Graphic by Daniella Mazzio
By: Mariah Schultz
There are few times when as a nation we have felt guilt or remorse. One such time was the Holocaust.
It’s a period of time in our history that we feel should never have happened, yet its story lingers on as one of the most frequently portrayed in literature, film and theatre. Our fascination with it almost brinks on the edge of obsession, as we literally can’t get enough of works that talk about it, even up until this last year with the film adaptation of The Book Thief and the play Our Class making its way to Chicago at Remy Bumppo. Our adoration for the subject hasn’t died, and the numbers of ticket sales for any work that deals with the Holocaust almost guarantees immediate success. While these facts cannot be denied, the question still begs to be answered: Do we feel an obligation to praise a work about the Holocaust just because it is about the Holocaust?
It’s a relevant question. Historical dramas are important in helping further understand our past, ourselves, connections with others and our relation to the world. Historical dramas leave us with the hope that we can, and hopefully, will change in the future. The Holocaust especially shows us how far we’ve come in terms on anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia, or on the flip side— shows how we still have further to go. Either way you look at it, the Holocaust was a reflective time of who we were as a people and a nation.
But it doesn’t make any sense for a piece of art to be evaluated solely on its subject matter. That’s like judging a puzzle with missing pieces like creativity or how the story is told, how it’s innovative in making new ideas come to light, and what makes it relevant now or what could be drawn from it twenty, even fifty years from now. Without considering all of these elements together, we can’t provide an honest and unbiased review based on subject alone. Who ever thought that a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton could work so well? Probably no one, but no one’s laughing at Lin-Manuel Miranda now.
Perhaps due to sadness or shame that we didn’t get involved in World War II sooner or the fact that there’s nothing we can do to change these past events, makes us feel obligated to praise works about the Holocaust. We want to make up for our failings. It doesn’t negate or change them, but by accolading these works about the Holocaust, it at least implies some sort of redemption as we’re ensuring that the Holocaust is a part of history that will always be remembered. It almost serves as a sign of respect, good manners even.
This case could be proven with the enormous praise that surrounded The Diary of Anne Frank, which tells the story of the Holocaust through the musings of a young girl’s journal. The novel is praised for its innocent and detailed view of such a horrendous time, which resulted in several film versions and the renowned play adaptation that’s performed continuously in high schools across the country today.
Pictured above: Anne writing in her journal from The Diary of Anne Frank (2010)
But a case could be argued that the theatrical adaptation doesn’t do the story justice. With both the film and the play, we see young, sweet Anne giving presents to her family and friends for Hanukkah, discovering puppy love with Peter, and daydreaming of what she will do after the war. We only see the full Anne in her novel, the side of her showing that she did lose hope and have troubling thoughts with the last words of her journal being, “If only there weren’t other people in the world” instead of the lines we all have grown up on her saying: “In spite of everything, I still do believe people are good at heart.”
Although the film does hold merit in showing not only Anne’s perspective, but her father Otto’s as well, the book demonstrates more of a realistic version of Anne and the events that unfolded around her trumping the campy and overdramatized events of the play.
Though we know the Holocaust occurred, it still shocks us to witness such an atrocity live and in person on stage. The experience of the replication of these events is still unsettling. And despite our prior knowledge, the story still manages to catch us off guard and wanting to look, despite being frightened. Like in Bent, when we see Max is forced to beat his lover to death, or when he is challenged to rape a woman to prove he is not a homosexual. Or in Our Class, when a woman is raped by a guard and discovers she finds pleasure in it instead of horror.
The Holocaust also shocks us in that it can also be taken in forms outside of a straight play, with musicals such as The Sound of Music, which is set during the beginning of the Holocaust, but notable in its attempts to create a plot and characters that are not defined by the events of Holocaust. It’s not about Hitler starting to take over Austria, but a coming together of a family through the power of music and a new governess. And despite its happy-go-lucky aesthetic, the musical (and later film adaptation) also gives a new take in leaving its ending open-ended, with the Von Trapp family leaving to escape for Switzerland. The last image isn’t of them being caught by Nazis or being forced to board a train or imprisoned in a camp. It doesn’t need that finality of that last horrific image because of the way it is presented in its light aesthetic and the common theme of triumph under unfortunate circumstances.
Pictured above: The final shot of the film, The Sound of Music (1965)
Just like sex, the Holocaust sells, instantly equivocating to some sort of financial profit. The Diary of Anne Frank, The Sound of Music, Bent, all of these shows not only are still constantly performed, they also consistently rake in a bunch of awards and recognitions because of their tackling of the subject of the Holocaust. And not only is the subject successful in terms of revenue, it is also successful in terms of a “well-made play” in general with tragedy, comedy, love and in a world where there are many possibilities and chances of growth, but also rejection.
The Holocaust also allows the form of theatre itself to be shaped. The titular characters in The Producers not only use the subject for their fictitious musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” but they also use the Holocaust for a new purpose: comic relief. “Springtime for Hitler” is backed by the two lead characters, producers Leo and Max, with the premise: what would have happened if Hitler had won the war? Both men are aware of its absurdity and because it’s deliberately offensive, they feel it would fail on Broadway, though it turns out to be a hit. Much like “Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers is known as being one of the most commercially successful shows of all time, which is unsurprising considering its content. A.O Scott references an interview with Kate Winslet in his article “Why so many Holocaust films now, and for whose benefit?” that the actress once joked, “I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar” (2). And in this case, a Tony, which The Producers won not only one of but twelve. Yes, that’s right. Twelve. Who would have thought that we would not only be applauding, but rewarding work featuring tap dancing Nazis and a singing Hitler?
Pictured above: Snapshot from a production of The Producers (2012)
The Reality of the Situation
Just because a play centers on a sensitive subject like the Holocaust doesn’t mean it automatically should be thought of as “an electrifying triumph” or by “some magic that cannot be explained”. It’s not always the case with the 2013 live broadcast of The Sound of Music and the 2012 London production of The Diary of Anne Frank serving as countless examples. It seems we want to reward the risk in the act of the attempt itself, and not the actual final product.
Although the Holocaust has produced a lot of successful works, some controversial, some great, some overhyped, they’re commendable in that they laid the grounds for the work we can produce today. Maybe we can’t explain why we are so drawn to the Holocaust and the need we feel to coddle works inspired by it, but through them we examine how we respond to theatre as a whole. We can still learn to dig a little deeper, even if we can’t sacrifice that personal investment.