Grumberg, Jean-Claude 1939-
Grumberg, Jean-Claude 1939-
Born 1939. Religion: Jewish.
Writer. Actor in films.
Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques (France; vice president of theater).
Prix du Syndicat de la Critique, Prix de la Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, and Prix Plaisir du théâtre, for Dreyfus, 1974; Prix Ibsen and Prix du Syndicat de la Critique, for L'Atelier; Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris, for L'Atelier; Molière Prize for best new play, 1991, for Zone libre, 1999, for L'Atelier.
The New Theatre of Europe, Dell (New York, NY), 1962.
Demain, une fenêtre sur rue …, Avant-Scène (Paris, France), 1968, translated by Richard Cottrell as Tomorrow, from Any Window, 1970.
Amorphe d'Ottenburg, Stock (Paris, France), 1970.
Comme la pierre, Avant-Scène (Paris, France), 1971.
Michu, (Paris, France), 1974.
En revenant d'l'Expo: XXVIIe Festival d'Avignon, 31 juillet 1973, Stock (Paris, France), 1975, new edition, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 1992.
L'Atelier, Stock (Paris, France), 1979, translated by Daniel A. Stein as The Workroom (also see below), Théâtre Ouvert (Paris, France), 1979.
Le dernier métro (screenplay), 1980, Ciné Video Film (Paris, France), 1999, translated as The Last Metro, Public Media Home Vision, 1992, script published as Le Dernier métro: scénario, Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris, France), 2001.
Thérès Humbert, Éditions J'ai Lu (Paris, France), 1983.
L'Indien sous Babylone, Papiers (Paris, France), 1985.
Music-Hall, Le Pré aux Clercs (Paris, France), 1986.
Le terrain bouchaballe, L'Avant-Scène (Paris, France), 1986.
La nuit tous les chats sont gris, Calmann-Lévy (Paris, France), 1987.
(Adapter) Arthur Miller, Mort d'un commis voyageur, Actes Sud-Papiers (Paris, France), 1988.
Zone libre, Actes Sud (Paris, France), 1990, translation by Catherine Temerson published as The Free Zone [and] The Workroom, Ubu Repertory Theater Publications (New York, NY), 1993.
Linge sale, précédé de, Maman revient pauvre orphelin, Actes Sud (Paris, France), 1993.
Arloc; ou, Le Grand Voyage; suivi de Le grand retour de Boris Spielman, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 1993.
Les milles, Pocket (Paris, France), 1995.
Les courts, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 1995.
(Adapter) Joyce Carol Oates, En cas de meurtre, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 1996.
Adam et Eve, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 1997.
Rever peut-être, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 1998.
Encore une histoire d'amour, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 2000.
Sortie de théatre, Actes Sud (Arles, France), 2000.
Mon père, inventaire; suivi de, Une leçon de savoirvivre, Seuil (Paris, France), 2003.
Also author for television plays, including Thérès Humbert, Les Lendemains qui chantent, Music-Hall, Le miel amer, La peau du chat, and L'Huissier. Writer for films, including Années Sandwich, La Petite Apocalypse, Miles, and Amen. Author of Les autres (group of plays).
Jean-Claude Grumberg is known for his plays depicting the experiences of Jewish people in Europe during and after World War II. He handles dark subjects with a touch of humor, creating characters full of life; his dramas expose a subject that has been one of the most important events of the twentieth century, but also one of the most difficult to discuss: the Holocaust. His work has received both critical acclaim and popular success.
Grumberg was born in 1939 and spent his childhood in hiding during World War II. His father was deported and never seen again. His mother worked as a seamstress, for years, holding onto the faint hope that her husband might still be alive. When Grumberg grew up, he made a name for himself as a playwright with early plays such as Amorphe d'Ottenburg and En revenant d'l'Expo: XXVIIe Festival d'Avignon, 31 juillet 1973, which established his reputation as a master of dialogue.
Grumberg's best-known plays are his Holocaust trilogy, consisting of Dreyfus, L'Atelier, and Zone libre. Each of these depicts the everyday life of ordinary people in the manner of the "théâtre du quotidien" that became popular in the 1970s. He assembles his dramas by stringing together disconnected episodes with naturalistic dialogue full of gaps and incomplete sentences. Grumberg shares the goals of other Holocaust playwrights, which include educating audiences, raising moral questions, and paying homage to the victims. But his plays do not pursue these goals in a straightforward fashion; instead, they provide a broad view of the daily Jewish experience in France. He uses both comedy and violence to move the action, the violence familiar to all Jews, and the comedy because they still can laugh in the face of adversity. Grumberg presents the Jewish experience indirectly through discourse, instead of directly depicting concentration camps and murder. His plays also dramatize psychic numbing, the phenomenon that allows victims of great tragedy to continue with their lives. By concentrating on basic domestic tasks, they get through life by habitual motions that require no thought. Grumberg's use of a single set filled with ordinary activities involves the viewer in this same process, accustoming the audience to seeing the same people doing the same tasks day after day.
Grumberg's first holocaust play, Dreyfus, portrays a group of amateur actors in 1930 Poland attempting to stage a play about the Dreyfus story. Dreyfus was a Jewish French soldier who was falsely accused of spying for Germany and who served his sentence on Devil's Island. In Grumberg's play, Maurice, the director and playwright, is frustrated by his unprofessional actors and the constant interruptions to rehearsals. One actor leaves the cast to join a Zionist group. The actor playing Dreyfus takes advantage of an interruption to propose marriage to the actress playing Dreyfus's wife. A Zionist takes over the theater to explain his vision of a Jewish state to the company. Finally, an anti-Semitic group breaks in and attacks the actors, who beat them off with their stage props while wearing French army costumes.
The Polish actors do not know anything about the Dreyfus story, so Maurice uses rehearsals to educate them and the audience about the French Jewish experience. He informs them that Jews in France in 1895 felt completely French, unlike Polish Jews, who always felt like outsiders. The actors realize that they, like Dreyfus, could become the scapegoat of their country overnight, and they relive the Dreyfus experience when the Polish anti-Semites attack them at rehearsal. Each actor has an everyday job in the local community, making shoes, clothes, or selling goods, which recalls the rustic characters in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Grumberg's setting naturally builds up historical tension; these actors in 1930 discuss 1895 anti-Semitism, but the viewer knows what will happen to them within the next decade. At the end of the play, one character has moved to Warsaw, and the young couple has gone to Germany. Although the characters themselves have no foreknowledge, the viewer can see the poignancy of those choices, which will put these characters on the front line of Jews targeted by the new regime.
Lizzie Loveridge reviewed a 2000 performance of the play for Curtain Up online, writing: "The more I think about this comedy, the more satisfying I find the subtlety with which it makes its larger political points. In a final scene, set a year later, Maurice writes from the Warsaw Ghetto where he has found comrades and communist ideology. There is heavy irony as we hear that Michael and Miriam are living in Berlin and are told, ‘There are a few trouble makers there, but you can always reason with the Germans.’"
L'Atelier, the second play in the Holocaust trilogy, is Grumberg's best-known work. The entire play occurs in the cramped workroom of a tailor shop. Grumberg presents the action in ten scenes occurring between 1945 and 1952 and depicting the daily lives of the people working there. Most of the characters on stage are women, but through their conversations the viewer learns about the other people in their lives. Simone's husband, a Romanian Jew, has been deported and is probably dead. She must get a death certificate so that she can collect his pension to help support her and her two sons, but this is very difficult. Hélène's sister was deported and has not yet returned; Hélène comments that she and her family do not expect her back. Mimi is young and hedonistic; Gisele is depressed but sings beautifully. Léon, the shop owner, is Jewish and spent the war in hiding.
As the scenes progress, characters discuss what happened to them during the war and the audience observes that they are struggling to rebuild their lives in both the public and private worlds. The man who works as a presser spent time in concentration camps and tells his companions about the victim-selection process. He never mentions his own role in this but is obviously disturbed by something, and eventually quits his job. He gives no reason, but it seems clear that his conversations with other Jews have kept his dark memories awake. Simone is the focus of the play; her character is modeled on Grumberg's mother. The other women workers are not Jewish and do not understand her plight, though most of them are kind. Simone's life is very stressful, but she tries to shed tears only at work, never at home. In an effort to educate her two sons, she sends them on a trip to Germany to visit a former camp. At the end of the play, one of the boys comes to the workroom to report that his mother has collapsed from exhaustion.
Zone libre is Grumberg's third Holocaust play. It depicts the lives of a groups of Jews who left Paris in 1942 and are living on a farm in the Free Zone, an area of France that the Germans did not occupy by agreement with the Vichy government. Simon, the father of the family, has brought his wife, her pregnant sister, her mother, and their teenage nephew out to the country, where he hopes they will be safe. The French farmer who houses them, Maury, becomes their ally at considerable risk to himself. The family uses a false name and false papers to escape from Paris, where some of their relatives and neighbors have already been arrested. They send the teenage boy, Henri, to a seminary under Maury's name, but he runs away, and Simon travels to Paris in an unsuccessful search for him. Simon's wife starts making shirts from old sheets, and Maury helps her sell them. The police come to the farm looking for Jews, and Maury hides the ones who are present; Simon returns from Paris while Maury is entertaining the police with his homemade brandy, and Maury convinces them that Simon is his cousin from Perigord. At the end of the play, the Resistance frees the area, and the same police who had earlier come looking for Jews now help Maury. Simon and his family prepare to move back to Paris. Before they leave, Simon discovers a German soldier whom Maury is housing for the Resistance; his first impulse is to kill him until he realizes how young and frightened the man is. So he puts down his gun and goes to join his family. As in his other plays, Grumberg advances the action by depicting everyday activities and conversations. Simon's family survives by disguising their Jewishness; their neighbors the Apfelbaums refuse to compromise in this way, and as a result they are stripped of their French citizenship and deported. But as the play progresses, Simon can no longer accept this hidden identity and joins the Jewish resistance.
Grumberg has written many plays in addition to his Holocaust works. These dramas also depict everyday life, combining comedy and violence to deliver their message. Several of them focus on the idea of "otherness," the experience of outsiders; Grumberg has even titled one group of plays Les Autres. His one-act play Linge sale, précédé de, Maman revient pauvre orphelin is an Absurdist work of psychological dislocation about a son arguing with the memory of his mother, who accuses him of making a living telling the world how she suffered.
Le dernier métro is set in Paris during World War II, when curfew laws forced cinemas to schedule their showings so that viewers could catch the last metro home. Lucas, a Jewish theater director, is in hiding in the cellar of his house; his gentile wife, Marion, now runs the theater. She visits her husband every day, but also struggles with a relationship with one of her leading men. Le dernier métro was made into a film starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu.
Another film, Amen, caused a stir in France and Italy because the poster for the film shows a swastika and a cross fused together. Grumberg attacks the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII for not taking any action during the Holocaust. Although the pope makes an appearance in the film, the primary protagonists are Riccardo Fontana, a Jesuit priest who is sent to Auschwitz when he wears a yellow star; and Kurt Gerstein, a Protestant chemist who joins the Nazis in order to expose them. Gerstein, a character based on a real-life person, is taken by the doctor to a concentration camp, where he watches Jews being gassed. The actual killing is not shown, but it is reflected on the face of the observer. He returns home and tells the priest, the only member of the Church who feels compelled to act. Gerstein continues to accumulate evidence as Fontana tries to influence Church leaders, who prove to be disinterested in the plight of the Jews. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote of the film: "A few concentration camp inmates aside, there are no individuated Jewish characters. Amen is purposefully abstract. Urgency is underscored by repeated long shots of rolling freight trains."
By the end of the twentieth century, Grumberg was acknowledged as one of the foremost playwrights in France. France's best theaters and directors have produced his plays, and academics are beginning to include his writing in their research. Audiences and readers appreciate his work both because it sheds light on a difficult period in Europe's history, and because it creates a living tribute to the many victims of the Holocaust.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Back Stage, March 26, 1993, Martin Schaeffer, review of The Free Zone, p. 44.
Choice, May, 1994, G. Klin, reviews of The Free Zone and The Workroom, p. 1441.
French Review, May, 1975, Henry Walter Brann, review of Dreyfus, pp. 1064-1065.
Massachusetts Review, Robert L. King, review of L'Atelier, pp. 580-594.
Modern Drama, fall, 1998, Brian Pocknell, "Jean-Claude Grumberg's Holocaust Plays: Presenting the Jewish Experience," p. 399.
New York Times, November 4, 1993, Wilborn Hampton, review of The Workroom, p. C20.
Village Voice, January 22, 2003, J. Hoberman, review of Amen.
Curtain Up,http://www.curtainup.com/ (January 12, 2006), Lizzie Loveridge, review of Dreyfus.