Making the Rabbi Laugh

Auschwitz, Theatre, and the Absurdity of Evil

There is a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 50b), in which the great Rabbi Judah the Prince holds a vast wedding feast for his son, yet does not invite his own student, a young man by the name of Bar Kappara. Bar Kappara, a poet and satirist known for his wit throughout the Land of Israel, eventually secures the coveted invitation, but under one condition. Fearful for the Rabbi’s dignity, Judah and his students offer Bar Kappara forty measures of wheat (of great value at the time) if he can control himself from making the Rabbi laugh, for if the Rabbi is made to laugh, it is believed that “calamity would come to the world.” In some tellings of the story, Bar Kappara places a basket on his head and juggles the measures of wheat. In others, he delivers a string of jokes to all the wedding guests so humorous and engaging that no guest, insultingly, touches a bite of food. Every version ends the same: the Rabbi bursts into laughter.

There are some that may read this story to mean that Bar Kappara is using comedy as a tool for destruction. He has made the Rabbi laugh, knowing that disaster is imminent. If that is the reading, then the moral to be derived is simple: In order to prevent calamity in this world, we must take great care to keep things far away from the reach of humor. And this, ironically, has always seemed a little bit funny to me.

Two performers on stage
Actors in Muse of Fire. Photo by Cheyenne Cohen.

Muse of Fire, a play I wrote fictionalizing the real life subversive comedy performances in the Auschwitz concentration camp that recently made its New York premier at the Manhattan Repertory Theater on Times Square, began life as a senior project at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. Upon hearing about my project in its infancy, more than a few eyebrows were raised. It was a general assumption among many of the community members I engaged with that, of the many ways of commemorating the Holocaust, the method of observance with the least value was comedy. While I virulently disagreed with this, I was consoled in the moment by the thought that this attitude was contained within the walls of my high school. However, I have found with Muse of Fire’s continued success that this is a viewpoint espoused by members of every level of the Jewish community. What once was an unspoken rule is now practically a cultural edict: The purpose of telling Holocaust stories is solely to preserve the facts. This equates to a tremendous resistance toward and scorning of plays with stories or styles that present the Holocaust in irreverent and unorthodox ways. By only allowing certain kinds of Holocaust narratives on stage and preventing new avenues of remembrance, my community is stagnating itself, stagnating its image and stopping a new generation from remembering at all.

The purpose of telling Holocaust stories is solely to preserve the facts. This equates to a tremendous resistance toward and scorning of plays with stories or styles that present the Holocaust in irreverent and unorthodox ways. By only allowing certain kinds of Holocaust narratives on stage and preventing new avenues of remembrance, my community is stagnating itself, stagnating its image and stopping a new generation from remembering at all.

While writing this play, I frequently found myself asking questions like “How closely must I follow the actual history in order to achieve the best story? What is appropriate for me to invent?” At the same time that I was working on Muse of Fire, I was also writing a farce about the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Whilst researching that play, I discovered the language surrounding the anti-Semitism that convicted Dreyfus of espionage was wholly different from the language surrounding the Holocaust. Whereas the Holocaust was discussed in grave and academic tones, the Dreyfus Affair was surrounded with theatrical and comedic language. Articles referred to it as “black comedy” and “farce.” The philosopher Hanna Arendt herself even stated “The Dreyfus Affair was a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.” At some point, the two projects merged, resulting in the prisoner’s play being a farce about The Affair, and it was then that I noticed a gross discrepancy between what was permissible in memorializing one event over the other. In Muse of Fire, as in real life, Auschwitz inmates use a comedy play as an escape. The characters, like their real world counterparts, are asked by their “director” to occupy an invented world free of death and suffering. What so excited me about discovering this episode in history was that I had at last found a verifiable historical justification for the importance of comedy in remembering the Holocaust. The bravery these prisoners displayed in pursuing laughter is perhaps unparalleled throughout all time, and was absolutely necessary to their daily survival, yet today humor about the Holocaust is one of the ultimate taboos. When humor is made of these two events, it’s not the death of Jews or the incarceration of Dreyfus that is the punch line, but the same arbitrary, moronic anti-Semitic justifications that each episode shares. And while the end results were certainly different (the false imprisonment of one guy is far less grave than the murder of millions), what makes the comparison so interesting is how the same idiotic anti-Semitic philosophies are treated so differently. Here was a crossroads. How can people be willing to remember the same absurd evil in one episode with laughter and shiver at its mention in another?

An actor dancing on stage with others
Actors in Muse of Fire. Photo by Cheyenne Cohen.

For many, there is no debate as to which methods of Holocaust remembrance onstage are legitimate, and which are not. The popular consensus is that humor does not have an instructive value, hence the reason it has no place in telling the story of the Holocaust. Having seen and read many Holocaust plays while researching Muse of Fire, I’ve found that the emphasis in the telling is placed almost solely on commemoration. Great care is taken in portraying events “without sensationalism,” so as to preserve the memory of this injustice. While many Holocaust plays that have come before have touched us with tales of heroic survival or Nazi atrocity, every trick of the lights, every costume donned is for the purpose of making an audience bear witness.

Don’t just take my word for it. Some of the most important American Holocaust plays ever written (Playing for Time (1980) and Incident at Vichy (1964) by Arthur Miller, Judgment at Nuremberg (1957) by Abby Mann, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (1966)), continue to draw breath not on the Great White Way or even in regional theater, but often as part of middle school and high school curriculums. The continued success of these plays as teaching tools is no coincidence. Many of them were written with this specific goal in mind. As Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett said responding to criticism about their portrayal of Anne Frank in their play from 1955, “…The thing that we have striven for, toiled for, fought for throughout the whole play is to make the audience understand and identify themselves… to make them one with them… to make them feel ‘that, but for the grace of God, might have been I.’”

In a recent interview, playwright Martin Sherman discussed that he wrote his extraordinary play Bent to document the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

It was a story that had to be told and hadn’t been. When I wrote the play there was nothing about gay people in Nazi Germany. There were no plays, novels, books, histories. There was nothing. You could research it in footnotes in various studies—a line or two here or there. It was a totally unknown topic and I suppose that one of the things I’m proudest about in my life is that it became known and then books were published and research was printed. It’s now an accepted established fact.

While the artistic value of The Diary of Anne Frank and Bent can’t be disputed, they were each born of the same impulse. Again and again we can find that the creation of Holocaust theatre stems from a desire for instruction. These plays act as a substitute primary source, easing an audience into facing the truth of wartime atrocity, and while excluding humor from plays about the Holocaust under the guise that it is not instructive may seem like a valid argument, ultimately, it is a hollow one. We are so used to the simple categorization inherent in Holocaust plays that we feel more comfortable emphasizing memorial over stirring drama, and thusly, we are not rewarding or encouraging new stories to be boldly told, or told at all. We are telling our playwrights they will be more successful writing for a lecture hall than a stage.

This sentiment is observed most strongly not outside, but within the Jewish community, by some of its most vocal leaders and institutions. In regard to two of the most prominent Jewish theatre organizations in the United States, The Jewish Plays Project and the National Jewish Theater Foundation’s Holocaust Theater Catalogue, the Holocaust is either a subject deemed fit to be excluded from theatrical interpretation entirely or belonging in an archive, far away from the audience it could potentially earn.  

The mission statement of the Jewish Plays Project states that “The Jewish Plays Project puts bold, progressive Jewish conversations on world stages.” Yet, the Jewish Plays Project states in its submission guidelines that a play is only eligible for submission if, among other things, “It is not a Holocaust play (stories that deal directly with the history of the Shoah, its survivors and their children).” Here, it is publicly stated by a Jewish organization of great repute that the Holocaust, one of the most integral components of Jewish identity for most American Jews, has no place as a part of any “bold, progressive Jewish conversations on world stages.” If this is the case, then where is it permissible by the community’s standards to place new works of theater about the Holocaust? These works are directed to the National Holocaust Theater Catalogue, whose goal “is to fill an existing void in Holocaust awareness by providing a critically needed entryway to the intersection of theater arts, education and Holocaust scholarship. The selected theater works from 1933 to the present are included regardless of production history, publishing status, language or judgment as to artistic merit.”

The message the community is sending to its own young artists is clear: “We are comfortable with putting a topic integral to Jewish identity away, simply because it’s not where we think the future of the Jewish theatrical conversation lies. Your play (a work of art that requires an audience more than any other art form), ‘regardless of production history, publishing status, language or judgment as to artistic merit,’ (but solely due to its subject matter) belongs not on stage to be viewed as a work of art, but in an archive to be used to fill a void in Holocaust awareness.” (Full disclosure: I recently received notice that Muse of Fire has been included in the National Holocaust Theater Catalogue.)

Are we producing a glut of “acceptable” theatrical documentaries and erasing the potential for true drama? Are we only allowing plays that relegate themselves to unimportance by making their own stories less urgent then the historical narrative of the Holocaust? By telling new artists there is no future for theatrical dialogue with plays about the Shoah, we are insuring there isn’t one. It’s no different from saying every story about slavery has been done before, or rape, or drug abuse, or 9/11, or any other issue. By closing the conversation and refusing to acknowledge new and potentially uncomfortable approaches, we end the conversation entirely. 

Does this mean a choice must be made between art and fact? That to produce compelling drama, playwrights must free themselves of their obligation to historical narrative? With a topic as important as the Holocaust, one is conditioned to treat a question like that as sacrilege. So much of Jewish identity in relation to the Holocaust is built on a constant moral imperative to communicate and document and communicate that documentation of the facts. There’s a reason “Never Forget” has become the cultural meme that it is. Yet for a playwright who wants to take on a cultural trauma and tell it as a story, the question isn’t so much sacrilege but a call to take sides: Fact or fiction? Entertainment or documentary? Our obligation to telling the historical narrative is what motivates us to create drama out of it in the first place, yet if we preserve only the truth on stage, we harden our hearts to the human plot of history. It’s a delicate balance and one has to be careful.

Fictional narratives within a historical framework can generate a catharsis that goes beyond historical reality, and that catharsis is the nucleus of great drama. This is why it is so important for us to eliminate the language and rules that place suspensions on entire historical subjects, or claim that the facts are the only way to respectfully mine truth from a collective agony. We mustn’t be afraid to invent. In fact, we ought to invent as if our lives depend on it. This is the only way for us to move forward from any tragedy and ensure a new generation’s connection to any narrative of sorrow. No process of memory works perfectly. There will always be biases. Fog and fiction covers every retelling, even from those who lived through it. But that does not mean new attempts are not worthy, or do not belong on a stage. I wrote the character of Georg (the main character of Muse of Fire and the “director” of the play within the play) knowing full well that the task he sets out for himself (to offer his fellow inmates escape from Auschwitz through participation in a comedy play) is impossible. 

He believes that the value of comedy comes from the possibility that it can mitigate tragedy entirely, which is wholly untrue. If the men in the concentration camps were liberated, it was not done so by the “power of comedy,” but by real world forces. This is the essential question of Muse of Fire, the same question the community at large has to ask itself about unorthodox methods of Holocaust storytelling, not dismissively, but with legitimate curiosity. If comedy doesn’t erase the trauma of the Holocaust, what value can it possibly have?

In order to truly understand comedy’s worth, we have to let go of Georg’s paradigm, that comedy and tragedy are diametrically opposed forces capable of erasing each other, and accept that instead they are two sides of the same coin, mere labels that help us understand what we’re seeing. This is why comedy has value in telling the story of the Holocaust. It teaches us about the absurdity of evil. While it may not be as conventionally educational as a somber, true story, it shines a light onto the legitimate experience of those who suffered, not just in the Holocaust, but under any irrational reign of terror.  Those who say utilizing comedy to engage with the Holocaust won’t make the memory any less painful are indeed right. Recognizing something evil as funny does not make it less evil. Joking about the Holocaust, or slavery, or 9/11 or any further tragedy will not bring anyone back. But it can help us to understand and process our own feelings toward them. As the great playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel said in an address upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by Central European University, “The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world.” Havel, a person who dedicated his entire life to combatting the social evils of the Czech communist police state, knew better then anyone that comedy could not solve society’s problems alone. However, it could make them more bearable.

All that comedy can do for us is allow us to look at our day, or our community, or our history in a way that makes it easier to get through it, and even though that is the only thing it can do, it is exactly what makes it as worthy as if it erased the scariness of the big indifferent world we live in.

At its heart, theater is about storytelling. It’s about how we shape our stories, how we compartmentalize our memories, and how we choose to see the world around us. We should not waste the powerful process that is creation on what has become, effectively, photo albums. We must use elements of the stories and settings we love and imbue them with what we have to say, not what has already been recorded in history books. The Holocaust can be comedy. Farce can be tragic. We must tell new stories. Otherwise, “Never Forget” becomes not an instrument of our liberation, but another cage. If the process of Muse of Fire has taught me anything, it’s that when there is a possibility for new stories to be told on stage, there is a possibility for discourse, for discussion, for coping with trauma in new and creative ways. Bar Kappara is no villain. Instead, he is performing the noblest of tasks; asserting comedy’s worth. By making the Rabbi laugh, we won’t bring calamity to the world. Instead, we show him that the world will keep turning after the giggling dies down, and through laughter, we can explore new parts of it together.

 

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I should imagine that the use of comedy by those confined to concentration camps did in fact save lives if it enabled inmates to avoid suicide until liberation.

Jake--

You don't mention and might be interested to learn about Lisa Peschel's research into cabaret in Theresienstadt. She's specifically interested in the survival value of humor in circumstances of extreme oppression. She did lots of oral history with survivors who participated in these cabarets and found and translated previously untranslated scripts for show. Her book of scripts is Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezín/ Theresienstadt Ghetto, and last I knew she was also working on a book based on the oral histories of the surviving performers she interviewed.

Monica, It was actually Lisa Peschel's research that lead me to the discovery of the historical footnote of the performances in other concentration camps! I believe her work to be absolutely invaluable, both as an artistic resource and a revisionist history of daily camp life.

I just saw the opera THE PASSENGER by Weinberg at The Lyric in Chicago. I took my class in Holocuast Theatre and Performance from The Theatre School at DePaul. The opera was very dark and didn't really have humor, though some of the characters were depicted grotesquely. But the issue of using the Holocaust as a story that can be related to and how to relate to it also comes up here. I am still getting my thoughts together on this and will be writing about it. But the useage of a musical form, opera, in a setting for people that have various levels of Holocaust knowledge creates a dynamic that is a major challenge. Opera by virtue of its size and shape is a form that encompasses "bigness" and a total theatre experience. It is sung by people who have large amazing voices on a set (at The Lyric) that is gargantuan. It calls for a mythic expression. Weinberg who was Jewish and lived in a very Jewish cultural milieu - though it was repressed during the time of Stalin and after, and he converted at the end of his life to Russian Orthodox Church - writes a gargantuan score in '67-68, that is influenced by Shostakovich, klezmer, Prokofiev, and the requiem mass oratorio style.

Thank you for your thoughtful piece and your desire to make the Holocaust through theatre relevant for today's audiences. And yes, humor is often a way to point out the horror in an even more visceral and deep way. I will never forget the production of LAUGHTER/AUSCHWITZ by Peter Barnes that I produced at Tufts University and how the audiences were left speechless after they had been rolling with laughter - and then they saw the effects of such comedy, that indeed comedy could be a way to both reveal and hide. There is much more to discuss in your piece and I look forward to hearing others.

Thank you. I've come to find that the most effective humor shares the same basic elements of the most effective tragedy. There's a reason why people say comedy is all about exaggeration... It's all about perspective. Exaggeration provides a dramatic distance that allows us to process horrible events without making them feel like their as imminent, or urgently happening to us. I certainly hope that the discussion continues as long as it can!

I love this. In real life, usually even the worst circumstances (hard to get worse than the Holocaust), times when someone is dying, or has cancer...in the midst of divorce or loss...there is humor. As you say, humor is what helps us get through. It provides momentary relief and an acknowledgement of the absurdity of life. Bravo for taking on such a big task!