Friday, February 26, 2010

A Bright Room Called Day --- Concept Information


The Oregon State University Holocaust Memorial Week has a history of including a theatrical performance along with the series of lectures and guest speakers. Past productions include The Diary of Anne Frank, Just One More Dance, and Kindertransport. These theatre events enhance the Memorial Week by providing another means of communicating the Holocaust. Theatre as a medium offers a unique means of going beyond remembering the history and events surrounding the Holocaust to re-membering them, literally enacting them and embodying them on a public stage. Holocaust plays can serve as powerful and thought-provoking gestures to encourage the audience to not just remember but to re-member this history.

In the 1999 essay for American Theatre, "Expressing the Inexpressible," Rachel Samantha Rebetz wrote of Holocaust theatre that "a respectful silence may seem more appropriate, but how can it help us remember what happened, what can happen, what is still happening? Art - including theatre - keeps the Holocaust present in the minds of those who did not experience it." An ever-growing genre of Holocaust drama can serve the history, the survivors, and the victims in the way Rebetz suggests. While all Holocaust dramas have the potential to re-member the Holocaust, different plays enact the events, the message, and the audience's responsibility in different ways and through different means. An autobiographical survivor play such as Charlotte Delbro's poetic narrative Who Will Carry the Word? is a vastly different gesture of remembrance than Leah Goldberg's Zionist neo-Gothic romance Lady of the Castle or Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank.

A Bright Room Called Day tells another side of the Holocaust altogether. Kushner blends history with fiction and re-members the fears, hypocrisies, and human failings that led to the rise of Hitler in depicting a group of likable, but ultimately flawed, idealistic German artists and activists.


As with any art form, play-making begins with an idea or a concept that informs how and why the story is being told. A Bright Room Called Day engages a variety of questions and themes through its narrative and Epic Theatre style including those of personal responsibility, fear in the face of danger, hypocrisy, and failed idealism. The plot centers around five major characters confronted with the crumbling Weimar Republic: Agnes, Husz, Gotchling, Paulinka, and Baz.

Agnes Eggling is a middle-class bit-part actress spending her life in the company of the people she cares about. Agnes is kind and well-liked by the friends who frequent her apartment. In the first scene, amidst a New Year's Eve celebration, the others characters toast "To Agnes! Good-hearted and brave!" As the year passes, however, things change for Agnes due to her inability to commit to a cause, to take a stand, or to truly risk something important. Agnes, like many Germans living during the rise of Hitler, is not a bad person. She doesn't comply and join the Nazi Party and even, for a time, flirts with the notion of resisting through activism with the KPD. In the end, however, Agnes is one of many bystanders who saw the social changes, knew of the construction of concentration camps, and did nothing to prevent it for fear of losing (in her case) a really great apartment. "I'm not a fool. I know what's coming will be bad, but not unlivable, and not eternally, and when it's over, I will have clung to the least last thing, which is to say, my lease. And you have to admit, it's a terrific apartment."

Vealtninc Husz is Agnes' live-in lover. A careworn Hungarian one-eyed camera man, Husz is a disillusioned Trotskyite. Having given an eye to the cause in 1919, Husz has become at once cynical and sentimental about the possibilities of a communist revolution. His passions have moved from the battlefield to an interest in developing propaganda art to promote ideas and change. Like other characters in the play, however, Husz is more talk than action. He idealizes Trotsky and Dziga-Vertov, but ultimately sees the futility of action and the inability of most people to act in the face of tyranny. "This Age wanted heroes. It got us instead: carefully constructed, but immobile."

Annbella Gotchling is an idealistic communist artist and activist. Passionate for her politics, she sees a dedication to the Party as the answer to the growing turmoil in Germany. She frequently appeals to her group of friends to join up and chastises Husz for his cynicism. Of the core group, she is the last to leave and offers Agnes an avenue of escape and resistance, if only she will have the courage to do so. "You're very fond of regrets, Agnes, but the time for regretting is gone. I need very much to be proud of you."

Paulinka Erdnuss, a rising star in the German film industry, is completely self-aware and self-interested and makes no apologies for her cold ambition and desire for success. Of the characters in the play, Paulinka and Baz change the most. Paulinka fully believes that she will do whatever she needs, include make pro-Nazi propaganda films, to survive and thrive in Hitler's Germany. Late in the play, however, when she sees a friend in trouble, Paulinka discovers a selfless courage she never knew she possessed.

Gregor Bazwald (Baz) is a witty "Sunday anarchist" homosexual who works for the Institute of Human Sexuality. Clever and charming, he shares a similar self-awareness as Paulinka. He wavers between a keen sensitivity about mortality and humanity and a lackadaisical attitude about political institutions and life. In most cases, Baz reacts to the horror of his time with clever quips and deflects his fears, but through a powerful chance encounter, he rediscovers his own humanity.

Each character in the play represents a different moral quandary of action against or compliance with a destructive political system. Kushner's characters are all flawed and tend towards selfishness when placed in a threatening situation. The moral ambiguity helps to foreground the politics of the piece and emphasizes the questions: how could something like the Holocaust happen? And how desperate did people have to be in order to allow Hitler to take over? According the Kushner's view, not everyone was desperate. They were, instead, clever, charming, self-centered, and scared.

This production will emphasize the theatricality of the piece. While based on a historical time and place, the characters' stories are fictional. This is not realism and the play is peppered with moments of ambiguity and brushes with the supernatural. Playing up the Brechtian elements such as Kushner's use of slides and placards help to break up the narrative structure and foreground the play's politics rather than focusing upon the characters' emotions.

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