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.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Bright Room Called Day --- General Information

In conjunction with Oregon State University's 2010 Holocaust Memorial week (April 12-15) OSU Theatre will present Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day in the Lab Theatre (Withycombe 147) on April 14-17 at 7:30 p.m. and April 18 at 2:00 p.m.

Written in 1985, Kushner’s historical drama depicts the lives of a group of middle-class artists and activists living in Berlin between 1932 and 1933. Over the space of a single year in the apartment of Agnes Eggling, a young bit-part actress, the characters face rise of Hitler and fascism and the crumbling of the Weimar Republic. Confronted with the growing tyranny of Nazi control, each character must choose how to respond to the political upheaval that tests friendships and moral convictions. Kushner offers a rich and witty narrative about the way that the personal and the political collide.

A Bright Room Called Day
was originally workshopped in New York City in 1985 directed by Kushner. It premiered in San Francisco in 1987 at the Eureka Theatre and was produced again as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1991.

Tony Kushner, best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning play (1992-1993) Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, was born in New York City July 16, 1956. He attended Columbia University and received a BA in Medieval Studies in 1978. In graduate school at NYU he studied directing until 1984. Some of his better-known plays include the epic two-part Angels in America, A Dubbuk or Between Two Worlds, Homebody/Kabul, and Caroline or Change. He co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's Munich in 2005 and is currently developing a film on the life of President Lincoln. He married his boyfriend, Mark Harris in 2003 and they were the first gay couple to be listed in the New York Times' "Vows" section.

Kushner's politics live and breathe through his work. Angels in America, for example, articulates the complex intricacies of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and addresses how the personal and political overlap. His style is characteristically postmodern; he frequently disrupts narrative, blends the historical with the literary, shifts perspectives, foregrounds his politics, and presents an ambiguous view of reality. In one scene of A Bright Room Called Day, for example, Husz conjures the Devil into Agnes' Berlin apartment. Whether the Devil's appearance actually happens or is merely a symbolic act is never really clear. Similarly in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Harper and Prior encounter each other outside the boundaries of reality, she in a drug-induced hallucination and he in a vivid fever dream. They refer to this chance dream-like meeting as the "threshold of revelation." Powerfully theatrical moments such as these draw attention to key issues and themes in Kushner's plays.

This strong use of theatricality is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre and A-effect. The disruption of a narrative structure tending towards realism reminds the audience that the purpose of the play transcends entertainment and is meant to inspire thoughtful discourse and action. In A Bright Room Called Day, the plot is punctuated by short scenes and the disruption of placard-like slides addressing the plays' historical context. Kushner blends a fictional story about fictional characters with the harsh reality that led to Hitler's rise. It is no accident that Agnes, Baz, Paulinka, Husz, and Gotchling are witty and identifiable characters. As the plot of the play progresses, each character faces his or her own hypocrisies. It is easy to stand up to tyranny when one's life is not in danger. The presence of the slides contextualizes the play's issues and demonstrates how "good" people can allow evil to happen through the world because of fear and complacency.