We Are All Murderers

The Condemned of Altona

by Jean-Paul Sartre
Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

“The century would have been good if man had not been tracked down by his relentless, immemorial enemy, by the carnivorous species that had set out to slay him, by that hairless, sly beast, man himself.” In fragments like this one from the final scene of Sartre’s The Condemned of Altona, we see why the play was chosen as a part of the political and historical season at the Repertory Theater. The play, about German guilt, was meant, when it was produced in Paris in 1959, to take the audience beyond Germany to the French guilt for atrocities in the Algerian War. We, here in New York in 1966, are in the midst of a war defined by bestial atrocities on both sides; hideous documents will one day, if the war is ever over, present themselves for our contemplation, for our moral judgment on the victims and the victors, for our atonement perhaps. In the interval at the play, I heard the title called “the condemned of Altoona,” and I wondered if we could ask ourselves to make the leap from Germany to Algeria to ourselves. The play is difficult and it seems unlikely that we were truly confronted. This failure does not lie altogether at the door of the production, although it was not imaginative. Sartre’s play is poorly constructed and it takes several slow readings of the text to uncover the brilliant ideas entombed in an awkward plot.

The Condemned of Altona is really two plays. One is an engrossing monologue about war and guilt and the other is an indifferent bourgeois drama of German family life. “The Blood of the Walsungs” and a bit of the Liebestod are mixed with the horrors of the last war. The Gerlach family has survived the war and are living in their house in Altona, near Hamburg. The family, under the general amnesty and prosperity, is rebuilding its shipping firm; the father is dying of cancer. They take the family name seriously; they speak of themselves and define themselves as if they were an institution. All in all they are simply a necessity of plot and cannot engage Sartre’s real talent for dramatic argument and abstract conflict. “We may lose our principle but we keep our habits. Bismarck was still alive when our poor father acquired his,” they say. Of “The Bible. We always put it on the table for a family council.” The council has been called so that the elder, dying Gerlach can exact a promise from his son, Werner, to continue to live in the family house and to guard the family business. Werner’s wife, Johanna, wants to free her husband and herself. The members of the family explain their positions; each has his role, but they are not very life-like, nor even particularly interesting. They are a frame for the other play.

THE REAL play has to do…

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