The Theatrical Representation of the Holocaust

by Juan Mayorga, Playwright

The image that many of us have of the Shoah is nurtured less from historians’ books than from artistic representations, some of which are offered by the theatre. This is not a new phenomenon. Many Athenians probably adopted the image of the Greeks’ victory against Xerxes presented by Aeschylus in “The Persians,” and many Spaniards of the 17th century likely accepted the image of the victory of the modern centralist state on the residual feudalist order offered by Lope de Vega in “Fuente Ovejuna.” Because its nature of bringing people together and, having therefore, a political character, theatre has been an especially apt medium to feed collective memories.

The theatre was more than likely the first medium used to record history. Before there was scripture or even speech, people used theatrics to share their experiences. Perhaps, the first man who saw fire mimicked his encounter with it to illustrate it to another man and he, in turn, to a third man, thus, at the same time, inventing theatre and history. In any case, no other medium presents the past in the present with the intensity of the theatre, such that individuals of another time are revived – reincarnated – by people here and now. If, in general, to use the terminology of Ortega y Gasset in his “The Idea of Theatre,” the actor disappears – he becomes transparent – so that the character can gain reality – visibility – such a transformation is basic to historical theatre in that the character created is not a product of the imagination but rather a real character from another time. The actor disappears in order to reveal a man who was and will be again during the play.

In my opinion, the obviation of time and death represents in itself an extreme idea: all men are contemporaries. Beyond the historical condition is the human condition, humanity. The historical theatre, including the historicist one is a victory of the historicist vision of the human being, according to which people are locked within the historical moment in which they live and of which they are a product. Because historical theatre should not be done by differentiating one time period from another but rather by linking two periods together and allowing us to feel contemporary to a person from another period. Even plays like “Mother Courage and Her Children” or “Galileo Galilei,” with which Brecht wanted his audience to reflect on the historical conditions of life in another time, and to be conscious of its own historicity, are read or put on stage because some people of today can recognize themselves in those characters representing historical figures.

The aforementioned tragedy, “The Persians,” refers to a specific time and space but is no less universal than Aeschylus’ plays of mythical themes. Its theme is the punishment that human beings suffer for their arrogance that keeps them from acknowledging their own limitations. That theme overshadows the subject of the war of the Greeks against the army of Xerxes. Thus, in “the Persians” we find the major trait of historical theatre: the universal within the unique.

As is known already Aristotle, in his “Poetics,” distinguishes between the poet and the historian, maintaining that whereas the historian deals with the unique (that which has happened), the poet deals with the universal (that which could happen). In Aristotle’s opinion, dealing with the universal places the poet is nearer the philosopher and above the historian. Aristotle is not concerned with historical theatre but offers us a useful dichotomy to reflect on it. One could say that the mission of the historical theatre is to overcome the opposition between the universal and the unique: to search the universal within the unique.

In an unforgettable passage of “the Persians,” the shadow of the late King Darius appears to explain to the Persian people the cause of their disgrace: “…when arrogance blooms, it gives fruit to the loss of the owned dominion and reaps a harvest of tears.” Darius advises his townsfolk, but also the audience, never again to allow rampant arrogance to offend the gods. With those words, which extract a universal lesson from a historical episode, Darius is exposing the significance of historical theatre. He affirms that a representation of the past can provide a useful lesson for life in the present.

We can find a similar auto-reflection of the historical theatre in the first scene of the third act of “Julius Caesar” by Shakespeare. Cassius says, “How many ages hence . Shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown! ” To which Brutus responds, “How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport . That now on Pompey’s basis lies along . No worthier than the dust! !” Cassius ends the dialogue predicting the lesson that many audiences will learn from the times of the Shakespearean tragedy: “So oft as that shall be, so often shall the knot of us be call’d the men that gave their country liberty. ”

Through Darius in “The Persians” and Cassius in “Julius Caesar,” historical theatre reflects about itself and becomes conscious of its significance, affirming that the representation of one era can be of value to people of another. Similarly, the usefulness of representing the past is demonstrated in the speech given by witness number three in Peter Weiss’ oratory about Auschwitz, “The Investigation.” This character, after telling of the horrors he witnessed in the camp, says that if the cultural base that made the Holocaust possible will not disappear: “more millions of people can also await their annihilation, and that annihilation will enormously surpass in efficiency the one we have already seen.” Witness number three is speaking to the audience of the present more so than to the tribunal. At the end, Weiss himself declared that when working with history he did so because of his interest in its relation to present reality.

In my opinion, the type of theatre that best depicts the Holocaust is one that can provoke mourning for the victims and, at the same time, force the spectator to look within himself for any remaining poison of Auschwitz, to ask himself, if there is in him something of an executioner or of his accomplice. In addition to Weiss, this was accomplished using diverse strategies, by others like Arthur Miller in “Broken Glass,” George Tabori in “The Cannibals,” Harold Pinter in “Ashes to Ashes,” Enzo Corman in “The Storm Continues” or Thomas Bernhard in “Heroes’ Square.”

What maddens the old Jewess in “Heroes’ Square” is that, after so many years, she continues to hear in her head the cheers for Hitler that filled the Heldenplatz, the square in Vienna where hundreds of thousands of Austrians celebrated Germany’s annexation of Austria. In Miller’s “Broken Glass” what prevents the disabled character from walking is the suffering of men she never knew, men who suffered thousands of kilometers from New York where she, a Jewess safe from the Nazis’ claws, is tormented by the shame of the survivor. The characters in Tabori’s “The Cannibals,” survivors and children of survivors come together in a barrack to try to understand what happened there, and perhaps so understand themselves. The young Jew in Corman’s “The Storm Continues” discovers, during an encounter with a survivor of Terezin, that just like the survivor, a part of him also died in the camps. The woman in Pinter’s “Ashes to Ashes” has a recurring dream of a man who snatches her son and puts him in a train. It is from this nightmare that she looks at us, in her infinite solitude and unspeakable pain. All these characters are our contemporaries. Only because of that, these plays while emotional but not sentimental, poetic but not aesthetic, are landmarks of Holocaust theatre.

However, a history of Holocaust theatre should not begin with these masterpieces. A history of Holocaust theatre should begin by remembering the people of the theatre – the actors, directors, writers – murdered by the Third Reich and the theatrical traditions that Nazism interrupted.

After leaving a page a blank page, a torn out page, a burnt page, for these absences a Holocaust theatre history should re-read the “announcers of the fire,” that is to say, those authors whose works anticipated the catastrophe. Amongst them is, of course, Karl Kraus, who in “The Last Days of Humanity” (1922) presented as much a catalogue of the horrors of the First War as an announcement of what the next war would bring. Kraus describes the “idiotized masses” who jubilantly welcomed the news of the death of forty thousand Russians and who experienced the war as a blessing because, the times of peace, according to one character, are dangerous, because “in those times it is easy to become lazy and alienated.” Kraus’ play opens with a newspaper vendor yelling “Special edition, special edition! The heir to the throne assassinated! The author arrested!” A passerby hears this and says to his wife, “Lucky he is not Jewish.” However the wife remains concerned and, fearing the worst, says to her husband, “Let’s go home.” As we now know, years later, for millions of European Jews there were no homes to go back to and take refuge. The fire, about which Kraus was warning, is the one that later pushed Bertolt Brecht into exile, and whose piece “The Jewish Wife” can be read as a cry for help from what was to come. As we know Brecht was exiled in 1933 and in 1935 he began writing the plays compiled in “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich.” One of those is “The Jewish Wife” whose main character is persecuted, because of her origin, by the Nazis and discovers, on the stage before us, that she is being abandoned by people who, not long before, were her friends, including her husband, a gentile. In his convoluted language we recognize many whose cowardice made easier the work of the executioners; and in her solitude, which Jews that Europe did not know to defend.

Finally, when we come to 1945, a history of Holocaust theatre one should not look only at the works that directly allude to the extermination, because the footprint of Auschwitz is decisive to understand the western theatre from postwar until today. Also, in theatre nothing could be the same after Auschwitz. Discrediting a word and a culture that were unable to stop this catastrophe is probably the basis of the plays by Samuel Beckett and, in general, of the better theatre of the fifties. But the dramas of the sixties until today, like those of Edward Bond (“Save”), Heiner Müller (“Hamletmaschine”) or Sarah Kane (“Cleansed”), cannot be dissociated from the impact of Auschwitz either. And without the Holocaust, the plays of Tadeusz Kantor, one of the most influential directors of the second half of the 20th century, would be incomprehensible.

A history of the theatre after 1945 should also not ignore that the Holocaust had forced a revision of the way one reads and puts on the stage classic texts, and not only those where Jewish characters are portrayed. It would be foolish to play on stage Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” without taking into account the history of western antisemitism that culminated in Auschwitz. Sophocles’ “Antigona,” Goethe’s “Faust” or Büchner’s “Woycezk” may also be viewed in a new light because of the Holocaust.

Having made these observations, we can now turn to some texts that focus on the extermination of the Jews during the Third Reich. Examining these texts, we observe that the Holocaust was late in coming to the stage and the theatre, as well, was late in daring to look at Auschwitz. This void has been slowly filled in or we see more frequent appearances of texts and plays about the Holocaust in the last decades. Just like literature and cinema, the theatre has discovered a microcosm for the Lager. All the stories and the characters are in the camp. Amongst them were formidable heroes who fought colossal monsters because they knew what was at stake – humanity. Also the miserable characters with their indifference or their cowardice helped the assassins. And obviously there are those mysterious henchmen, incarnations of absolute evil. The extreme tension of the Lager referred to by Primo Levi generates a most intense narrative density, which is at the basis of the proliferation of works about the Holocaust.

It would be good not to rush to happiness about such a proliferation. When representing the Shoah, mistakes could be great and many works fall prey to that, with good or bad intentions: the sentimental manipulation of the suffering, the obscene exhibition of the violence, the exploitation of the sinister “glamour” of the Lager. Many creators seem to want to appropriate a strange shiny aura that emanates from the darkness of the Lager as if placing there a fiction will give it greater prestige, an added importance.

But even in its most noble examples, like those above, the Holocaust is the test of fire of historical theatre, the event that reestablishes the limits – moral and aesthetic – of a scenic representation of the past. How does one present that which seems to be completely opaque? How does one communicate that which seems to be incomprehensible? How can one recover that which should not be able to be repeated? To the objections that are made against the fictionalization of the Holocaust we can add one more that concerns the theatre in particular. Is not the pretense to represent the victims, to give them a body immoral in itself?

These questions and those risks, to which I referred earlier, are to be considered at a time when theatre looks at the Holocaust. But these looks are the same today as in 1945, necessary and urgent. The memory of the Shoah is our best weapon in the resistance against old and new forms of humiliation of man by man, and the theatre cannot remain indifferent to this battle. It does not seem just simply to relinquish the arena to the Holocaust deniers or to the revisionists, who also exist in the world of the theatre, for them to present their version of what occurred. The representation of the planned extermination of six million European Jews, among them hundreds of thousands of children, cannot be left in the hands of those who trivialize the pain or who depreciate the victims or those who sympathize with the assassins. To work in Holocaust theatre is part of our responsibility to the dead, which coincides with our absolute responsibility to the living. The plan to forget the Nazis must be opposed by a theatre of memory with Auschwitz at the center.

This theatre does not have to try to be a mirror of what happened. It is true that the accumulation of documented references can create an illusion of objectivity in a way that the play would seem to be reconstructing the past, and the spectator feel that he is contemplating that moment in time. However, the best theatre about the Holocaust, like the best historic theatre in general, does not put the viewer in the witness chair. What the theatre can offer is not what that period knew of itself, but what that period could not have known about itself, but that which time has revealed. Because in every moment of the present, by looking at it from a place in which, in the past we could never be, it is possible to recognize the value of something that, until yesterday, seemed insignificant, When this happens, not only the past but the present is transformed. This is why, before a historic theatre presented as a museum, that shows the past encaged in glass cases, tamed, enclosed and unable to jump on us, there is another, in which the untamed past threatens the security of the present. Holocaust theatre instead of showing a past, confirms the present in its topics, and asks uncomfortable questions. The best historic theatre opens up the past and in so doing, opens up the present.

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.

Aeschylus, Tragedies, London: Bohn, 1849.

Peter Weiss, The Investigation, London: Calder and Boyars, 1966.

Klaus Kraus, Last days of Mankind, New York: Ungar Publishing, 1991.


Dr. Juan Mayorga is a Spanish playwright. Born in Madrid in 1965 and in 1997, he received a PhD in philosophy and mathematics. He also studied in Münster, Berlin and Paris and currently teaches drama and philosophy at the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Madrid.

The author of more than a dozen plays. Mayorga is the recipient of several national awards among them the National Theater Prize in 2007. His most important contribution in the field of philosophy is a study politics and memory in the writings of Walter Benjamin. This paper was delivered as a lecture in the conference The Holocaust and Its Significance for our Generation held in Madrid in September 2007.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged , , , , Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
MENU