Incident at Vichy

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Play by Arthur Miller, 1964

In the German-occupied but still free French town of Vichy in 1942, there has been a general roundup of ten men, suspected of being Jews, for deportation to the concentration camps. At first the men are shocked and bewildered by their treatment, and several are in denial over the meaning of these events. Gradually the truth of their situation is revealed to them. Not only are their identity papers being checked but their penises are also examined for circumcision. Two of the ten are not Jews: a Gypsy (also among the racially condemned) and Von Berg, a Viennese aristocrat who was mistakenly arrested in the roundup. This is the central event of this long one-act play. Over its course the men will argue with each other, will struggle to comprehend the enormity of the evil they are experiencing, and will, all but one, go off to their certain deaths.

Miller returns to his great thematic preoccupations: the relationship of men to their society around them, the responsibility of the community, and what we as individuals owe to a corrupted society. A secondary thematic question to Miller's work, that of self-knowledge (after knowledge of the outside world), is articulated for the first time in his plays as Who is a Jew? For the first time in his plays, however, Miller's questions are now met with the profound silence of the Holocaust. Unlike the characters and their struggles in his other plays, these men, even if they understand and face the overwhelming destruction that awaits them, have no agency with which to thwart or diminish that destruction. Their individual strengths and weaknesses as human beings have no bearing on their fate. They are Jews and their world has determined to be rid of them. Basing his story on an actual occurrence during the war, Miller has the one Gentile among the prisoners, the Austrian prince Von Berg, take a specific and individual action against the Nazis. By handing his pass to Leduc, one of the Jews, Von Berg buys Leduc a few moments in which to flee the detention center. He and he alone still retains any agency, and it is from his sense of shame and from his guilt that he acts.

One of Holocaust drama's formal problems for all writers is the fact of its victims' lack of agency, a condition that can create a motivational passivity in a play's protagonist. Drama, unlike the novel, does not take to such passivity, demanding that its central character, whether Hamlet or Oedipus or Willy Loman, take an active role in pursuit of their objective. But the Holocaust stripped its victims either from taking any action or effecting any change from their action, and any dramatization of this monumental event must remain true to this. The characters in Incident at Vichy are active primarily in their denial or in their pursuit of an explanation yet remain sadly inert to even the fantasy of escape. Though the psychiatrist Leduc is given the longest and most anguished speeches, the central character in the play is Von Berg. Miller links these two men through an articulation of Von Berg's own passivity in recognizing that his cousin had assisted in the removal of all the Jewish students at Leduc's school. Thus Von Berg's slight yet profound rejection of his own silent complicity in not vocally opposing the actions of his cousin when he pushes his safe conduct pass into Leduc's hands at the play's ending resounds dramatically and remains truthful to the realities of the Holocaust.

Miller refuses to spare any of his characters from his conclusion that victims and perpetrators have acted in concert. While those victims clearly are not held responsible for their own destruction, their systematic denials and various individual levels of selfishness nevertheless have contributed to the handing over of all power to their enemies. The Waiter, for instance, only sees the German Major as a pleasant customer, while Monceau, the actor, refuses to believe that his cultured theater audiences in Germany would ever stoop to such barbarism. Each man has his excuses as to why he has been picked up, and each dismisses the reports of mass executions. Likewise the humane German Major is troubled by what he is abetting but realizes that he has no means of protest and retreats into drunkenly bullying Leduc in an attempt to reduce cynically Leduc's ethical questions into selfish pleading.

Written and produced at the start of the United States' heavy military involvement in Vietnam and shortly after Adolf Eichmann's historic trial and execution in Israel, Incident at Vichy attempts to set out the multilayered questions as to how genocide flourished. Miller's examination of the chain of command among the perpetrators as well as the incapacitating denial of the victims creates a dramatically vivid contemporary morality play that continues to resonate as nations and individuals continue to allow the genocidal impulse among groups to play out.

—Steven Dedalus Burch