FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR (PART TWO)
We are convened to consider the case of Kurt Gerstein because a great writer has brought us here to do so. Thomas Keneally introduced our staff to the story of Gerstein a year ago, and it was news to us all when we read this bracing treatment of the life and death of an SS officer with a cracked conscience and an activist's impulse.
Keneally, as it turns out, is not the first author or artist to consider the fate of Gerstein. Keneally discovered Gerstein's depositions going through archives of the Nuremburg Military Tribunal while doing research for his landmark work, Schindler's List. Gerstein was, in fact, first depicted in 1963 in The Deputy, Rolf Hochhuth's scandalously anti-church indictment of the Pope's war-time silence. Later in the decade, the Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander wrote Counterfeit Nazi: The Ambiguity of Good, which did for the subject of heroism what Hannah Arendt's Eichman in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil did for villainy: It made it very, very complicated. More recently, the filmmaker Costa-Gavras has looked at Gerstein's efforts to alert the Pope in his 2002 docudrama, "Amen." The film picks up the story of Gerstein about half way into Tom Keneally's rendering. None of these considerations focus on what Keneally seems most interested in exploring in Either Or, and that is the torn fidelities of a man to his family, his party, his country, his church, his God, and—when all those fail him—his soul.
Kurt's soul probably fails him as much as his God, and the challenging question before us in this Jewish theater (comprised, of course, of many different viewpoints and religions) is can we care--indeed, do we care about a perpetrator with misgivings who both abetted and obstructed the killing machine? Nothing if not provocative, this impeccably-researched play dares to make the Holocaust relevant as it questions the conscience of a good soldier charged with fighting a terrible war.
Keneally himself writes: "The impulse to re-visit the subject of Gerstein revived as I saw many bureaucrats and technocrats in the Western world, including Australia and, obviously, the U.S., drawn into policy they privately dissented from, and then saw whistle-blowers disbelieved, discredited and destroyed."
So is Tom Keneally really telling "The Colin Powell/Joseph Wilson Story" by way of the Third Reich? Which is to say, the tale of a man who goes along with a powerful regime only to uncover the cancer at the core of its agenda and then finds it well-nigh impossible to halt the hurtling train?
Keneally talks of history's continuing, reverberating echoes. "I am drawn in horrified fascination to the absurdity of a Reich bureaucracy which came to use the same terminology and technical methods to fumigate barracks as for the industrial production of death. Similarly neutral terms are increasingly employed for sinister ends and it is a tendency unlikely to be altered. I don't believe any tale more graphically depicts the crisis into which genuinely decent people are thrown under tyrannies than the story of Gerstein's whistle-blowing career which, for me, was nothing less than tragic."
It is moving to be in the presence of a great author, especially one who is also a humble and eager student of the dramatic form. This collaboration has been an honor for all of us. Either Or is a play that will live inside us for many years to come.
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