- Introduction:Witnessing History, Performing Trauma
When the poet and political prisoner Tadeusz Borowski described the "October" sky over Birkenau, intoning, "I am oddly melancholy / telling you about this, for what do words mean? / I saw the lines of smoke the wind traced on the elusive sky," he knew that the smoke would dissipate, leaving, as he put it, "nothing but the poet's sadness and a subject for a poem."1 His audience in 1943 understood the communal experience of site-specific performance. They witnessed the same sky over the death camp. But we who hear the poem in 2013, removed in time and space from the Holocaust, have become what literary scholar Shoshana Felman calls "belated witnesses" to past trauma and the recipients of a secondary, albeit much diluted, trauma. Felman has referred to Paul Celan as a "witness-traveler" whose poetry with its inherent testimony opens up "the obscure direction and the unknown destination of his journey."2 In the same way, Borowski wrote poetry to orient himself in his surroundings. But he also wrote poems to perform: his recitations belonged to evening variety shows in a Birkenau infirmary, affording his fellow prisoners a momentary reprieve from the daily horrors that surrounded them.3 At the same time that he shared his soul-searching insights with an audience, Borowski marked the moment as a testimonial witnessing of history.
"To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949.4 With this provocative sentence, the theorist launched a lingering literary debate about the moral perils of re-presenting the Holocaust. Yet survivors of concentration camps like Borowski and Charlotte Delbo performed theatrically and wrote while imprisoned there, using art as a mode of witness to the dreadful reality of Auschwitz-Birkenau.5 Others addressed their plight artistically after being liberated from the camps. Adorno's dictum has been widely misunderstood and often taken out of its historical context. Adorno was commenting on the situation within which post-WWII writers, particularly Germans, found themselves—a waste land where language, especially German, proved inadequate to articulate the inexpressible horrors of what had happened only a few years earlier in Germany and [End Page 45] across Europe. It would take years to come to terms with the historical cataclysm and the enormity of the war's devastation. Many may argue that we have not yet succeeded.
Adorno never condemned the possibility of art after Auschwitz in his writings. But he cautioned writers to consider their moral obligation as artists when seeking the proper medium with which to re-present the Shoah, should they attempt such a feat. This idea has persisted over the decades, especially among non-arts scholars. Anthropologist Inga Clendinnen, for example, describes the oxymoron of using art to depict the Holocaust. Coining such an attempt the "inversion effect," she writes, "The magic of art usually should intensify and transfigure actuality. Touch the Holocaust and the flow is reversed."6 How can artists "touch the Holocaust" to represent an atrocity that has the power seventy years later to unsettle and even repulse spectators? Borowski's verse has not lost its "magic" because he composed it in concentration camps. What kind of art is borne by past events that wither our sensibilities and make us shudder? Can art created through trauma provide a paradigm for playwrights and practitioners to approach the subject of global or national crises? In the following essays, we explore how theatre artists document historical atrocity and express crushing trauma and its aftermath in their work. In this way, we may contribute to an ongoing discussion on how we lend credence to catastrophic events through literary, theatrical, and performative means.
Any discussion of historical witnessing must consider the identity of a witness-artist who testifies about a past event, his or her "emplotment" of the event, and the intended audience for the retold history.7 Dominick LaCapra has written about the significance of testimony for history, but he reminds us that testimony complicates history by calling into question how a historian (or analyst) turns into a "secondary witness" who then adopts a specific "subject-position with respect to the witness...