Serious thought on moral issues fills pages of playwright's work

June 10, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Birds chirp in the background at Arthur Miller's rural Connecticut home, and the sound conjures images of pastoral bliss -- the perfect setting for a light, breezy musical.

Instead, this is a place where serious work gets done. It is here that the man who has been called America's foremost living playwright writes scripts that have charted and influenced the country's moral course for 50 years.

In Miller's 1987 autobiography, "Timebends," he wrote: "I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world." At age 78, far from discouraged, he is still trying to change the world.

"It takes a year or two to write a play, and you've got to stay interested in it and find out what holds the whole world together, and that's the way my mind works," he says in a soft, gravelly voice over the phone.

Miller's latest play, "Broken Glass," opened on Broadway this spring to mixed reviews and will compete for the Tony Award for best play in Sunday's televised ceremony (9 p.m., WBAL, Channel 11).

It is his first new Broadway play since "The American Clock," which tried out at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre before its 1980 New York opening.

"Broken Glass," set in Brooklyn in 1938, focuses on a Jewish housewife afflicted with "hysterical paralysis." Her husband believes her condition was caused by an overly sensitive reaction to news accounts of Nazi atrocities in Germany. Her doctor, however, suspects there may also be a problem with the marriage.

The idea for the play goes back more than 50 years, to a womanMiller knew in Brooklyn who was paralyzed from the waist down, with no apparent cause.

"That mystery has always remained with me -- that she was stricken that way, and I don't think there actually was a diagnosis," he says.

"Broken Glass" examines two moral issues of increasing concern to the playwright. On the personal level, there's a need to identify more strongly with his Jewish roots; on the societal level, there are his fears over the rise of what he calls "tribalism."

Miller acknowledges that these issues seem to be in conflict.

LTC "The question is whether we really want to break ourselves up into small units like that, and what good it does finally except create conflicts that can kill a lot of people," he says. "I think it is a positive thing providing it doesn't denigrate other people. It usually is accompanied by that, but it needn't be. I would assume you don't have to say the other guy is worth less than you are in order to declare your value."

Tackling bigotry

The playwright first wrote about anti-Semitism in 1945 in a novel called "Focus," about a bigoted Gentile who undergoes a change of heart after he is mistakenly assumed to be Jewish.

The subject surfaced again 20 years later in his play "Incident at Vichy," set in Nazi-occupied France in 1942.

While the religion of many of Miller's best-known characters -- such as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" and the seemingly autobiographical Quentin in "After the Fall" -- is left unspecified, "Broken Glass" represents a return of sorts. His first play, "No Villain," written when he was a University of Michigan undergraduate, was about a Jewish family based on his own.

In "Broken Glass," the question of identifying with Jewish roots primarily affects the husband. Portrayed by Ron Rifkin as a martinet, he has a skewed view of his job at a Brooklyn bank and of his role as a husband and father. But his conflicted feelings about his Jewishness are what ultimately endanger his wife's health.

The wife, played by Amy Irving, begins to see parallels between her husband's feelings and the rise of Nazism and is literally paralyzed with fear.

When her husband finally achieves a degree of self-knowledge, it destroys him.

Self-knowledge is something Miller continues to look for in his writing.

"You never stop looking. You know the place has an endless number of rooms and you open up one door and there's a whole corridor full of other doors. I don't think that ever ends."

Nor is it surprising that the playwright continues to examine marriage in his plays. Although Miller has been married for 32 years to photographer Inge Morath, he is twice divorced (his first wife was a college classmate; his second was Marilyn Monroe).

He once told an interviewer that asking what holds a marriage together "is a bit like asking what holds a person together. Forget the marriage. People who remain married . . . have a coherent arrangement inside themselves."

Hearing this assessment again now, Miller says it is almost identical to the sentiments expressed by the protagonist in "After the Fall," a play whose main characters bear a striking similarity to Miller and Monroe -- although he denied this at the time of its 1964 premiere.

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