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Translating Laughter

A Cabaret from the Terezín Ghetto

Just how funny can an interview with a Holocaust survivor be?  I spent the spring of 2005 in Prague, working with survivors of the World War II ghetto at Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt) to translate and annotate a Czech-language cabaret written by four of their fellow prisoners. It turned out that an eighty-four-year-old survivor who was advising me with the translation started laughing so hard at the jokes in the script that she had to put her head down on the table to catch her breath before we could continue. The intensely “insider” humor of the cabaret was still immediately clear to her, but to explain it to modern readers of the English translation I wrote 174 footnotes.

Although theater historians knew that the cabaret Laugh with Us, written by Dr. Felix Porges, Vítězslav “Pidla” Horpatzky, Pavel Weisskopf, and Pavel Stránský, had been performed in the ghetto, the script was considered lost—until 2005. During my research in Prague, two separate versions came to light: one in the possession of a dancer who had performed in the show, and the other, with the original sheet music, in the private collection of Porges’s sons. In December of 2010, a development team at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis confronted the question: could this cabaret be adapted for US audiences of the 21st century?

One aspect of the challenge was clear. The script is packed with comic references to specific events in the ghetto; how could we let our spectators “in on the joke”? The other was much more complex: how could we translate that humor for an audience that, unlike the prisoners themselves, knows exactly how the story ended?  In a country where the use of humor in works about the Holocaust has been controversial (the reaction to the film Life Is Beautiful provides just one example), how would audiences react to humor in works from the Holocaust—in a cabaret written by prisoners themselves?

In the summer of 2008 I approached the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, hoping they would take on this potentially controversial project. Hayley Finn, the Center’s Resident Director/Lab Producer, responded strongly to the prisoners’ impulse to recognize the absurdity in the horror and how humor helped them endure. She had just finished working with playwright Kira Obolensky, author of Lobster Alice and Raskol, on the play Hiding in the Open, which was based on a Holocaust memoir, and thought Kira would be an excellent match for the project. With generous financial support from Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, we were able to schedule a five-day workshop with Twin Cities actors Elise Langer, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Sasha Andreev, and Pearce Bunting for December 2010.

We would try to provide our audiences with a rare glimpse into the prisoners’ present and how they used humor to cope with the unprecedented crisis unfolding before them

Work on the script itself started months before. Hayley, Kira, and I talked about survivor testimony and the meaning of Terezín’s cultural life for the prisoners, about my translation, about the footnotes, and above all about the issue of humor. We all agreed that, rather than adapting the script to American conventions regarding “Holocaust art,” we would try to provide our audiences with a rare glimpse into the prisoners’ present and how they used humor to cope with the unprecedented crisis unfolding before them.

Kira was especially interested in the cabaret’s manipulation of time—it is set in the postwar future, as if the Terezín performers had all survived the war and were now back in Prague “reminiscing” about the ghetto—and in fact most Terezín prisoners did not know the fate that awaited them. The Nazis, in order to keep them from resisting the outgoing transports, went to great lengths to disguise their destination, which for most was Auschwitz.

In the draft that Kira created in the fall of 2010 she preserved several scenes from the original cabaret and all of the original songs, yet framed them in a completely new way. As three characters, based closely on the original Terezín performers, take to the stage to envision their postwar future, a fourth character attempts to project herself into their wartime past. This character, “the scholar,” initially serves as the audience’s guide to the world of the ghetto, interviewing survivors (also played by the three cabaret actors) and talking about her struggle to understand what theatrical performance had meant for them. But as the play progresses the cabaret performers and the scholar begin to encounter each other more directly. She begins to experience the cabaret from the inside, and they begin to press her for information about their fate.

The draft left many questions to be worked out in performance. For example, what allowed the performers and the scholar to “break through” into each others’ time? In the spare staging that Kira envisioned, the players used a chalkboard, the only set piece, to manipulate their movement through time. The “stage directions” written there allowed them to project themselves into the past and future. In other scenes, emotional moments of performance opened a path from one world to another. Another question revolved around the balance of the comic with the tragic. How could the script enable audiences to experience the pleasure of the prisoners’ humor while also acknowledging the gravity of their fate?

Just before the workshop began, Craig Harris joined the development team as musician and composer. He adapted the preserved sheet music to fit Kira’s adaptations of the lyrics, and the two of them also crafted new songs that clarified some of the most convoluted aspects of the original script. For example, although Kira had simply cut some of most intensely “insider” references from the play, she had not completely eliminated the Terezín-specific jargon that reveals so much about the prisoners’ world. One extremely dense passage remained—accompanied by a comic “Song of the Footnotes,” in which the scholar explains what the terms mean.

As soon as the actors began to dig into the script, now titled Why We Laugh, several things became apparent. For example, certain scenes from the original cabaret were still uproariously funny. With Kira’s minor adjustments to the text, the actors quickly brought them back to vivid life. In another scene, an obscure reference was clarified with a simple gesture. In the original cabaret a comic duo, Porges and his partner Horpatzky, talked about the “lost and found” section of the Terezín newspaper in which one could read, as Horpatzky recalled, “a bridgehead got lost, sometimes initiative got lost, even airplanes got lost, every day.” The original Terezín audience would have recognized this immediately as a reference to Nazi defeats. Kira had rewritten this passage as a song between Porges and his wife, Elly. Craig had composed a wry melody to accompany the lyrics:

Porges Lost: an airplane

Elly An airplane?

Porges Lost in the skies above Germany. That’s the rumor.

Elly That was the rumor.

As Porges made a slow airplane gesture with his hands, Horpatzky, now standing in the background, took careful aim with his fingers and shot it down, wordlessly clarifying the point of the scene. We discovered that the cabaret artists and the scholar could enter into each other’s time in many different ways—stage directions on the chalkboard, the scholar’s laughter, a song that captures all the characters’ attention—and all worked well dramatically.

Cast of Why we Laugh on stage
Why We Laugh. Photo: Irve Dell

One thing that did evolve, however, was a slow shift in control of the world of the play. At first the scholar was able to stop and start the cabaret at will, treating the actors as projections of her research. But as the show progressed, the cabaret performers increasingly took on a life of their own, manipulating the rules of the cabaret world for their own purposes and beginning to demand information from her. Why was she so interested in the cabaret, and what could she tell them about their own, real future? This question led to the climactic moment of the play: a confrontation between the scholar and a performer who perished in the Holocaust, as he demands she tell him of his fate.

For the final workshop session at the Playwrights’ Center, which was open to the public, we had originally planned to present just selected scenes. However, the rehearsals went so smoothly that, after only twenty-two hours, the actors were able to perform a full run-through of the script including choreography for the songs. The audience’s reaction? The laughter was unmistakable. The humor was definitely reaching them. Many of the spectators stayed after the performance to talk about the play and to respond to our questions. Their comments and our observations are now steering revisions for the next step in this play’s journey: a return to Terezín.

Conductor Murry Sidlin, creator of the Terezín concert/drama Defiant Requiem, has invited us to perform Why We Laugh at a new festival in the former ghetto in June 2011. What will the survivors and their families make of the way that they are portrayed? What will they think of our interpretation of their humor? I hope to answer some of these questions in a follow-up article this summer, but for now I’ll just make a prediction: they will laugh hardest of all.

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Dear both, thank you for your long-ago messages -- I'm glad to say that it will be performed in Minneapolis at the Open Eye Theatre, September 12-27 (excluding the Jewish holidays) under the same title. Why We Laugh. I hope you might have a chance to see it.