg, a middle-aged Jewish woman living in New York in 1938.  She becomes inexplicably paralyzed from the waist down while reading about Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the Nazi attacks on Jews and thousands of their homes, synagogues and businesses throughout Germany and Austria that occurred on the night of November 9-10.

Sylvia’s husband Philip is Hitler on a small scale.  He dresses in black, works foreclosing property for a bank, dislikes his Jewish heritage, is a dictator to his family and beats his wife over minor transgressions.  He hasn’t made love to her in years, largely out of fear of her intellect and beauty, both of which significantly exceed his own.

What caused Sylvia’s paralysis?  More in the next post.