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

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 204-207 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0004

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Gene Plunka has written a wide-ranging survey of Holocaust drama, combining historical background, description of major dramatic works, accounts of theatrical reception, and broad moral interpretation. The more than thirty plays he discusses and the book's thirty-six-page bibliography offer all a teacher might need to design a course on the subject. With this comprehensive reach, Plunka's book, despite its flaws, is likely to become the standard text in the field for some time to come for an English-speaking readership.

Plunka builds on the anthologies and criticism of several predecessors: the pioneering work of Robert Skloot, beginning with The Theatre of the Holocaust, volume 1 (1982); my own international anthology, Plays of the Holocaust (1987); Edward Isser's Stages of Annihilation (1997); Vivian Patraka's Theatre, Fascism, and the Holocaust (1999); and the criticism and commentary of many others. These works in their different ways examine dramatic form, national styles, particular authors, and especially the ethical and critical issues that must be stirred by attempts to stage the unstageable. For Plunka, a generation later, Holocaust drama is less a problem to be wary of or a contradiction to be reconciled than it is an established field; in a sense, the "aura" surrounding the subject has been dispelled. Aiming for comprehensiveness, Plunka seeks to include and categorize every "salient" play on the subject and, through the prism of drama, to sketch the entire story of the Holocaust—its emergence, its aftermath, and its moral and cultural implications. His multi-pronged, deeply researched approach, which one might describe as historico-thematic, is both valuable and, in some ways, ironically limiting.

In his introduction Plunka describes his double role as historian, "alerting the reader when the playwright deviates from the historical record or manipulates the Holocaust for artistic purposes," and theater critic of the works he discusses, examining "form, content, and stage techniques to make sure that they mesh effectively," as not every Holocaust play "works on the boards" (19). Words like "deviate" and "manipulate" may make the reader uneasy, but in practice Plunka welcomes a wide range of dramaturgical experimentation, and his interpolations of documented fact enrich his discussions. The criteria of theatrical salience, effectiveness, and workability, however, are more questionable. Plays may be "salient" here because they have drawn the attention of respected critics, but also because they were written by a well-known author, or because they earned some commercial cachet on the West End or Broadway, or because they created a furor. For what "works" in the theater no objective standards are offered, and none can be. The result is a bumpy book, frequently admirable as it unfolds the great moral eclipse of the Holocaust through the dramatic form, but sometimes backed by this very effort into questionable categorization or ham-handed interpretation.

In chapter 4, "The Holocaust as Literature of the Body," Plunka lays out the Third Reich's obsession with the physical superiority of German youth, the passage of the Nuremberg Laws that identified the Jewish body as contaminated, and the cultivation of systematic physical debasement in the camps. He enlists here the accounts of Agamben and Terrence Des Pres and the analysis of historians Goldhagen and Wistrich. This background comprises a sobering introduction, for instance, to Charlotte Delbo's concentration camp play for a cast of all-female actors (Who Will Carry the Word?), and helps the reader cut through the play's formal poetic diction to a visceral sense of inmates' suffering in the camps. Other fine discussions include Plunka's absorbing accounts of Gilles Ségal's little-known All the Tricks But One and the more familiar The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth in the two chapters titled "Aryan Responsibility during the Holocaust," I and II (peculiarly so titled, I might add: If "Aryan," why not responsibility for the Holocaust, and if during, then why the loaded Nazi term "Aryan?").

Yet, early in the book, a problematic aspect of Plunka's thematic approach also comes into view. His second chapter, "Staging the Banality of Evil," summons the notorious Eichmann trial, citing Hannah Arendt's delineation, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, of a Nazi character type (one who displayed the "banality...



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