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Staging The Unthinkable

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Apt Pupil

Defiant Theatre

at the Preston Bradley Community Center

The Investigation

Splinter Group Studio

Despite the commercial success of Schindler's List, the question remains whether the Holocaust can be fairly and effectively dramatized. Fifty years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the sheer enormity of the horror inflicted upon millions confounds translation to the screen or stage. If Shakespeare doubted his ability to let a simple stage represent the fields of battle at Agincourt in Henry V, how can a contemporary playwright hope to adequately represent in a few short hours the unspeakable terrors of the killing fields of Europe?

Documentary filmmakers like Alain Resnais (Nuit et brouillard) and Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) have been the most effective at communicating the ravages of Nazi Germany--and in a medium that usually functions as entertainment. The unblinking eye of a camera seems best suited to capturing the devastation without cheapening, trivializing, or sentimentalizing it. Playwrights over the years have tried with varying degrees of success to explain the unexplainable by representing facets of the Holocaust onstage. Israeli playwright Joshua Sobel has often concentrated on the possibility of individual triumph despite the inevitable doom of the Jewish ghettos. Jean-Paul Sartre has examined the allure of power in Nazi Germany. These works, among many others, are instructive; but the magnitude of the Holocaust eludes them.

What's interesting about Peter Weiss's The Investigation and Stephen King's Apt Pupil, being performed respectively by Splinter Group and the Defiant Theatre to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, is that neither ever mentions the word "Jew." Like many attempts made over the years, these plays aim to universalize the Holocaust to make it understandable to a contemporary audience, taking the point of view that what happened to the Jewish people in the 30s and 40s could happen to anybody. Such an approach can be useful, making it clear that the Holocaust is not simply a German-Jewish issue, but it can also lead to dangerous overgeneralization. These days the word "holocaust" is used to describe any number of horrific incidents. Zionist tactics in dealing with Palestinian refugees are likened to Nazi actions. King's Apt Pupil seeks to draw parallels between hapless Germans in Nazi Germany and isolated upper-middle-class folks in American suburbs. Articles in knee-jerk left-wing rags and graffiti in Wicker Park suggest that Buchenwald and Auschwitz are somehow comparable to Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes. But no matter how strongly playwrights stress the universality of the Jewish experience under the steel-toed boot of Nazi rule, the Holocaust remains frighteningly unique. Never before and never since has the annihilation of a people been so brutally, extensively, and--worst of all--effectively carried out. Human cruelty is universal, and accounts of man's inhumanity to man never cease to shock and defy imagination. But only Nazi Germany turned cruelty into a national industry.

The most accurate review I can give Apt Pupil, ably adapted from King's story by Christopher Johnson, is to say it's given me vivid nightmares for the past two nights (and counting). On the first night I watched friends of mine trying desperately to hang themselves as they were overcome by poison gas, and on the second the figure of a solitary Nazi stood mockingly at the foot of my bed. I probably have not had dreams of this nature since--well, since I read King's The Shining back in grade school. King's success as a master of terror remains unshaken, but his attempt in Apt Pupil to convert the lurid experiences of Nazi death camps into the stuff of exhilarating horror fiction is, to say the least, morally problematic.

Apt Pupil, along with the other stories in his 1982 collection Different Seasons, represented King's first attempt to be taken as more than just the author of stories intended to shock and titillate adolescent-minded readers. Exploring the human fascination with evil and his belief that Nazism represented not an aberration but the realization of people's darkest and most twisted fantasies, King tells the story of Todd Bowden (in the aborted movie version, he was to be played by Ricky Schroeder), an all-American boy who reads accounts of Nazi war crimes with the same sick, inchoate, masturbatory fascination with which adolescent boys peruse their parents' Victoria's Secret catalogs--the sort of quiet, intelligent suburban boy who collects war memorabilia and grows up to be Timothy McVeigh.

Todd's ghoulish fascination with the Holocaust becomes even greater when he learns that the kindly old man living just down the street is none other than Kurt Dussander (played to the hilt by the venerable William J. Norris), an SS officer in hiding who supervised the murders of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. In an incredibly twisted take on Scheherazade's life-saving bargain, Bowden agrees to keep Dussander's identity a secret if the old man will spin him tales of Nazi atrocities in all their horrifying detail. This premise could have produced a potent piece of social satire and a chilling tale, if only King had chosen to do just two things: skewer the American obsession with the grotesque (as evidenced by the immense success of his own fiction in middle America) and mock the "good German" tendencies of Dussander's completely oblivious neighbors and Todd's hapless parents, who would never for a moment believe that evil lurked in their midst.

Alas, however, King is not the subtlest of writers. Despite a growing tendency to view him as a major literary light (witness his recent, indisputably awful fiction contribution to the New Yorker), he remains not only one of our richest authors but also one of the most crass. Unsatisfied with the two memorably creepy and disturbingly believable characters at the center of his story, King turns both of them into serial-killing monsters, and converts his horror at Nazi butchery into a rather standard slasher tale complete with gratuitous, overblown sexual fantasies, supposedly showing the connection between youthful wet dreams and fantasies of rape and mass murder. When it comes to clever turns of phrase, King may indeed be an adult writer, but when he's dealing with sexual relations, he comes off as a twisted, horny, pimply-faced adolescent with a stack of Hustlers under the bed.

Seeing Apt Pupil onstage is by turns riveting, terrifying, stomach-churning, and downright offensive. There isn't a weak link among the cast director Johnson has assembled, and his adaptation is crisp, intelligent, and fast-moving despite its length: nearly three and a half hours. Norris's Dussander is particularly memorable, calling to mind a chortling, evil Cowardly Lion from hell. There's no denying that much of this psychological shockfest is heart-thumpingly effective and chilling in a way that few plays are. But from a moral standpoint, this is very troublesome theater.

Reading Todd's nightmarish sexual fantasies is disturbing enough, but seeing Jim Slonina as Bowden with a giant dildo raping a shackled concentration camp victim while Dussander looks on and laughs is, in my view, a sensational, pornographic, exploitive way to represent the incomparable sufferings of Nazi victims. The blood-drenched acts of the reprehensible Todd and Dussander--who goes so far as to destroy his pet in the oven in a grisly sequence played almost for laughs--undermines King's critique of the darker side of human nature by portraying the Holocaust as some disgusting, campy episode of shock fiction. Furthermore, King's efforts to arrive at a "universal truth" by insisting that only degrees of seriousness separate the actions of Nazi death camp officers, American serial killers, clueless American parents, and the overzealous Nazi-hunting agents of Israel's Mossad investigating Dussander are oversimplified and highly disrespectful to the memories of the victims of Nazism.

Peter Weiss in The Investigation takes a much subtler but by no means less effective approach. Rather than trying to shock his audience or move them to tears with gory details, he is frighteningly, devastatingly factual. Not a play in the traditional sense, The Investigation is essentially an edited transcript of trial testimony from accused Nazis and their victims during the mid-60s Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt. Less a playwright than a documentarian here, Weiss divides his account into several themes, addressed by generally anonymous voices whose sober lack of emotion allows the enormity of facts to have their effect on the viewer. As subtly eloquent and ferociously powerful as the names inscribed on the Vietnam war memorial in Washington, The Investigation accumulates facts and first-person accounts of the concentration camps to produce a necessarily incomplete but indisputably powerful collection of mental images.

By refusing to fully identify his speakers or to concentrate on the specific conflicts between Nazi Germany and Judaism, Weiss focuses on the human costs of the Holocaust. Clad only in black pants and dull, solid-colored shirts, the 18 members of Splinter Group's ensemble, under the direction of Marc Rosenbush, stand up one by one to solemnly reenact the trial proceedings. This may not be theater at its most powerful or its most visceral, but it is decidedly hypnotic. Even the weaker members of the ensemble so faithfully and honestly immerse themselves in the words of the speakers at the Frankfurt trial that one almost seems to be hearing the disembodied voices of the slaughtered masses arising from the land of the dead. At the final curtain call, I was certainly moved. But I didn't join the rest of the audience in their applause. Like King's dramatic devices in Apt Pupil, applause seemed beside the point, as if it would only trivialize the memories of more than six million human beings.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Robert Radkoff-Ek.

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