Review of Gene A. Plunka, Holocaust Drama: The Theater of Atrocity

Gene Plunka states that “Drama has proven to be an effective medium for representing the Holocaust.” (16) In this book, he reviews many of the most important plays about the Holocaust, providing analytic accounts of the characters, and extremely detailed synopses of the plays. He is above all a theater historian and critic, giving background information about how each play came to be written and about the world-view it was supposed to represent, and offering a critical assessment of where it succeeded and where it did not replete with analysis of production and staging, number of performances, and critical reviews. These details provide invaluable contextualization: literary works, including these dramas, have been so influential in shaping our conceptualization of the Holocaust that it is easy to lose sight of how they were created, staged, and received.

While each chapter places the individual plays described in it into perspective, the introduction is the only place where a truly broad overview is offered; in the rest of the book, each chapter discusses a play or group of plays, and could easily be a stand-alone article on the subject. There is no overall conclusion reviewing the findings, discussing the significance of the conclusions, and charting an overall path through staged presentations of the Holocaust theme. While this would be my personal preference, it is not really Plunka’s purpose in this book.

Plunka lays out two overall goals, first, to ensure "accuracy and faithfulness to the Shoah"—although recognizing that playwrights have substantial latitude—and second, to serve as an effective drama critic (19). A concluding essay could have allowed for more attention to larger themes, such as the first of these two goals and questions such as the degree to which the "wide latitude" in the plays examined did or did not trivialize the event or disrespect the dead (19)—and an overall treatment of the such topics as “accuracy and faithfulness” in staged drama, where the characters must loom larger than life, even though they are portraying the Holocaust, the enormity of which is itself often seen as larger than any study or drama can portray. As for the second goal: Plunka is a skillful critic, and has much to day about the symbolism and meaning of the plays, unfolding development of characters’ attitudes to the Holocaust, and the attitudes of the playwrights to the most important issues in depicting the Holocaust on stage. Again, my personal preference would have been for an overall conclusion about the significance of such critical review, and the ways in which these dramatic productions reflected—and re-shaped—popular understanding of the Shoah and discourse about it. 

To a certain extent, the discussion of the plays is driven instead by the delineation of five goals of Holocaust drama, based on the work of Robert Skloot: homage to the victims, educating audiences, inducing empathy, raising moral and ethical questions, and drawing lessons from history. (17)  Thus, Plunka sees Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy most importantly as falling under the rubric of raising moral and ethical questions. The play engendered much discussion regarding the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust, a topic that remains controversial today. Plunka sees the heart of the play as the “assumption of moral responsibility” which leads him to take issue with the typical understanding of the play, noting that the Papal Deputy’s choice “vindicates the Church, and when viewed in this manner, his martyrdom is a tribute to, not an attack upon Christianity.” (183). Seeing the play as ultimately about moral choice, Plunka lambasts Hochhuth’s decision to lengthen the play by adding a fifth, final act set in Auschwitz, calling it a “critical mistake.” The fifth act lengthens the time needed to mount the play, not only by the extra act, but by elaborations of characters really needed only to support it; otherwise it could be mounted in four hours or less. But loss of focus may be the heart of the critical problem. Opining that the purpose of the extra act appears to have been to associate Auschwitz with evil and to question God’s role, he says “those two topics are not germane to the central notion of moral responsibility and even muddle the issue unnecessarily.” (185)

As the discussion of The Deputy focuses on category of examining moral and ethical questions, in his final choice, Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, Plunka appears to focus on the category of drawing lessons from history—indeed, he notes that it alerts us to Wiesel’s plea not to forsake the Holocaust’s lessons. Rebecca’s vision of the Holocaust at the end of the play—of Nazis ripping babies from their mothers—“allows her to refuse to be victimized again and again and again.” His final remark is that this play “makes us aware that such genocide could begin again if we do not recognize that the personal is meshed with the political.” (326-327).

The Holocaust is one of the enduring symbols of our times: a foundation stone of our narrative about good and evil, about society and values, about who we are and how we came to be who we are. We use fraught terms to designate actors in this all-too-real and all-too-evil drama: survivors, victims, liberators, resistors, deniers[1]—and even treat this status as a heritage, using terms such as 2nd and 3rd generation, or asking where someone’s grandfather was in the Holocaust. Drama is indeed an effective medium for reflecting on the Holocaust, debating issues and lessons, and indeed, defining the parameters of discourse. Thus Plunka convincingly argues that Hochhuth adding Auschwitz was a critical mistake but in retrospect, Auschwitz is such a potent embodiment of evil, that it’s easy to imagine why he thought it was dramatically necessary—and its inclusion could only increase the visibility of Auschwitz. 

Holocaust Drama: The Theater of Atrocity functions best on the level of individual plays, both for its insightful analysis of style, focus, plot, and character, and for its critical assessment of staging, production and reception. Taken as a whole, it is a fruitful basis for discussion of issues of dramatic accuracy and faithfulness, of coherence and focus, and of the extent to which dramatic presentations of the Holocaust trivialize it and render it banal or a mere metaphor or symbol—or memorialize, crystallize issues and teach transformative lessons. This is an important read for dramaturgs and students of theater, for professors of literature and intellectual history, and for the general reading public concerned with the presentation of the Holocaust.


Seth Ward

[1] Holocaust Resistors do not play much of a role in the book under review, but they are the subject of Plunka’s most recent book, the just-released Staging Holocaust Resistance (Palgrave 2012).

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