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Reviewed by:
  • Spectacular Suffering: Theatre, Fascism, and the Holocaust by Vivian M. Patraka, and: Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance ed. by Claude Schumacher
  • Sharon Mazer (bio)
Spectacular Suffering: Theatre, Fascism, and the Holocaust. By Vivian M. Patraka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999; 168pp. $35.00 cloth, $14.95 paper.
Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance. Edited by Claude Schumacher. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998; 371pp.; illustrations. $59.95 cloth.

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It would be an insult to the dead, to beg for sympathy or to lament their crushed nakedness. The event is beyond tears.

—George Tabori (in Schumacher 269)

It was just after ten o’clock in the evening, my first night in Munich last February. I was alone in a small room on the top floor of a pension, when I first heard the sirens. Startled, I stopped reading and listened, reflexively, irrationally, impossibly terrified and then, just as reflexively, irrationally, and impossibly, filled with laughter. It’s amazing, I thought, just like in The Diary of Anne Frank. For me, as an American and a Jew, the sound was instantly familiar and visceral, albeit conditioned by one of the more ubiquitous representations of the Nazi period rather than by my own lived experience. Jolted from the present, my imagination immediately conjured up the horror of arrest and transport, the sound of sirens followed by boots on stairs, fists on doors, and guttural shouts in German, of Auschwitz, and the skeletal remains of the victims.

Never again, indeed. Far from forgetting the Holocaust, much of the Western world now seems obsessed, saturated with narratives and images, authentic and manufactured, archived and commodified, of the camps, of Nazis and Jews and others, endlessly circulating, claiming our attention. Given the exponentially expanding discourse on the Holocaust, the act of theatrical representation seems especially ambivalent. Both Claude Schumacher, in Staging the Holocaust, and Vivian Patraka, in Spectacular Suffering, acknowledge the difficulties inherent in representing the Holocaust. The two books deal with these difficulties in very different ways. For Schumacher and his essayists the impossible and the unimaginable really are, and the tensions and contradictions inherent in representing the Holocaust remain unresolved and unresolvable. For Patraka, the problem is how to reconcile her multiculturalist and feminist values with the historical and geographic specificity of, and the centrality of Jews and men in the discourse about, the Holocaust. The essays in Schumacher’s collection represent a range of historical and geographic perspectives—European, Israeli, and American—and are sharply focused, so that the essayists often are explicitly pitted against each other in a conversation which has a history and an ongoing sense of conflict and confrontation. In contrast, as a solitary American writer surveying both dramatic and museum-centered performances of Holocaust memorialization, Patraka seems always to be reaching [End Page 174] for a point of contact with other oppressions and other genocides; for her representations of the Holocaust must be examined for effective inclusivity, women as well as men, non-Jewish victims as well as Jewish.

Claude Schumacher introduces the essays in Staging the Holocaust by recognizing that even for the survivors the Holocaust represented the “monstrously unimaginable” (2). The crucial questions for Schumacher as well as for the contributors to this volume are:

Can theatre provide the artefact that will help the spectator towards a better “grasp” of the Holocaust? Is such a theatrical “recreation” justified? And if it is, how can an actor hope to portray either the perpetrator or the victim, without glamorizing or demonizing the former and belittling or sanctifying the latter? (3)

Thus, for Schumacher, “To bear witness is one thing, but to ‘perform’ the testimony is another” (4). There is no formula for representing the unrepresentable, no prescription which resolves the uneasy relationship between remembering and theatricalizing, beyond the demand that the impossibility of resolution be recognized:

I shall venture to argue that the successful Shoah drama or performance is one that disturbs, offers no comfort, advances no solution; it is a play that leaves the reader or spectator perplexed, wanting to know more although convinced that...


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