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Holocaust Drama: The Theater of Atrocity, by Gene A. Plunka.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.  446 pp.  $99.00.


In 1965, I saw the British production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. It was staged in Coventry, a city that had been mercilessly bombed in the Second World War, the ruins of the cathedral being close to the theatre.  I was so impressed by the play, with its dominating image of a concentration camp tower, that when I read a newspaper article about the guilt of the survivor I sent it to Miller who was then convalescing from hepatitis in a British hospital. He replied immediately confirming its centrality to the play. Miller had visited Mauthausen just three years earlier and then the Frankfurt trials of concentration camp guards. These experiences changed him.

He had, to be sure, written a novel about American antisemitism (Focus) in 1945, but otherwise his connection with his Jewishness had remained problematic. Now it moved close to the center of his work and did so at a time when others, too, chose to register the delayed shock of the Holocaust. What followed was Incident at Vichy, and Broken Glass, works explored by Gene A. Plunka in his study of Holocaust Drama, subtitled The Theater of Atrocity.

              The fact is that drama was as slow in responding to the Holocaust as any other genre. Though there are now those who insist that it was widely discussed, in fact, for the most part, silence had seemed to many the only legitimate response, the silence of trauma, of respect, of willed forgetfulness. For Miller, the Holocaust was a story of defeat, for the Jews but more widely for everyone. In Israel the preferred narrative was of resistance. There was no space for stories of victimhood.  Beyond that, where were the words adequate to address an event that seemed to lie equally outside of history and language? To bring it within history and language was in some sense to normalize what lay beyond discourse, beyond the parameters of rational discussion. There were others, though, for whom silence was acquiescence, collaboration, denial. What was needed above all was to speak out, to recall, to testify.

In the Vilna ghetto, in Lithuania, librarian Hermann Kruk may declare, “In a cemetery there can be no theatre,” as Elie Wiesel would announce that there could be no such thing as a Holocaust novel since if it was a novel it could not be about the Holocaust and if it was about the Holocaust it could not be a novel. Only memoirs, eye witness accounts, he believed, had legitimacy, though Primo Levi confessed that a book “drenched in memory” could not be accurate. There were, however, such novels and there were such plays, even in Vilna, and Gene A. Plunka has written a startlingly comprehensive study of the latter. He quotes Alvin Goldfarb as identifying 257 Holocaust plays by 1997. Holocaust Drama, though, is not an encyclopedia. Plunka explores a number of such works in an attempt to assess their faithfulness to the events that provoked them.

It was Yeats who warned against unearned emotion, in other words the emotion casually generated by subject matter. There would be writers for whom the concentration camp provided little more than a convenient location. One such was William Styron, with Sophie’s Choice. The plays Plunka invokes and analyzes are not such, even as he readily engages with the question of legitimacy.

Plunka ranges widely. Some of the plays are well known—Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy, Peter Weiss’s The Investion, Peter Flannery’s Singer, Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto— but many more are not. One of the virtues of this book, however, is the extent to which it ranges across national literatures as it also explores different aspects of the Holocaust.

In the background, sometimes breaking surface and sometimes not, are the rumbling debates and arguments that greeted some of these works, indeed, more profoundly, that were stirred up by any attempt to understand something which seemed to resist analysis. Hannah Arendt seemed to lay blame at the feet of those Jewish committees that appeared to collaborate with the Nazis, and both Bruno Bettelheim and Arthur Miller were irritated at what seemed to them the passivity of those Jews who failed to resist when they could. That seemed to be the essence of Miller’s Incident at Vichy. There was also a distrust of those writers for whom the Holocaust existed as a metaphor rather than a singular fact, as if it were merely one instance of human depravity implying a shared guilt which must ultimately amount to a shared innocence. Plunka offers in evidence a number of plays which attempt to engage with this idea, including Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. As he points out, there were a number of Marxist writers, among whom he, indeed, counts Kushner, for whom Hitler was the product of a capitalist system and who even sought to relate the Holocaust to the thousands dying in America as a result of President Ronald Reagan’s disregard for AIDS.

Plunka quotes Aharon Appelfeld, himself a survivor, as saying, “we learned silence . . . it was a good way out for all of us. For what, when all is said and done, was there to tell?” and Charlotte Delbo as saying, “People believe memories grow vague, are erased by time. . . . That’s the difference; time does not pass over me, over us. It doesn’t erase anything, doesn’t undo it. I am not alive. I died in Auschwitz but no one knows it.” Eventually, Appelfeld learned to speak and Delbo discovered in theatre a way to confront what haunted her. 

There are a number of small points.  I suspect that neither Rolf Hochhuth nor Peter Weiss can adequately be dismissed as creators of “soporific documentary theatre.” The Arthur Miller who wrote an article entitled “Hitler’s Quarry” was not the playwright but another man with the same name. David Hare’s Licking Hitler, despite its title, does not deal with Hitler as an historical figure but is instead set in a British wartime propaganda unit. Beyond such cavils, however, Plunka has offered a lucid, articulate, and convincing account of attempts, stretching back over sixty years, to give dramatic form to something which seemingly defies mind and imagination alike.

Christopher Bigsby

University of East Anglia