Holocaust Theater: Representation or Misrepresentation

(This is a transcript of a speech given by Arnold Mittelman to Association of Holocaust Organizations on 1/10/12.)

I wish to thank Bill Shulman, President of the Association of Holocaust Organizations, and member of the National Jewish Theater Foundation/Holocaust Theater Archive Advisory Board, for inviting me to make this presentation to you, his constituents, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Facts are not the enemy of art, and art is not the enemy of facts. However, humankind often sees everything subjectively, even as we aspire to see the world objectively. Everything we see, touch, and feel is subject to individual interpretation. The late great Italian author Luigi Pirandello’s plays often examine how it is impossible to look at something truly objectively, since we are always looking at things subjectively through our own experience and understanding. And to a great extent, that is the power of theater: it has the ability to be seen individually and understood personally, defying all our collective attempts to view it objectively.

The aesthetic experience of the theatrical audience is to relate, not just to the live performance onstage, but to the reality and sense of each other’s presence. And therefore, although we are seeing the same performance together, we are never actually seeing the same collective performance because we all see the world differently. No wonder one person’s sense that a play is an accurate representation can be thought by another person to be a total misrepresentation. Such is Theater.

Theater comes in many forms: from solo performances to avant-garde; to pageant plays and historic drama; farce, tragedy; musicals; reviews; multi-media. The combinations and possibilities are endless, and have maintained themselves and evolved throughout thousands of years. And many historic subjects have been treated theatrically, and some have become a part of the “classic repertory,” such as much of the work of Shakespeare and many of the ancient Greek plays.

Into this world of historical theater enters a profoundly important subject: the single greatest atrocity of the twentieth century, which has in its aftermath been named the Holocaust. And the fundamental question for me is this: how does any artist interpret or portray a systematic series of crimes that are almost unimaginable and represent these events without wholesale misrepresentation?

One thing is certain: that conscientious theater artists have attempted, over time, to wrestle with this problem and use their power to truly represent the actual reality without misusing this power to misrepresent. However, it is impossible for theater artists to become aware of the stories and individual scenarios that took place and give voice and insight to that reality without some degree of theatrical license.

The other great dilemma that we all face is that the primary reporters of the Holocaust, the eyewitness survivor, have now reached an age where inevitably in the near future, their voices will not be heard except through recordings, manuscripts, and their portrayals within the framework of movies and theater.

Theater has the unique power of telling these stories and individualizing the personas and their biographies, which is the exact opposite of what the Nazis attempted to do by depersonalizing, through numbers and mass deaths, the victims of the Holocaust. Therefore, every play that is created, that has integrity, honesty, quality, and truth, proves that the attempt to annihilate individuality did not succeed. When those kinds of plays and their issues are performed publicly, in front of what Arthur Miller calls “the blood brotherhood of perfect strangers” (i.e. the audience), the phenomenon of individual awareness often accompanied by the dramatic power of catharsis, creates an indelible impression on any sensitive human, ideally in the moment of watching, or upon reflection. Amazingly, through the power of theater it often invokes not just sadness but often inspiration for all our lives while revising our previous impressions and understanding. The remarkable fact that those theater moments then live in our memory for the rest of time is a unique human phenomenon that often guides our future behavior.

Over time, there have been great attempts to document survivor testimonies, led primarily by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, now under the leadership of its Executive Director Dr. Stephen Smith and its Managing Director Kim Simon. However, in these interviews, the survivor functions often as an artist, in that, even though they are attempting to recall, they are still capable of distilling, rearranging, accentuating, and, in many cases reliving, the horrors that they either witnessed or lived through. These testimonies are in many ways their own act of theater—an often solo story told to an interviewer or a camera to be held sacred for all time as a record. Occasionally, these testimonies have been challenged for their validity, and been found to be truly artistic in that the speaker or survivor has amalgamated many stories that they have been told by others, into their own personal life scenario. I do not believe that there is ever intent on the part of these people, any more than I believe there is intent on the part of well-intentioned playwrights, to misrepresent, but only to more vividly present what actually occurred. The difference between those survivor testimonies and the work of the theater artist is that the playwright has a responsibility to interpret and guide an audience to a deeper understanding of the subject; to shed, not just the light of history, or recollection, but to provide an opportunity for us to understand not just what occurred, but oftentimes why it occurred; how and why it could possibly occur again; and, of course, what lessons must be learned from its occurrence.

A case study of many of the issues and themes I have mentioned occurs in a new American play by Jeff Cohen, entitled The Soap Myth, which I am about to direct and produce in New York City. This play, set in New York and written for four actors playing multiple roles, has as its central figure, the character of Milton Saltzman, who is inspired by Holocaust survivor Morris Spitzer, whose crusade about soap was profiled in an article in Moment Magazine in 2000, written by Josh Rolnick.

The Soap Myth is a dark tale that asks us to examine how we define, understand and reflect upon human history. The play chronicles the struggle of a determined old man’s fight to be heard. Milton Saltzman, a seemingly underappreciated Holocaust survivor, is pitted against his own people and the inability of Holocaust historians to accept what he believes to be an incontrovertible truth.

Saltzman approaches journalist Annie Blumberg to assist him in revealing to the academic community, and the world, that the rumors of Nazis making soap from their Jewish victims is undeniably true. He recounts attending a funeral in his hometown, where a casket was filled with soap comprised of human remains. Although the Nazis were originally convicted of these vile and ruthless acts at the Nuremberg Trials, Holocaust historians later determined that the theory lacked sufficient documented evidence, and thus, without adequate proof, the story was erased from the history books.

Milton Saltzman finds the denial of nearly unfathomable atrocities unacceptable, and proceeds to hound Holocaust scholars and pursue every possible avenue to have the decision to omit these stories overturned. He therefore appeals to Annie Blumberg for assistance, as museum representatives refuse to grant the old man satisfaction. The historians in the play question how far the credibility of an eyewitness account should extend; and Blumberg feels caught between two equally passionate but opposing forces.

Beautifully and heartbreakingly narrated by the profoundly conflicted Blumberg, we watch as she interviews: Saltzman, the survivor; Daniel Silver and Esther Feinman, the scholars; and Brenda Goodsen, the manipulative Holocaust denier, all based on actual people. In the end, Blumberg concludes that discovering or solidifying irrefutable facts is not the important thing; the important thing is to grieve the loss of first hand accounts of these momentous events with the painful progression of time. Rather than question or fixate on the validity of “subjective” evidence that had once been perceived as sufficient fact, one must take the time to appreciate the survivors that remain, and be grateful for their wisdom, patience and willingness to speak, so as to educate and guide future generations. As Blumberg phrases it in the play’s final lines, “The real story was not what it takes for a man like Milton to survive the Holocaust. The real story was what it takes for such a man to survive surviving.”

The development of The Soap Myth toward its production has been aided by input from Holocaust Theater Archive Advisory Board Member, the renowned historian Michael Berenbaum, who was quoted, with permission, in the play: “Noted scholar Michael Berenbaum agrees that it is possible that successful experiments in making soap from human fat may have occurred, but he contends that the mass manufacture of soap from human remains was a myth, because it was not economically feasible.” The play has also been read and approved by Dr. David Marwell, Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. For myself as an artist, the journey in developing this play has made me feel much like young Annie, more determined than ever to use my talents to draw attention to future generations that Milton and millions once lived.

Another example of a major contemporary author attempting to successfully meet the challenge of the interaction of survivor and the next generation is found in the French author Enzo Cormann’s play Storms Still, which I am developing for production in New York City in its English-language premiere. The National Jewish Theater Foundation/Holocaust Theater Catalog commissioned the translation.

Enzo Cormann’s Storms Still is a cerebrally charged piece of theater dedicated to the examination of what it means to suffer a life all-consumed by survivor’s guilt. The play opens on an “old isolated farm,” where Theodore Steiner, a former actor, has spent twenty-five years as a recluse. He is a man clearly haunted by the ghosts of his past, indulging in painting as a form of escapism and creative catharsis. However, his self-imposed solitude comes to an abrupt halt one tempestuous night, when acclaimed director Nathan Goldring shows up on his doorstep. He demands that the aged actor come out of hiding and star in a Berlin-based production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Steiner’s initial reaction is one of almost irrational outrage and fury, as he roars at Goldring and chases him out into the stormy darkness.

Storms Still chronicles the ongoing psychological battle between and within these two men. Goldring pries into Steiner’s past and persists in trying to entice the retired performer back to the stage. It is revealed at the start that Goldring’s monomaniacal pursuit of Steiner as his leading man is derivative of the fact that he saw the actor perform Macbeth as a young boy in Vienna, and has wanted to work with him ever since. In the meantime, although evasive at first, Steiner gradually revisits the reasons that drove him to seek sanctuary in the seclusion of nature, and he ultimately reveals the reasons why he inexplicably disappeared after a performance of Macbeth, before the run of the production was completed, and was never seen by his adoring public ever again.

The play’s progression is divided into thirteen chapters, each set at a different hour within a two-day time period and designated by apposite King Lear quotes. The weather depicted outside the small cottage corresponds to the events taking place within, whether it be a calm discourse between a pair of artists, or a raging storm of emotions unleashed by two tortured and conflicted men. Their constant clashing culminates with the revelation that Steiner is a survivor of Theresienstadt concentration camp. He participated in the plays produced in Terezín, including performing a rendition of Edgar in King Lear. And in 1944, he knowingly saved his own life over the opportunity to save his pianist father or opera singer mother from certain death. Steiner’s life is spared solely based on his acting talents and the subjectivity of one Nazi officer, who offered him the choice of scratching any one name off a list of prisoners bound for Auschwitz. Steiner has forevermore been tormented by the memory of the victims he knew and lost to the horrors of Auschwitz, and the knowledge that he could have sacrificed himself in order to save one of his parents.

Binary oppositions form the foundations of Storms Still, recently translated by Guila Clara Kessous. We see an old man at odds with a young man, an actor and a director, performer and observer, respectively. Climatic conditions frequently switch back and forth between day and night, light and dark, sunny and stormy. Furthermore, the play oscillates between passionate prose and lyrical Shakespeare quotations; when neither character can find the words themselves to express the profundity of emotions they experience, they resort to quoting the Bard without a moment’s hesitation.

The subject matter encompassed by Storms Still is a torrential downpour of contentious topics, ranging from issues concerning nationalism and emigration, spirituality and religious identity, intergenerational mobility and conflict, societal morality, and personal responsibility. At the play’s conclusion, some sort of reconciliation is found between these polar opposite men, although there is no definitive resolution. One senses a profound tension and uncertainty still lingering in the hearts and minds of both characters. Steiner’s most frequently used phrase throughout the play is “when all is said and done.” In the end, he asks Goldring what he will expect of the aging actor “when all is said and done,” to which Goldring replies, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know” is a condition I often feel when contemplating the subject of Holocaust related theater. “I don’t know” is also often the condition all artists feel just before he or she takes the leap of faith toward creation. I first heard of Storms Still in a brilliant paper by Juan Mayorga entitled, “The Theatrical Representation of the Holocaust,” which was delivered as a lecture in the conference, The Holocaust and Its Significance for Our Generation, held in Madrid in September 2007. This paper by Dr. Mayorga, who is also a Spanish playwright, appears in its totality on the Holocaust Theater Catalog website. However, I would like to quote its final two paragraphs:

“As in all historical theatre, but with more responsibility than ever, the theatre of the Holocaust will look for its form beginning with a moral question rather from an aesthetic impulse. It will look for a form of presentation that will take care of the ultimate impossibility of the presentation. That Holocaust theatre will not aspire to compete with the witness. It has another mission. Its mission is to build an experience of loss; not to symbolically settle the debt but to remind that the debt will never be settled; not to speak for the victim, but to make the victims’ silence reverberate. The theatre, art of the human voice, can make us hear the silence. The theatre, art of the body, can make visible its absence. The theatre, art of the memory, can make us feel the forgetting.

But if a theatre about Auschwitz is necessary and urgent, as much if not more is needed a theatre against Auschwitz; a theatre that battles authoritarianism and submissiveness; a theatre that will be the mask that will unmask a counter-current of the propaganda and half-truths; a theatre that will make its spectators more critical and more compassionate, more vigilant and braver against the domination of man over man; a theatre against Auschwitz would also be a negative, paradoxical, profoundly Jewish way of representing the Holocaust. The theatre against Auschwitz would be a defeat of Hitler and a way to mourn.”

For the characters in the two plays I have mentioned, memories, recollections, guilt and hauntings have created actions on their part that make them, in many ways, victims of their own memories. In both of the referenced plays, the playwrights have taken it upon themselves to, with the highest level of respect, portray the damage done by the atrocities witnessed and present in the lives of their main characters. By doing so, and with their artistic talent, they are enabling us to see the circumstances of these men’s lives, but to also allow us to bear witness through the younger generation characters’ reactions, how one person’s horrible circumstances might allow the future generation to not only remember, but to also act responsibly, on their behalf. These plays are but two of thousands of entries that will ultimately be part of the National Jewish Theater Foundation/Holocaust Theater Catalog, whose bibliography development is being supervised by the prominent Holocaust Theater historian and member of the Holocaust Theater Archive Advisory Board, Dr. Alvin Goldfarb.

As the playwright Colin Greer reminded me recently, public life was once an entirely day time affair. Night was dark and dangerous. You rushed home before it came in. With the advent of gas and electric street lighting, social life could occur at night. As dark arrived the lights went on and so scary shadows could become friends and neighbors. He then eloquently stated the following:

“The theater too illuminates the dark. It is at its richest at night because it creates a social space for discovery and inspiration at the time of darkness where the good and bad angels of our selves have, for millennia, roiled around. Theater, like street lights, can light the twilight, restrain the darkest spirits, and yes, enlightens the midnight of the soul where a passionate myopia infects the better angels of our nature.”

So, where do we go from here? How do we make certain that the power of artistic creation will always triumph over the powers of destruction? How do we meet the challenge of tomorrow while maintaining the artistic standards that will inspire future generations to understand this atrocity and create, in its memory, with their own unique voices? In part, we must define, ever vigilantly, what Holocaust Theater represents, and what it must never misrepresent. We must enlist professionals from many disciplines to reinforce this goal. And, finally, we must challenge ourselves to open our minds and provide to all of our audiences the great gift of theater as a unique tool in Holocaust education and awareness.

Special thanks to Casey Craig of the NJTF/Holocaust Theater Catalog.

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