Holocaust Representation: Drama

by Robert Skloot

(From The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, edited by Judith R. Baskin
Copyright © 2011 Judith R. Baskin. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.)

Playwrights did not begin to describe and interpret the Holocaust experience until a decade after the end of World War II. The most influential and lasting effort was the 1956 adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl by two Hollywood screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, the only survivor of the family, had given them permission to create a universal story from his daughter’s journal. Their play became a kind of American urtext for the Holocaust experience, one that was invisibly Jewish and ultimately optimistic, two reasons for the play’s seemingly inexhaustible popularity. The play, The Diary of Anne Frank, and its 1959 Hollywood film version have influenced all other dramatic representations of the Holocaust in the United States (see HOLOCAUST REPRESENTATION: FILM). In Europe, plays on Holocaust themes departed from the upbeat tone and generally realistic form favored by American playwrights. An early example is the prize-winning one-act play, Korczak and the Children (1957), by Erwin Sylvanus, a German war veteran; it recounts the story of a Holocaust hero, the Polish Jewish doctor-educator Janusz Korczak, through a chronologically disrupted, allegorical metatheatrical form. The impetus to depart from realism stemmed from the challenge of confronting the Holocaust in the countries where its devastation had occurred, together with the recognition that realism could not artistically portray the “concentrationary universe” in which millions of victims had been slaughtered.

The countries most affected by the Holocaust tended to produce plays reflecting localized cultural and political concerns; these changed over time with the emergence of new knowledge of atrocities and new assumptions about their causes and effects. Most controversial were dramatic efforts to account for the deaths of so many innocent victims and the shattering of deeply valued ethical assumptions about humanity. In France, Charlotte Delbo, a non-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, wrote Who Will Carry the Word? (1974); this play attempts to identify and analyze Delbo’s own complicated presence among compatriots who were themselves implicated in the betrayal and murder of innocent people. In plays like The Workroom (1979), Jean-Claude Grumberg has sought to assess France’s complicity with the Holocaust’s perpetrators and its legacy of anti-semitism. Among German-speaking writers, Rolf Hochhuth in The Deputy (1963), Peter Weiss in The Investigation (1965), and Thomas Bernhard in Eve of Retirement (1979), in styles ranging from documentary to the poetic, explore the nature and source of evil in Nazism and German culture. Hochhuth’s greatest condemnation is reserved for the Vatican’s indifference to Jewish suffering.

The most problematic Holocaust dramas present Jews as accomplices to their own murder, an idea first raised by the historian Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) and by the philosopher Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Plays such as Harold and Edith Lieberman’s Throne of Straw (1978), Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto (1984), and Roy Kift’s Camp Comedy (1996) depict the lethal moral conundrums faced by Jewish leaders (Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski in Ło´dz´, Jacob Gens in Vilna, Jacob Eppstein in Theresienstadt, respectively) whose efforts to save as many Jews as possible from Nazi annihilation required the sacrifice of others. The critic Lawrence Langer has called their dilemma one of “choiceless choice.”

The Liebermans and Kift make use of “Brechtian” or “epic theater” techniques to disrupt the audience’s emotional involvement as a way to force engagement with the ethical “gray zone,” evoked by Primo Levi in his famous essay about Rumkowski (in The Drowned and the Saved, [1986]). Other playwrights link Jewish victims to the criminal behavior of their abusers more explicitly; for example, Robert Shaw in The Man in the Glass Booth (1969) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Garbage, the City and Death (1975).

In the dramatization by Christopher Hampton of the 1981 novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. by the brilliant critic George Steiner, the character of Hitler voices the deliberately provocative and unanswered argument that he was responsible for establishing the State of Israel. Since the 1970s, the theater of the Holocaust has been used to affirm the distinctive experiences of specific groups. Delbo’s theatrical work, as well as that of her French colleague Lillian Atlan (Mr. Fugue or Earth Sick, 1967), has been studied and praised for its focus on the experience of women; Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979), a “coming out play,” has come to stand for the suffering of male homosexuals in the concentration camps. Yet the most important change among the second- and third-generation playwrights, aside from the dramatization of stories about the children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims, has been the proliferation of plays that produce theatrical effects through comedy, once thought to be demeaning or destructive to the telling of an exclusively tragic Holocaust experience. Peter Barnes’s Laughter (1978), Joan Schenkar’s The Last of Hitler (1982), Roy Kift’s Camp Comedy (1996), and Eugene Lion’s Sammy’s Follies (2006) all use humor to make the performances of their plays more transgressive of conventional theatrical forms and ethical assumptions. No writer has so consistently or outrageously employed mordant wit and outrageous farce than George Tabori (whose father was murdered in Auschwitz); his long career includes Holocaust-themed tragicomedies like The Cannibals (1968) and Mein Kampf (1986).

In fact, changes in Holocaust representation over sixty years can be gauged in the various ways that Anne Frank’s story has been adjusted and adapted for the theater according to national need, historical pressure, aesthetic preference, and thematic focus. Wendy Kesselman’s realistic updating of the original version in 1997, together with Bernard Kops’ surrealistic “play for young people,” Dreams of Anne Frank (1992); Bobby Box’s puppet play Anne Frank: Within & Without (2006); and Enid Futterman and Michael Cohen’s musical theater piece Yours, Anne (1985) are only a few examples of the ways one historical victim’s story has been represented dramatically. Yours, Anne is also an example of the important use of music in many dramatic depictions of the Holocaust; others include the Liebermans’ klezmer, Kift’s cabaret, C. P. Taylor’s pastiche of classical to schmaltz in Good (1981), and Nicholas Maw’s 2002 full-length opera based on William Styron’s 1982 novel, Sophie’s Choice.

For further reading, see E. Isser, Stages of Annihilation (1997); C. Schumacher, ed., Staging the Holocaust (1998); R. Skloot, The Darkness We Carry (1988); idem, ed., The Theatre of the Holocaust, 2 vols. (1981, 1999); and N. Watts, ed., A Terrible Truth, 2 vols. (2003); and entries under THEATER. ROBERT SKLOOT

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