Holocaust Drama: The Theater of Atrocity by Gene A. Plunka

Gene A. Plunka introduces his book with the disclaimer that ‘Holocaust drama’ must take a form suitable to its subject matter; thus, for a play to depict an historical event as inviolable and extreme as the Holocaust, it must be neither realistic nor absurd. To match this disclaimer, Plunka tackles his challenging theme with an understandable degree of caution, placing facts and statistics foremost and taking care not to taint his objective survey of the texts with subjective analyses.

This approach has both its merits and shortfalls, but at the very least allows Holocaust Drama to stand as a comprehensive and detailed introduction to plays of this genre and a motivation for further research.

Fourteen chapters are used to broadly categorise ‘Holocaust drama’ according to its content rather than style. Unafraid to start his book with a challenge, Plunka uses Chapter II to examine the parallels that could be drawn between an inactive and numb theatre audience and those within the Nazi regime who, according to journalist Hannah Arendt’s controversial phrase, allowed the ‘banality of evil’ to wash over them.

In Chapter III Plunka considers the role of art and culture in the camps, examining amongst other plays Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time (1986), the protagonist of which is an orchestra member in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The reader is invited to consider whether art is a transcendent life force or a residual reminder of human humiliation, a dilemma left hanging cleverly throughout Chapter IV, which is concerned with the ways in which ‘art’ was depicted by the Nazi regime as an unnecessary appendix to the human body. In this chapter, Plunka performs an analysis of Charlotte Delbo’s 1966 play Qui rapportera ces paroles? (Who Will Carry the Word?), in which he shows admiration for Delbo’s ability to provide the bodies of the female victims of the Holocaust she depicts the dignity of presence in her stage space, despite their physical deterioration.

Chapter V moves onto plays that attempt to transcend the degradation of the Holocaust, a process towards which Plunka displays a subtle cynicism. Goodrich and Hackett’s play of The Diary of Anne Frank (1955) is portrayed as a sentimentalised version of history and one which is dictated by popular appeal (there are no deaths on stage for example).

Chapter VI deals with two Marxist plays, Peter Weiss’ The Investigation (1965) and Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day(1985). Again Plunka indirectly raises concerns at the political slant taken towards the Holocaust in these plays and provokes questions as to whether a Marxist approach could lead to a blinkered appropriation of the Holocaust.

Chapters VII and VIII both examine Aryan responsibility during the Holocaust and the extents to which Nazi aggressors understood their actions as existing within moral parameters. Richard Norton-Taylor’s documentary drama of the Nuremberg trials,Nuremberg: The War Crimes Trial (1996), covered similar themes to those examined in the first chapter and more cross-references would have been welcome.

Chapter VIII is concerned with German playwright Rolf Hothhuth’s difficult 1963 play Del Stelvertreter (The Deputy), which considers the apathy of Pope Pius XII in the face of the Nazi regime. Whether the play was a performance of guilt displacement over the Holocaust onto the Pope’s shoulders is not fully clarified by Plunka, as indeed we would expect. Nonetheless, the political tensions in this play could have been teased out further, and, along with analyses from other chapters (for example Weiss’ The Investigation) might have merited a separate chapter.

Chapter IX considers codes of morality for Jewish victims of the Holocaust, particularly those followed by members of Judenräte, for example when they were forced to decide whether the sacrifice of a few individuals could ever be justified by the saving of a greater number. With this moral dilemma in mind, Plunka groups together three plays that work exceptionally well in parallel: Motti Lerner’s Kastner (1987), Joshua Sobol’s Adam (1989) and Harold and Edith Lieberman’s Throne of Straw (1972).

In Chapter X Plunka considers the degradation and preservation of dignity in a fascinating analysis of Martin Sherman’s 1979 playBent. A rare example of a dramatic work that considers the fate of homosexual victims of the Holocaust, it draws the reader’s attention to the fact that there are voices that are still shamefully silent in this genre- including the elderly, the disabled, the gay and the Gypsy communities.

Chapters XI, XII, XIII and XIV are all concerned with the ways in which Jewish survivors assimilated to new ways of life after liberation and how memory of the Holocaust should be preserved in Jewish as well as world culture. Particularly interesting is Plunka’s analysis of survivor’s guilt, marking out Peter Flannery’s 1989 drama Singer as ‘one of the most poignant portrayals of Holocaust survivorship written in the twentieth century’.

Plunka’s explanations of the psychological implications of survivors’ guilt are lucid but there are also opportunities in this field of research to consider its long-term ramifications, particularly in second- and third-generation survivors of the Holocaust, and the ways in which such themes are portrayed in drama (see, for example, Rivka Greenberg’s debut play Breaking the Silence, which was performed at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival).

Plunka raises questions without answers, questions which can perhaps never be answered. For example, when analysing Emily Mann’s Annulla: An Autobiography, he asks the question ‘Can we take seriously Annulla’s assertion that the American, British and French treatment of Germany after World War I caused the rise of Nazism that led to the persecution of the Jews?’ without attempting an answer.

In order to maintain a scholarly respect, Plunka is thoroughly dispassionate in his writing style, but this does mean that he shies away from fully exploring the real question of how the Holocaust could ever be presented in the language and actions of a play. We know that Plunka favours the dramatic style of Charlotte Delbo, for instance, but are only granted a paragraph on why; we are told that the dialogue expresses the ‘monologue of the body’ but not shown how.

This dispassionate approach is understandable and commendable; however, such an ascetic style would not have been tainted by further links and comparisons between the plays, particularly in terms of their form and staging. In particular, more detailed cross-references might have highlighted recurrent theatrical techniques (for example, the use of laughter in the stage directions). Additionally, there are a few clumsy turns of phrase, and occasional undue use of exclamation marks (‘even for the culturally deficient, the theatre provides!’).

Even with its holes, this book is a must-read for any reader interested in ‘Holocaust drama’ in that it begins to categorise the genre in an encyclopaedic manner that is both respectful and thought-provoking. Although this topic might seem to resist further inquiry, it also requires it and this book will hopefully act as an impetus for future researchers, readers and audiences to consider gaps as yet unbridged and voices as yet unheard.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009

ISBN 978-0-521-18242-3 Paperback

447 pages