Broadway and Beyond: The Holocaust on Stage

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Playwright Abby Mann

When "Judgment at Nuremberg" first aired on TV in 1959, one of the show's sponsors, the American Gas Association, made sure the word "gas" was bleeped out of all references to the Nazi death chambers. We've come a long way since then. For one thing, after another 40 years of Nazi-era dramas, documentaries on the Holocaust, debates over the responsibility of the German people, and "Schindler's List," there's not much about the tragedy that can shock us anew. Or is there?

"Judgment at Nuremberg" has just opened on Broadway (for the first time, believe it or not), and it's one of a rash of Holocaust-related dramas filling stages in New York City and around the country. The Center Stage in Baltimore recently completed the first major U.S. revival of "The Investigation," Peter Weiss's 1965 play drawn entirely from transcripts of the Frankfurt trials of those who helped run the Auschwitz death camp. Arje Shaw's "The Gathering," about the conflict between a Holocaust survivor (Hal Linden) and his son, will arrive on Broadway in April. And off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company is presenting "I Will Bear Witness," based on the diaries of Victor Klemperer, a German Jew who was married to a Gentile and remained in Germany throughout Hitler's regime.

Is there anything new for us to experience, as theatergoers or as students of history, from more rehashing of the horrors? To be sure, there's some commercial calculation in the theater's Holocaust obsession. This a subject, after all, that appeals largely to older Jewish theatergoers, one of Broadway's most loyal constituencies. ("The Gathering's" pre-Broadway run included stops in Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach, Fla.) Yet the Holocaust has hardly been a surefire audience grabber. Even the well-reviewed 1998 Broadway revival of "The Diary of Anne Frank" was a box-office disappointment.

Rather, there's something about the enormity of the tragedy, and its still inexhaustible mystery, that maintains a pull on artists and audiences. The first generation of Holocaust dramas were intent mainly on presenting the awful crimes to us. As years have gone on, the Holocaust has become a vessel for all sorts of more complex moral inquiries. "In the generation that immediately followed the war, the story was told in a rather less nuanced manner. There was black and white, good and evil," says Barry Edelstein, artistic director of CSC (which, along with the Klemperer play, also just staged Ferdinand Bruckner's "Race," an anti-Nazi work produced in Germany in 1933). "As understanding of the period has become more and more sophisticated, stories that seemed marginal, not to fit in the main narrative of the Holocaust, have started to come out."

"I Will Bear Witness," the dramatization of Klemperer's diaries, is a fairly dry monologue recitation of excerpts, hardly scintillating as drama (George Bartenieff, a co-adapter, plays Klemperer adequately). Still, it digs into a fascinating and unfamiliar chapter in the Holocaust story (a Jew who stayed in Germany — and outlasted Hitler!). And it revels in the nuances — notably, a hero who is often less than heroic, and German neighbors who are capable of kindness as well as villainy.

More surprising is how fresh some of the old Holocaust dramas are looking. "The Investigation" — a major, too long neglected work given a piercing revival in Baltimore — also seems, on its face, unpromising as drama, since it is essentially a collage of trial testimony. Yet, as artfully pieced together by Weiss, the author of "Marat/Sade," the play locates fresh power in the sheer deadpan accumulation of detail of the awful crimes; in the stubbornly repetitive, I-knew-nothing defenses; and in the resonant stage device (in the Baltimore production, at least) of having the same actors play multiple roles —victims and villains interchangeable. "We were nothing but numbers, just like the prisoners," says a doctor accused of injecting phenol to kill inmates. A few moments later, the actor is a prisoner.

Reviving "Judgment at Nuremberg" may be the toughest test. This famous drama, made into an Oscar-winning film in 1961, is an icon of postwar liberalism, and author Abby Mann (who revised the script slightly for its Broadway debut) is a message playwright of the old school. Onstage, the work is rather lumpy and heavyhanded, especially since director John Tillinger has not solved the problem of how to integrate the cinema-like scenes outside the courtroom. And yet, "Judgment at Nuremberg" retains its power to move and provoke us.

The main reason is that Mann, for all his polemics, faces up to the ambiguities of his subject. He wisely chose to focus, not on the first Nuremberg trials of the top Nazi war criminals, but on the second wave of cases, of German judges whose complicity was less clear-cut. The courtroom scenes are intense and satisfying, largely because the "other" side (especially Michael Hayden, as the young German defense attorney) is so well represented. And even though the chief accused (Maximilian Schell) confesses his guilt a little too neatly, and the homespun judge (George Grizzard) arrives at the "right" verdict on cue, Mann makes sure the moral journey is not easy. As it never should be.