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Theater 30.3 (2000) 127-128

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Theorizing the "Unmanageable"

Elinor Fuchs

Spectacular Suffering: Theatre, Fascism, and the Holocaust. by Vivian Patraka. 1999: Indiana University Press

Though many Holocaust plays have found their way into print in English in the past two decades, Vivian Patraka's Spectacular Suffering: Theatre, Fascism, and the Holocaust is the first book that attempts a critical approach to Holocaust theater and performance. It fills an empty place not just in theater criticism but in art and literary Holocaust studies in general, where drama has scarcely been recognized as a genre. Patraka's book could also serve as a goad to the historical end of the Holocaust studies field, long committed--which, as a literary critic and by conviction and training a comparativist, Patraka is not--to resisting comparisons between the Jewish genocide and any other event in history.

To bring a comparativist's kit of references to literature devoted to that which brooks no comparison, as does Patraka in Spectacular Suffering, is first of all an act of critical courage. She ventures across the proprietary minefields of Holocaust studies (not to mention those of feminist and gender studies) in a nuanced set of theorized reflections on the political and moral implications of different kinds of theatrical Holocaust representations. Occasionally one sees her ducking a piece of shrapnel, albeit more from identity theory than Holocaust exclusivism.

Patraka seeks to inspire in her reader an engagement with the absolute "goneness" (a neologism she finds more final than "absence") of the Nazi state machine's Jewish victims and their cultures. To solve the paradox of how "goneness" could ever be represented in art (recall Theodor Adorno's "no poetry after Auschwitz"), she introduces Hayden White's theory of tropes. Rejecting naive representations of what was lost (as in Diary of Anne Frank dramatization, a play she pointedly does not discuss), she examines a range of metaphors--among them the diabolical file cabinet in Peter Barnes's Auschwitz and the enormous radio in Joan Schenkar's The Last of Hitler--that point to "what cannot be mapped." Patraka implies that the theater, whose very "presence" partakes of continual loss, is a medium intuitively suited to witnessing the ungraspable disappearance of European Jewry.

At the center of the book are discussions of plays that present the possibility of a conflict of loyalties. Patraka wrestles with dual allegiances--for instance, to the memory of the Holocaust and to the awareness of gender. After some soul-searching, she refuses to fault Nelly Sachs's Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel and Liliane Atlan's Mister Fugue for their relative disregard of gender issues. She backs off, however, on Martin Sherman's Bent, which she discusses with I-feel-your-pain caution. Some in the gay studies professoriat champion this play for its forthright advocacy of coming out (even in the camps?), but those who care about Holocaust literature as a form of witnessing could rightly feel that two scenes of phone sex, in effect, don't get less banal when set at Bergen-Belsen.

It leaps out to the reader that there are relatively few works of theater that attract Patraka's unqualified support. Thus the same examples, such as Barnes's Auschwitz (though the frequent identification of it as part of a "trilogy" is perplexing; all my information makes it [End Page 127] the second part of a diptych of one-acts) and Schenkar's The Last of Hitler, are analyzed from different viewpoints in successive chapters. The range of critical texts she invokes on Holocaust literature, gender, postmodernism, pain, and other subjects (she cites Hannah Arendt, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Susan Bordo, Judith Butler, Elin Diamond, Jill Dolan, Saul Friedlander, Donna Haraway, Alice Kaplan, Peggy Phelan, Elaine Scarry, and a score of others) is broader by far than her group of subject texts. Perhaps Patraka could have cast a wider net (The God Kurt by Alberto Moravia is a little-known play she might have included), or organized the book with less repetition, but it is also true that comparatively few Holocaust plays rise to the...


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