In the midst of madness
Sidebar Article: About the Author
Celebrated playwright David Wiltse describes the study of the Holocaust as a huge, ugly canvas. When he picked up his dramatic brushes to tackle the subject, he made a conscious decision to pick a different part of the canvas on which to tell his story.
It seems as if 99 percent of what you see and read about the Holocaust is from the point of view of the victim, Wiltse said. I didnt want to be limited to that perspective. One of the things that puzzles me, in addition to the obvious, is what it must have been like for all Germans to see what had been a cultured, civilized country literally going crazy. Like it or not, everyone in Germany had a degree of involvement in the Holocaust. In the midst of the madness, everybody, in his or her own way, was struggling to be a good German.
From this mindset comes the playwrights latest production, titled, appropriately enough, The Good German. The play will premiere in New Jersey on Oct. 5 and run through the 22nd at Playwrights Theatre in Madison.
A respected German professor whose dislike of Jews is matched by his disdain for Nazis is asked by his wife to conceal a Jewish man in their home. To appease his beloved spouse, he reluctantly agrees. A fourth character, the professors affable best friend, happens to be a rising star in the Nazi bureaucracy. Despite the simple premise, there is virtually no end to the complexities that emerge from the interaction of the characters each of whom has evident strengths and flaws.
The thing that fascinates me about this play is that its about the human heart in the bottom of the belly of hell, said director James Glossman, a Montclair resident. The characters develop a connection to one another under the most horrible circumstances imaginable. The Good German isnt about a period of history as much as its about people in this particular period of history. How do these four human beings react to inhuman pressures? Nobody acts in a predictable way.
Through these interactions, the play explores the idea of the Nazis constructing a machine that leads to their own self-destruction, he continued. They wanted to destroy the Jews, but instead they were destroying their own humanity. Each of the characters has a distinctly different take on this phenomenon. Its a new way of coming at a subject that is familiar to most of us. The characters and situations are so specific that suddenly the subject seems almost fresh.
One of the defining moments in the production comes when Siemi Tauber, the fast-rising Nazi official, pinpoints the key to Hitlers appeal among the masses: hatred.
We love to hate, he states. It is so liberating to be given permission, to be encouraged to indulge the most intense of out passions. Thats Hitlers genius; thats what that egomaniacal little runt understood instinctively: It feels good to hate. What other emotion makes you feel so alive?
We werent certain who we are anymore; our history alone was not enough, so he told us who we were by telling us who we were not. We are those who are not them. He circumvented out intelligence, he ignored our minds, and went straight for the heart.
According to Wiltse, his aim with that speech was to explain why so many people seem to revel in hatred then and now.
Not only does hatred release something very powerful, unlike any other emotion, it enables you to create an enemy, he offered. Once you create an enemy and a reason to hate, you keep repeating it enough times, and pretty soon people begin to believe it. Of course, the Nazis were extremely effective with that kind of propaganda.
In the play, Siemis powerful words are cut short by his friend Karl Vogel, who labels the premise vulgar. Even though Karl opens his home to a Jewish man, he is never exactly a gracious host, and he makes no effort to hide his prejudice.
Still, there is a fine line the line separating civility from barbarianism that the scholarly Karl will not cross. It is that line that fuels his contempt for the Nazis. And ultimately, it is that line that makes him so uneasy with Siemis analysis.
The great strength and self-torture of Karl is that he is trying so hard to cling to some shred of decency in the midst of such insanity, Glossman said. Hes trying to figure out how to maintain a moral compass in a world in which magnetic North has been removed.
It quickly becomes clear to the audience that neither Karl nor Siemi can be classified as heroic, nor is either a monster, devoid of redeeming qualities. Significantly, the same holds true for Braun, the Jewish houseguest, and Gretel, Karls wife. So who is the good German?
It depends on your perspective, Glossman said. Hopefully, thats a question the audience will be discussing after they see the play.
That possibility is one of the reasons John Pietrowski, artistic director of The Playwrights Theatre, was drawn to the play.
Were interested in presenting productions that have the capacity to help people think imaginatively, he related. This play underscores the fact that people are people; things are rarely black and white, so what you find are various shades of gray. In The Good German, four individuals are responding to an unprecedented political and social dilemma. The intriguing thing is that their responses have applications above and beyond the setting of the play.
See the show
Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey is located at 33 Green Village Road in the Green Village Road School in Madison. The Good German a coproduction with Shadowlands Theatre in Ellenville, NY runs Oct. 5-22; ticket prices range from $15 to $35.
Call Donna Lee Gennaro, director of audience development, at 973-514-1787, ext. 13, for information about special high school student matinees (Wednesdays, Oct. 11 and 18, and Thursday, Oct. 19, at 11 a.m.)
For more information, call Playwrights Theatre at 973-514-1787.
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