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Broken Glass by Arthur Miller

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Scene 8, page 69 (What’s this tone of voice?) page 72 (end of scene). How far is the dramatic presentation of Gellburg and Sylvia in this extract typical of, and significant within, the play as a whole? Broken Glass, a play by Arthur Miller set in Brooklyn, 1938, focuses on the dwindling marriage of Sylvia and Gellburg during the aftermath of Kristallnacht. This scene unravels the complex relationship of the two and how they finally come to terms with the fundamental flaws in their marital relationship. We understand Sylvia’s condition as a response to both her husband’s attitude and the increasingly violent oppression of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Gellburg, on the other hand is oblivious to the situation due to his self-inflicted ignorance: ‘What are you talking about, are you crazy?’ As a result of her obsession and her husband’s ignorance of the situation, she begins to take control of her life, becoming a strong Jewish woman, openly defying her authoritarian husband: Don’t you call me crazy, Phillip! I’m talking about it!

They are smashing windows and beating children! (Screams at Gellburg) I am talking about it, Phillip! Miller makes his audience understand Sylvia and Gellburg’s relationship through the lens of their Jewish culture and throughout the play, Gellburg is eager to differentiate himself from other Jewish people. Sylvia finally brings the persecution of the Jews and the atrocity of the Nazi’s into the open and refuses to watch Gellburg brush off the growing tide of anti-Semitism any longer. Gellburg’s response to Slyvia’s outburst is not evidently displayed through speech, but through the use of Miller’s stage directions: ‘He is stock still; horrified, fearful’. The words ‘horrified’ and ‘fearful’ suggest that the news of such events came as a shock to him and undoubtedly indicate that he is affected by such news and is also stricken by Sylvia’s powerful, unexpected revelation of her feelings. Miller conveys the message that that Gellburg finally comes to understand his ignorant attitude as one that has led to his self-denial and self-hatred.

It later becomes clear in the play that Gellburg is suppressing an important part of who he is, and in scene eleven, he confesses to a bottled-up desire of ‘going and sitting in the Schul with the old men and pulling the tallis over my head’. Sylvia, in her frustration with Gellburg, says ‘Don’t sleep with me again’ in a rather commanding manner. The use of the negative imperative don’t’ gives the audience the sense that Sylvia is finally taking authority – not just over Gellburg, but over herself and over her life. Gellburg, in response to Sylvia’s belittling, cold-heartedness, exclaims: ‘Sylvia, you will kill me if we can’t be together’. Miller introduces elements of foreshadowing and tragic irony, as in scene nine; Gellburg does indeed have a heart attack and becomes severely ill. Gellburg also becomes increasingly emotional in return to Sylvia’s heartless, insensitive statements as is shown in the stage directions when he is ‘beginning to weep’. The portrayal of Gellburg in this scene is a complete contrast to the Gellburg exposed in scene two when he with ‘immense difficulty’ utters ‘I love you’ to Sylvia.

The drastic change in Gellburg’s attitude reveals to the audience that he is finally attempting to restore damaged aspects of his and Sylvia’s marriage. Gellburg is frequently evasive or misleading about his sexual relationship with his wife, to the extent that, in Scene Six, he fabricates a night-time encounter which his wife has apparently erased from her memory. Sylvia initiates this aspect of conflict in this scene when she says: ‘You told him we had relations?’ Her revulsion and disgust at discovering that Gellburg told Hyman about false occurrences is clearly displayed and it shows the lack of connection and understanding between the two. Their sexless marriage comes to symbolise the stultifying sense of isolation and stasis present throughout the play, as Sylvia comments earlier in scene eight while conversing with Hyman: ‘I guess you just gradually give up and it closes over you like a grave’.

Throughout the scene, Sylvia makes wistful remarks about her life being worthless, and she almost entirely puts the blame on Gellburg, implying that he is the cause of all her misfortunes: What I did with my life! Out of ignorance. Out of not wanting to shame you in front of other people. A whole life. Gave it away like a couple of pennies – I took better care of my shoes. Sylvia’s use of the word ‘ignorance’ suggests that she perhaps regrets engaging in marriage with Gellburg as she was unaware of the later circumstances and complications she would have to deal with as their marriage progressed. Her use of the simile ‘Gave it away like a couple of pennies’ gives the audience a feeling that she considers herself to be superior to Gellburg and also signifies the concept of him being unworthy of her. Also, when Sylvia says ‘I took better care of my shoes’, Miller hints that overtime Gellburg’s adoration for her deteriorated and through his statement in scene eleven: ‘I couldn’t believe I was married to her’, the audience realises that Gellgurg felt undeserving of Sylvia and therefore failed to express his love in a way that he felt would satisfy her.

Near the end of the scene, Gellburg reveals a complete lack of control when Sylvia once again denies his request for the two to sleep together and also denies his substantial offer for her to somewhat begin life again: ‘If I taught you to drive and you could go anywhere you liked… Or maybe you could find a job you liked…?… We have to sleep together’. With great difficulty, and at great length, Gellburg allows himself to liberate Sylvia and compensate for the damage he has done. However, Slyvia’s disheartening response consists of a word that silences Gellburg on the subject: ‘(Sylvia is staring ahead)… No’. The words ‘staring’ and ‘ahead’ lead the audience to visualise Sylvia with a ruthless expression, signifying that all sense of compassion and love are no longer existent between Gellburg and herself. Upon seeing Sylvia’s response, Gellburg helplessly ‘drops to his knees beside the bed, his arms spreading awkwardly over her covered body’. The word ‘awkwardly’ suggests that physical contact between himself and Sylvia is infrequent and Gellburg is therefore unable to express his feelings physically. The kneeling motions also signify his vulnerability and how he ‘adores’ and ‘worships’ her to the extent which he demeans himself and goes down to the pitiful level of begging her.

Here, Miller emphasises the degree to which both Sylvia and Gellburg have undergone radical changes to realise what they have become. The scene ends with Gellburg broken-hearted: ‘He buries his face in the covers, weeping helplessly, and at last she reaches out in pity toward the top of his head, and as her hand almost touches… Blackout’. It is made clear to the audience by Miller that Sylvia is not reaching out to Gellburg out of affection, but solely out of pity and sympathy and Miller presents a contrast to scene two where Sylvia ‘draws back her hand’ when Gellburg tries to be express love towards her. The scene ends on an ambiguous note as Miller does not directly divulge the conclusion to the audience, signifying that Sylvia and Phillip never connected and perhaps never will. This scene allows the audience to gain access to a different perspective on Gellburg and Sylvia’s marriage and to untie the complications involved. At last, Gellburg identifies himself as a Jew and rids himself of the arrogance and conceit that earlier possessed him. Sylvia also learns to defend her rights, both as a Jewish woman and a wife.

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