Despite the well-intentioned efforts of the cast, Elie Wiesel’s words were lost in space.
The Choice, by Elie Wiesel. A staged reading directed by Guila Clara Kessous. Presented by Harvard University Divinity School, Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA on April 12.
By Robert Israel
Sanders Theatre (known as Memorial Hall, since it serves as a shrine to Harvard University alumni killed in wars) proved to be an appropriate setting for the world premiere of The Choice, Elie Wiesel’s play about the moral consequences of war. Discovered by one of Wiesel’s colleagues at Boston University, where the Nobel peace laureate’s papers are archived, the evening doubled as a commemoration of Yom HaShoah, a day set aside each year when the global community is asked to solemnly reflect on the six million Jews murdered during the Nazi Holocaust.
As an author, Wiesel is best known for Night, published in French in 1960 (and subsequently translated into over two dozen languages), which chronicled his horrific experiences as an inmate in the Nazi camps that claimed his entire family. He is also a political activist. Some years ago he assisted me, by way of sharing his contacts in Paris, when a reporting fellowship enabled me to travel to France to write a piece that was later published in the Boston Globe.
The format featured speakers seated center stage, a narrator (Jonathan Soroff) who stood stage right at a podium, and two musicians (Phil Berman and Cantor Deborah Katchko Gray). Before the reading began, a troupe of eight dancers – seven women and one man – moved about the stage while an eerie soundtrack reverberated throughout the auditorium. How this tromping on stage fit the play was a mystery, and the dancers came off as more of a distraction than an enhancement. Behind the stage were a number of oversized portraits of concentration camp inmates, grainy black and white images hung floor to ceiling. These photos of emaciated men in burlap sack clothing must have been taken, one assumed, soon after they had been liberated from the hellfire of the Holocaust.
Unlike The Poets’ Theatre’s splendidly successful reading of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, a lyrical work written for radio (presented at Sanders Theatre last year), the Divinity School’s staged reading of Wiesel’s script was problematic. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of the cast, the author’s words were lost in space. Ironically, narrator Soroff was almost inaudible, despite the fact he was speaking into a microphone. The most effective speaker was WGBH’s Jared Bowen, who uses his voice professionally on television and is adept at projecting it, with or without the assistance of a mic. Many in the audience strained to hear what the performers were saying. In addition, the language did not have much musical cadence; it seemed, at least in this translation from the original French, to be lugubrious.
The Choice is a parable, a stark moral lesson. A group of men interview some prisoners and ask them, through a series of probing questions, whether they should live or die. One captive balks at the question. Another speaks in puzzles, offering no clear reasons why he should be spared or eliminated. Another mocks the proceedings. Another, a school teacher, protests that he is needed and should be spared because “I take care of children…Children can sometimes be selfish…but I teach them to sing, to play and then, the adults come and take them away. But it’s not my fault,” he says.
Wiesel has often referred to the one million children murdered by the Nazis and the teacher’s short, plaintive speech struck me as the most riveting in the play because it told us, through an admirable use of nuance, that innocence no longer lives in a world where war reigns supreme. It also harkens back to one of Wiesel’s key statements about the Holocaust: “While not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims.” Indeed, one could substitute the word “Jewish children” for “Jews” in that sentence and the sentiment would speak quite directly to the fate of the young during the Nazi campaign of terror.
If only the play had focused on this theme more clearly, the dramatic effect would have been strengthened considerably. The history of the Holocaust is so immense, so complicated, so evil that many of us, if not most, find it difficult all these years later to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe. It has to told, as Wiesel has attempted to do in this script, by focusing on the fate of individuals, members of the mass of those who met their untimely deaths. It has to be learned, through the parable Wiesel attempts to articulate here, so that it can be understood on a deeper emotional level, a level that embraces the darkness in human nature, that looks unflinchingly at the utter cruelty of humanity and its long history of murderous acts. Yet that is precisely what was missing from this production: namely,to seize on this text as an opportunity to focus on the individual loses — tragic expressions of the lost collectivity — that would give one insight into the enormity of the Holocaust.
Wiesel, who is 86-years-old, is among a handful of survivor/writers who want these stories remembered. Each Yom HaShoah we remember his words, his stories, his moral lessons. That is why he should revisit this early script (he also written another play, The Trial of God), and have it published so that it can be performed — hopefully more successfully — again.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org