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No one bears witness for the witness.—Paul Celan
Although not among the Shoah-related writings alluded to in Darrah Teitel's award-winning play Corpus, this haunting problem posed in Paul Celan's 1967 poem, "Ash-glory," seems to hover above the action on stage. The play focuses on contemporary efforts to document and interpret events of the Holocaust, and in doing so, interrogates our postmodern relationship to the past, atrocity, and memory. Tracing the research efforts of a graduate student of genocide studies to uncover and engage with testimonies about the Nazi genocide, the play asks difficult questions about the proliferation of academic work on the Holocaust and the public fascination with it, as well as the varied motivations of belated witnesses and those who witness for them.
Set in contemporary Toronto and Berlin, and Auschwitz during World War II, Corpus takes as its starting point the personal and academic struggles of Megan White, a University of Toronto graduate student whose dissertation focuses on explaining the "formative conditions" that shaped the attitudes and behaviours of Nazi perpetrators and supporters. Using the Internet to track down aging unrepentant Nazis who feel compelled to talk to someone about their past but cannot trust those around them, Megan penetrates private chat rooms and gains their confidence as research subjects. She wishes to understand the nature of racism not simply intellectually and emotionally, but physically—to feel the totality of racism and the entire being of the racist. She wants to launch her career and become an academic star. She desires love.
Equipped with an academic toolkit shaped by theorists who work on the historiography and theory of genocide, Megan and her evolving work serve as biting critiques of the burgeoning academic fascination with this past and its career-building capability. The writings of people such as philosopher Hannah Arendt and French feminist Jules Kristeva buttresses Megan's work. Arendt's controversial concept of the banality of evil and Kristeva's thinking about our relationship to the "abject" provides a framework for humanizing the perpetrator. Ultimately, however, high theory fails Megan. It does not make her the most discerning of listeners—neither to the life-narratives of others nor to her own.
Intersecting with the narrative arc that follows Megan in her research is the story she uncovers of Eva Woolfe, an aging Berlin woman with an untold past. Formerly Eva Reiniger, wife of an S.S. officer stationed at Auschwitz, Eva wishes to entrust her wartime story to someone who will value it. Smitten with a member of the Sonderkommando—Jewish prisoners forced to aid in the killing process and disposal of corpses—she schemes to rescue him and flee together close to the war's end. Eva's memory—of unlikely romance across racial barriers—captivates Megan, not only for its affirmation of the power of love amidst evil, but for its promise of celebrity for the researcher who publicizes it. One is reminded of Rosa, the central character of Cynthia Ozick's novella, The Shawl, who complains of a professor who pursues her to interview her for his academic project about survival: "Who made up these words, parasites on the throat of suffering!"
But Eva's is not the only narrative of her last days at Auschwitz and on the run with the Jewish prisoner. As Teitel's play unfolds, competing memories of Eva's choices complicate the action. Not only Megan, but an adoring public that has seized on Megan's account of unexpected love among the ashes—and the play's audience that has followed along—are pushed to confront what it is that we seek to recover from the past. And the ability of a crafted story to elicit responses uncannily evokes the well-honed mechanisms of Nazi duplicity.
The present world of the play is one marked by technological advances. Indeed, Megan's research would be impossible without the benefits of the Internet and digitization...