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Auschwitz in New York

The Investigation

by Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss has said about The Investigation that it could be recited or sung, but could not be acted. At one time, when the work was in progress, he called it “Auschwitz Oratorio,” and actually the text is a sort of counterpoint of voices, uttering an inexpressibly awful libretto. All except a few lines of the text is taken from the testimony in the 1964 trial, in Frankfurt, of the SS men attached to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. No attempt has been made to shape the testimony dramatically, although certain things are included, such as the mention of German industrial firms, to support Weiss’s idea that the camps were an economic advantage to Germany and are a product of capitalism and a possibility for every capitalist society. “The Camp is still here,” one of the survivors says. It lives on, according to a recent interview with Weiss, in the prisons in Spain and Portugal, in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Communists in Indonesia (bringing that dubious nation to “our side”), in Vietnam, in South Africa. For the most part, however, The Investigation is a recitation and remembrance of torture and murder and gas pellets and crematoria and individual acts of sadism. The stage is just a bare court room. The witnesses and defendants face us. The witnesses produce their ghastly memories and then turn to point to the defendant, in his business clothes, who some twenty years before had done the dreadful acts.

What are we supposed to feel, there in the theater, listening to the unadorned recitation of horrors? The idea for such a work is more complex than it would seem on the surface. To whom is it addressed and for what purpose? And what is the reality of the theatrical fact? First of all, the limitations of the stage, or of any art form for that matter, are dramatically exposed when you attempt a realistic presentation of the crimes of the Nazis. The sheer magnitude of the crimes, the numbers, cannot be taken in. The case history—and that is what a trial inevitably is—seeks the general by way of the particular, the national in the individual, the many through the one. This is a way the imagination will try to cope with enormity and yet it will necessarily reduce, personalize. The spectator, watching the representation, will watch in sorrow, or guilt, or pain; and yet he will also feel sorrow, or guilt, or pain about the smallness of his own feelings, the abject insufficiency of his response. The limits of art and the limits of the private emotions meet suddenly as the testimony goes on.

THE REALITY OF AUSCHWITZ is not on the stage. Nor are the criminals represented on the stage. Everything is not only once but twice or many times removed. When you see a representation, in the body of an actor, of the monstrous sadist, Boger, you experience only the sense of a faint shadow hinting at a receding corporeality. Were Boger himself present, as he was in Frankfurt, you would only be one step closer to the Auschwitz Boger, you would not truly have him before you. Boger can only be represented by his actions, not by his physical being later or by the description of his actions. And even if, to pursue the horrible idea to the end, one saw an actual murder or two actual murders on the stage, that in turn would give only a suggestion of the mass extermination, the vast cruelties of the Nazis and the camps. The actors are only actors, innocent, acquainted not with death but at the most with words. And we, the audience?

What is expected of us? Birth or death? We are not, in this play, brought into the theater to receive essential information. The theater audiences of the great cities of the world are not in ignorance of the camps and the personal bestiality of those who ran them. (These persons as an idea have reached their apotheosis, their clear immortality, as “The Beast of Belsen” and other fast-selling titles in the pornography shops.) In the excerpts from the Frankfurt trials perhaps some bits of the horror are “new” to the audience, but these are only details. If one were to want the transcript of the Frankfurt trials he would better be sent to the publication of them in book form, just now coming out,* than to a rapid selection offered in a theater. Of course, we are probably meant to feel complicity and, no doubt, to hear a political warning about our own society. In Germany, where it was first performed, the intention may have been a more open one, a determination to try once more to make them see. Yet one of the most enraging things about the Nazis is that they do not make our own sins greater but less; their horrors reduce others to “conventional warfare” or “all armies do that.” And Peter Weiss himself does not seem unduly worried about Stalin’s crimes. (Absorbing, shattering, staggering, chilling: to quote a few words from the reviews, printed in advertisements for the play. These are façons de parler, with which one can only sympathize as an effort to have appropriate feelings about what is only ostensibly on the stage: the concentration camps.)

Peter Weiss is one of the most interesting dramatists writing now. He works in a very curious manner, almost as if he were afraid to know what he is doing. He provides librettos, scenarios almost, and these he flings to the world, for each country, each production to do with as it will. To accept his work plain is to miss the whole point; he seems to want to put on the stage huge explosions of the instinctual life, instincts that have become politicized, but are not merely politics, in spite of his own preoccupation with that part of our current life. The camps were reality; the trial at Frankfurt was a sort of near-reality, but The Investigation is a dream, a sublimation, a play. It is at one with Sade’s play on the death of Marat.

SADE IS IN PRISON and cannot, as he did in life, torture live prostitutes. Through the theater, the sadistic impulses find expression, the impulses of the audience particularly. The audience is sly and cunning: History, truth if you will, reality, that which really happened serves the theater better than the simply concocted. For one thing one does not feel so guilty about a play on Charlotte Corday, stabbing Marat, nude in his bath. Sade’s imaginary Justine—we would not accept that acted out by the inmates; it is not true, we would say; it is just sick. We feel that Oedipus once, somehow, in the dawn of history really happened and that we are not readers of Oedipus but somehow descendants, as we are somehow descendants of Adam and Eve. The French Revolution happened, Sade himself happened; Auschwitz happened, Boger lived, indeed lives(!). The Investigation then is a play within a play. It is “The Prosecution of the SS as performed by the inmates of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.” And we are the audience, the benevolent director of the asylum. (“Coulmier incites the nurses to extreme violence… Patients are struck down… Sade stands upright on the chair, laughing triumphantly. In desperation Coulmier gives the signal to close the curtain.”) Showers, death baths, inmates, the prison itself, sadists, the helpless…and above all history, in both plays. A one-to-one parallel is not suggested, and does not exist. Yet, in the theater, The Investigation is a theatrical event. If you accept it as reality itself you will feel defrauded and tricked, or unable to allow such feelings or unable to explain them. Appropriate, self-satisfying assertions of emotions one believes are asked for—that one ought to have—are then dredged up. In truth then, The Investigation is another cruel libretto. Perhaps its aim is self-hatred—to produce self-hatred, and not through an egregious or facile effort to identify with the beasts who are just pretending to be on the stage, but through circles and circles of gloom and false feeling to come at last down to the mythic core, indifference.

THE NEW YORK PRODUCTION is not “good.” I have never seen another and yet I am convinced that this one is very bad. It is outrageously disappointing, and no joke is meant when one says that Uli Grosbard has directed The Investigation as though it were written by Arthur Miller. (If it had been assembled by Arthur Miller, it should not have been directed as his previous plays have been.) The play is not properly cast and is tonally dull and uninteresting. It is conceived only in the self-loving earnestness that is the curse of our stage. True, the play cannot be acted, but it must be staged, embodied. The art of doing nothing, of some suitable non-acting, has not even been attempted. The right people must be found and dressed and arranged. The creation of non-theater would be almost the opposite of what we have in this production—which is done in the verismo style and with the “real-life” sort of actor who functions so effectively in that law court serial on afternoon television.

What you see in the production of The Investigation is our fear of stylization, of “interpretation.” Perhaps this clinging, adhesive, didactic naturalism, year after year, play after play, had its roots in commercialism. But its development has been peculiar and complex. Stylization, where it is called for, is the work of a free imagination, of a confident spirit, following his singular gleam. The imagination, the person, must be free and yet, by a paradox, stylization is the willingness to be rigid, to control and order, to interpret, even, at times, to wrench and distort in favor of some ruling design or idea. You must of course stand upon it, since it is clearly a decision, an idea. And in that, great risks are involved.

Stylization is too personal as an action, and too refined as a conception, apparently. How much safer to trust the simple flow of “real life,” to fall back on sincerity at the expense of truth, to trust earnestness more than inspiration. (A comparison of The Blacks by Genet and Mr. Charley by James Baldwin is instructive here. However, when I read the Baldwin play it hadn’t occurred to me that it would necessarily have to be done as it was, in the old, dead, black townwhite town sermonizing way. And what this did was to weaken the most interesting thing about the play: Baldwin’s belief in the Negro’s superior sexuality.) You must have inner freedom before you can trust design and form. And further, to turn one’s back upon the plain-dealing externalization of all art, one must have some notions of the meaning of life, of the ambiguity of experience, of artistic possibility. Here in New York, every play from every period and of every sort turns out to be the same. They are all sprinkled with a tenderizing salt and pork and beef and entrails turn out, comfortably, to taste just alike after all. Perhaps by this time, no power on earth could sever our actors from their “serious,” eyes-glinting, next-door realism. The insufficiency, the falseness of this is never more pathetic than when you have a strangely hidden script like The Investigation.

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    Auschwitz by Bernard Nauman, Praeger

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