Drama, Holocaust

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Drama, Holocaust

Notwithstanding reservations on moral and artistic ground, plays and performances addressing the Holocaust and its repercussions are gaining in number the more time passes since the actual event. Can and should the Holocaust be staged in the first place? Is a representation of the horror appropriate and commendable? What happens to the actor who takes on the part of a Nazi perpetrator, or, alternatively, the role of the victim, and how can a play affect spectators without being overtly didactic?

In his 1988 seminal book The Darkness We Carry: The Drama of the Holocaust, Robert Skloot notes five objectives that underscore serious dramas dealing with the Holocaust: "honouring the victims, teaching history to audiences, evoking emotional responses, discussing ethical issues, and suggesting solutions to universal, contemporary problems" (p. 10).

Instances of drama depicting the agonies of the victims of the Nazi ascent to power can be traced back to the early 1930s. Ferdinand Bruckner's Rassen (Races, 1933) shows the effect of Germany's new racial laws on students, whereas Friedrich Wolf's Professor Mamlock (1934) stages the tragedy of a prominent physician. Written in 1941 during his internment in a camp, Rudolf Leonhard's Geiseln (Hostages) depicts the plight of Jews and communists who were brutally executed on charges of plotting against Hitler's regime. All of these plays were designed to open people's eyes to the infamous crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and to warn of possible greater evil. Eli is a surrealistic, poetic drama depicting martyrdom and redemption, a modern mystery written by Nelly Sachs in 1943 while she was in Swedish exile.

Most of the plays written soon after the war follow a realistic style. In Germany attempts were made to confront German collective guilt through the character of a Nazi who came to acknowledge his mistake or make amends as an act of atonement. Ingeborg Drewitz's Alle Tore waren bewacht (All gates were watched, 1955) is one example of such an approach. Other plays tried to lend the anonymous suffering a concrete form in the figure of a single representative victim. Best known among these plays is the stage adaptation (by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) of the world-famous Diary of Anne Frank, a melodrama that has enjoyed great success since its premiere in 1956. The East German writer Hedda Zinner sets her Ravensbrücker Ballade (1961) in an internment center for women; in Playing for Time (1985), Arthur Miller explores the fate of singer Fania Fénelon, from her arrest in Paris to Auschwitz, where she was forced to join the camp's all-women orchestra; Martin Sherman devotes his attention in Bent (1979) to the sufferings of homosexuals during the Third Reich. Special mention should also be made of Thomas Strittmatter, a German who enjoyed the Gnade der späten Geburt—the grace of belated birth, having been born in 1961—and the author of a number of plays (e.g., Viehjud Levi, 1983) that delineate the fate of outcasts under the Nazis.

A fairly large group of plays address the guilt and agonies of Holocaust survivors. Charlotte Delbo, a survivor of Auschwitz, creates in Et toi, comment as-tu fait? (Crawling from the Wreckage, 1978) a semidocumentary montage of interviews with other survivors; Hans Joachim Haecker in Dreht Euch nicht um (Don't Turn Around, 1961) and René Kalisky in Jim the Lionhearted (1972), concentrate on the continued aftereffects of victims' traumatic experiences. The survivors are often shown as mentally and physically broken people, such as in Yoram Kaniuk's Adam's Purim Party (1981). Questions of nemesis and justice figure in Franz Theodor Csokor's Das Zeichen an der Wand (The Writing on the Wall, 1962), and in Heinar Kipphardt's controversial play about Adolf Eichmann, Bruder Eichmann (Brother Eichmann, 1983).

Dissatisfied with psychological realism, some authors have sought other dramatic venues to stage that which cannot be grasped, imagined, or represented. Erwin Sylvanus offered a Pirandellian staging of the final journey of Dr. Korczak and the Children (1957). Other German playwrights sought to present the bare facts, relying on documents (Rolf Hochhuth, Der Stellvertreter, The Representative, 1963) and the testimony of witnesses (Peter Weiss, Die Ermittlung, The investigation, 1965). The Cannibals (1968) was George Tabori's first experiment with the theater as a locus of remembrance; it was followed, among other works, by My Mother's Courage (1979), Jubilee (1983), and Mein Kampf (1987). The Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol created a trilogy about everyday life in Vilna (Ghetto, 1983, Adam, 1989, and The Underground, 1991), focusing on life in the ghetto, in which the lines demarcating theater and reality, past and present, are deliberately blurred. Liliane Atlan combined pageantry and modern techniques in Les Messies ou le mal de terre (The Messiahs, 1969), while her fellow-countryman, Armand Gatti, depicted his Holocaust images in a surrealistic (Chroniques d'une planète provisoire, Chronicles of a provisional planet, 1963) or avant-garde context (Le Cinécadre de l'Esplanade Loreto, 1990). Other experimental productions include Akropolis (1962) by Jerzy Grotowski, an innovator in the Polish theater, and Arbeit macht frei from Toitland Europa by the Israelis David Maayan and Smadar Yaron, a performance in which the audience joins the actors in various spaces connected to the Holocaust (such as the Holocaust Museum in a kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors). Most of these experimental performances shun sentimental pity and sanctimonious judgment, calling instead for the audience's immersion in memory, in survivors' traumatic pain, and for genuine reflection.

SEE ALSO Films, Holocaust Documentary; Holocaust


Feinberg, Anat (1999). Embodied Memory: The Theatre of George Tabori. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Feingold, Ben-Ami (1989). The Theme of the Holocaust in Hebrew Drama. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad.

Schumacher, Claude, ed. (1998). Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Skloot, Robert (1982). The Theater of the Holocaust: Four Plays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Skloot, Robert (1988). The Darkness We Carry: The Drama of the Holocaust. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Anat Feinberg

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