Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Evil as a Man-Made Phenomenon: Denial, Humour and Sex in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Evil as a Man-Made Phenomenon: Denial, Humour and Sex in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass

Article excerpt

"If only we could stop murdering one another we could be a wonderfully humorous species."

Timebends: A Life, Arthur Miller

"...age is no crime

but the shame

of a deliberately wasted life

among so many deliberately wasted lives


"Be Kind," Charles Bukowski

Sylvia Gellburg is a woman so sensitive that she literally becomes paralyzed by politics, particularly the events following Kristallnacht in 1938, but her ability to feel other people's suffering so acutely has been triggered by a brokenness that existed inside of her long before Kristallnacht. This is why Broken Glass is, as Cobes states, only "a little bit about being Jewish and a lot about sexual repression" (The Library Journal). Phillip Gellburg, who cannot perform sexually or conversationally, has been depriving his wife of any kind of intimate relations for two decades, and in the meantime husband and wife have become each other's prisoners and wardens and physically ill in the process. Being a Jewish man does not prevent Phillip from behaving like a "dictator" (Broken Glass 505), and Sylvia has become her "own personal Nazi" (Plunka 24) by denying herself the respect and "care" (BG '554) that a human life deserves. The paralysis she succumbs to is a subconscious articulating of despair that upsets her husband mainly because it is threatening to expose his insecurities and fears. By comparing the repressed Gellburgs to the relatively healthy Hymans, Broken Glass dares to approach the concept of evil as a purely man-made phenomenon. Hitler is demoted from monster to one of us, albeit a very sick one, and described by Dr. Hyman as "the perfect example of the persecuted man" (BG 566) to point out the danger of living in fear, anger and denial. Mundane problems end up being the important ones, especially during a time when humanity seems to be derailing, because accepting responsibility for one's "private history" (Bigsby 403) is the first step towards accepting responsibility for the "common life that is society" (Bigsby 403). Even though the likes of Robert Brustein accuse Miller of "moral preachments" (Brustein 29), the truth is just that simple: happy people do not bully spouses or start wars, but those who feel persecuted, afraid and angry do.

The Hymans do not have a perfect relationship, but they have been able to escape debilitating unhappiness by maintaining a level of intimacy that is based on and continues to allow for honest conversations and a sense of humour. Dr. Hyman's past adultery has not been relegated to a shameful vault, the way the issue of Phillip's impotence has been; instead, it is talked about freely. Margaret's trust issues have not been eliminated completely over the years, and neither has Dr. Hyman's irritation at her sarcastic remarks. However, the fact that they are addressing the problem at all is the reason why they are able to work as a team, something that is especially evident at the end of the play, when they both offer company and guidance to the ailing Gellburgs. Dr. Hymans's advice is consistently warm and intelligent because he is a caring, well-adjusted person. Although he is pitifully wrong when he exclaims that what is happening in Germany "will all pass" (BG 549), his refusal to believe in a "bursting of the banks of evil" (Mason 33) is not caused by ignorance, but by an optimistic view of humanity. The only character trait that could possibly be considered a fault, at least in his wife's eyes, is his attitude towards women. He has not cheated in "ten or twelve years" (BG 538), but he cannot help being "swept away" (BG 538) once in a while. His attraction to Sylvia Gellburg is obvious, but it does not prevent a selfless examination of her symptoms. The reason the Hymans get along in spite of past problems that could easily have broken up other couples, is because they have not let their disappointments lead to denial. Margaret knows how to "live" (BG 559) and explains her theory to Sylvia by comparing life to a game of cards. …

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