Theater and The Holocaust

Theater and The Holocaust
   The threat of Nazism was dealt with in a number of notable stage plays in the 1930s and 1940s. They include N. Behrman’s Rain from Heaven (1934), Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (1941), and Elmer Rice’s Flight to the West (1940) and Judgment Day (1934), about the Reichstag fire trial. The earliest stage representation of the Holocaust was The Diary of Anne Frank in 1954. At the time, the full horror of the Nazi genocide was yet not fully comprehended by the public, and the producers of the play were unwilling to confront its horrors in the theater. The stage tended to portray the Holocaust in an oblique manner, with few references to the ghettos and none to the concentration camps. The murder of the Jews, however, reached audiences with the adaptation of Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy) by Rolf Hoccuth. The play was first produced in Germany in 1963 and brought to Broadway in 1964. The Deputy was controversial because of its criticism of Pope Pius XII’s failure to speak out against the Nazi use of gas chambers in the killing of Jews. The play is based on the true story of Kurt Gerstein, a devout Protestant and later a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS), who witnessed the use of poison gas in the killing process. In the play Gerstein confronts the pope with his information, which the pope disregards. The Deputy sparked the ongoing controversy among historians over the “silence” of Pius XII during the Holocaust. The first Broadway musical to seriously treat Nazism was the award-winning Cabaret (1966), based on John Van Druten‘s 1951 play I Am a Camera, which in turn was adapted from the novel Good-bye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. The musical is set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, and focuses on nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, attended by swastika-wearing “Brown Shirts.” The play includes an ill-fated romance between a German boardinghouse owner and her elderly suitor, a Jewish fruit vendor. Overseeing the action is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who serves as a constant metaphor for the state of society in Weimar Germany.
   American playwright Arthur Miller, over the course of his career, wrote three plays with themes relating to the Holocaust: Incident at Vichy (1964) portrays a roundup of Jews for deportation from wartime France; in Playing for Time (1980), a television play, a French cabaret singer’s music keeps her alive in Auschwitz; and in Broken Glass (1994), an American woman is paralyzed by news reports of Kristallnacht. The Holocaust was also the theme of The Man in the Glass Booth. This Robert Shaw play was based on the Adolph Eichmann kidnapping and subsequent trial in Jerusalem in 1961. The play opened on Broadway in 1969 and was made into a film in 1975.
   In the past few decades, however, a number of plays have appeared that do not deal directly with the Holocaust but with how people responded to those who were survivors, such as Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel (1984), Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment (1990), and Jeffrey Sweet’s The Action against Sol Schumann (2001). Still other plays have dealt with growing up as the child of survivors, including Leeny Sack’s The Survivor and the Translator (1980), Adam Melnick and John Tarjan’s Camp Holocaust (2000), and Deb Filler’s Punch Me in the Stomach (1992). The shadow of the Holocaust even pervades plays focused on entirely other subjects, such as the end of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), and imposes troubling dimensions in Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire (1991) and Donald Margulies’s Sight Unseen (1992).

Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. . 2014.

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