That has been the urgent cry coming from New York and London stages this season. No fewer than 10 plays in the past 10 months have addressed the specter of Nazism and the rise of antisemitism with such intensity that it’s impossible not to take notice and heed the warning.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski was one of the first on the subject, last fall at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. There were already warnings from the New York stage late last winter. In February, Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, directed by David Cromer at the Manhattan Theatre Club, was the earliest in 2022 to address the alarming rise of antisemitism—in its case, in France, the home of the playwright’s ancestors. Set in Paris in 2016-17, with flashbacks to 1944-46, the play deals with the deliberation of a French family on whether they should stay or leave, given the recent attack on the kippah-wearing patriarch of the family, who returns one afternoon with a bloody face after an act of aggression. “It’s the suitcase or the coffin,” he declares, as the family faces the grave question of what it means to be Jewish in France today. Appeasement and assimilation may no longer be options in these turbulent times.
It’s hard to imagine that Jews today are facing the question of whether to leave or stay, in either Europe or the U.S. But with the dramatic rise of antisemitic hate in recent years, there is unquestionable cause for concern. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2021 was the highest year on record of harassment, vandalism, and violence directed against Jews since the organization started taking statistics over 40 years ago. That represented a 34 percent increase over the previous year, and the pinnacle of a marked five-year increase in the number of antisemitic incidents, highlighted by the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2016, the deadly attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 that left 11 dead, and the hostage-taking at the Texas synagogue in Colleyville in January 2022. The American Jewish Committee reported that one out of every four American Jews has been the subject of antisemitism in 2021. Remarkably, the U.K.’s Community Security Trust reported the exact same increase—34 percent—in antisemitic incidents in 2021 across the United Kingdom in the previous year. Can it really be happening again?
“America was our promised land, but we might not be safe here anymore,” the artist Deborah Kass recently wrote. “When to leave? That’s the question every Jew has embedded in our DNA.” Just this past October, during the High Holy Days, the Washington Post reported that a rabbi asked his Washington, D.C., congregation: “How many people in the last few years have been at a dining room table where the conversation has turned to where might we move? How many of us?” His statement was delivered in the same month when major incidents from Albany, N.Y., to Brooklyn to Tempe, Ariz., to Los Angeles featured antisemitic signs, fliers, threats, and outright physical violence.
No wonder, then, that New York and London stages are offering full-voiced, vigorous responses to this growing crisis.
Whether to stay or leave was the question that the young singing group called the Comedian Harmonists chose to ignore in Weimar Germany. Harmony, a musical by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman that ran at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in April 2022, tells the story of this sextet of popular singers, comprising three Jews and three Christians, whose fame in the late 1920s and 1930s extended beyond their Berlin base. Emboldened by their international success, the group ignored warnings and returned to Germany to perform, despite the Nazis’ increasing efforts to make the group’s life more difficult. Their persecution continued until the group’s final concert in Hanover, Germany, in March 1934. Thereafter they were prohibited from performing in public, their recordings were destroyed, and the group disbanded.
Tom Stoppard addresses the issue of assimilation head-on in his masterpiece Leopoldstadt, which opened in London just before the pandemic and was remounted in New York last September (it’s still running). In this five-act epic, Stoppard tells the story of a prosperous, elitist Jewish Viennese family who convert to Catholicism to assimilate. Spanning five decades from 1899-1955, the play follows the family through several generations during the rise of Nazism, with a devastating Act IV set on the eve of Kristallnacht, when Nazis invade their stately apartment and give them the ultimatum to be packed and ready for deportation by the following noon.
The power of Leopoldstadt is multilayered in that it is Stoppard’s reimagining of his family history had they never fled Czechoslovakia in 1938. After his family’s escape to the Far East when he was 18 months old, his widowed mother made her way to England, where Stoppard (born Tomáš Sträussler) took his stepfather’s name, assimilated into the British artistic elite, and rose to fame. Though he suspected he had Jewish roots, it wasn’t until he was 60 that Stoppard learned that all four of his Jewish grandparents had perished in the Holocaust. It took more than 20 years for him to write about it.
Knowing this autobiographical dimension of Leopoldstadt, Act V, set after the war in 1955, is almost too painful to watch. In it, a survivor—a young English writer assimilated into the British culture, representing Stoppard himself—returns to Vienna to be confronted by a cousin, who tells him of his family’s fate in the Nazi death camps. “It can’t happen again,” the young Englishman says to his cousin. As Stoppard told The New York Times in a recent interview: “It’s almost a foolish remark now. Whereas when the play was being written, I didn’t think of it as being a foolish remark.” In retrospect, Stoppard said that writing the play was “an act of self-reproach.”
Several other productions this past fall focused on actual traumatic events in American history related to antisemitism. In November, the Encores series featured a powerful revival of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Tony-winning Parade, directed by Michael Arden. Set in Atlanta in 1913, it tells the true story of Leo Frank, a young Jewish factory superintendent unjustly accused of murdering a 13-year-old employee. Frank (in an affecting performance by Ben Platt) was wrongly convicted, and his sentence was commuted from capital punishment to life imprisonment. But while serving time, he was kidnapped from his cell by a group of armed men and lynched in Marietta, Ga., in 1915. (The production will get a full Broadway run starting Feb. 21.)
A few days after Parade came a new play uncovering another painful chapter of American history. Playwright Bess Wohl told the little-known story of the German American Bund, an organization active in the late 1930s that established summer sports camps across the U.S. to indoctrinate youth of German descent into Nazism. Entitled Camp Siegfried, after an actual camp located in Yaphank, Long Island, it tells the story of two teenagers who meet there in the summer of 1938, fall in love, and are eventually radicalized, with life-changing consequences. Deftly directed by David Cromer at Second Stage, it offered frightening warning with contemporary resonances—namely, to “never underestimate your infinite capacity for delusion.”
Camp Siegfried followed on the heels of play also dealing with young people and the devastation of Nazism. Set in France during World War II, This Beautiful Future by Rita Kalnejais at the Cherry Lane Theatre in September (directed by Jack Serio) featured another romance, this time between a French girl and a young German soldier infatuated with killing, as their older selves look back in rueful retrospection.
If there is any glimpse of hope in the above-mentioned plays, it lies in the capacity for individual heroism in the face of the forces of darkness. In Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, authors Clark Young and Derek Goldman tell the story of a Polish diplomat in World War II, recruited by the Polish underground to report the horrors of the ongoing Holocaust to the West. Karski risked his life to visit the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp, then made secret reports on his findings that were passed on to the Allies. When Karski traveled to England and the U.S. to report in person to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and President Roosevelt, neither leader was convinced to intervene. The co-authors drew on Karski’s own words to create a solo show, performed by David Straithairn with passion, conviction, and dignity. Despite the ultimate failure of his mission, Karski stands as a lesson in heroism for our own current times of crisis. “Each individual has infinite capacity to do good, and an infinite capacity to do evil,” the play’s Karski said. “We have a choice.”
If any comparison or contrast can be made about how this subject matter is being addressed on the New York and London stages, it lies in the radical theatrical steps that British directors have taken to call attention to the growing crisis. In last fall’s production of C.P. Taylor’s 1982 play Good on London’s West End, director Dominic Cooke heightened the drama about the seduction of Nazism to an extreme. The story deals with the conversion of a German academic named Professor Halder—a benign, seemingly “good” man, played brilliantly by David Tennant—into a radical Nazi and a vigorous participant in the execution of genocide. Cooke sharpened the drama by paring down the production to three principal actors, two of whom play multiple roles. The action thus careened from one short scene to the next with intense velocity as performers change parts in an instant. This all built to one of the most unexpected, stunning coups de theatre I’ve seen in recent years, as if the director, in this final moment, was absolutely intent that we “remember this.”
Even more radically theatrical was Robert Icke’s The Doctor on the West End (scheduled to come to New York’s Park Avenue Armory in June 2023). Known for his daring reimagining of classics, from the Oresteia to Hamlet to 1984), Icke here adapted Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi, about a doctor who refuses to grant a Catholic priest a final visitation to a 14-year-old patient dying from a self-administered abortion. The doctor’s medical and ethical stance at first seems justifiable, given that the parents cannot be reached for permission and the doctor fears the patient might die of fright upon seeing the priest. But the doctor soon becomes a victim of vicious antisemitic attacks and political persecution by her colleagues, with devastating results. In Icke’s mind-bending adaptation (which he also directed), the play grew into a challenge of our fundamental assumptions of human identity, not only pertaining to religion but also to race and gender. Not only did he change the gender of Schnitzler’s male doctor (played here by the amazing Juliet Stevenson, he cross-cast actors in roles so that no one was who they appeared to be in terms of gender, race, or religion. It was an alternatingly sensational and mind-boggling journey, both intellectually challenging and emotionally draining.
If this chorus of productions about Nazism and antisemitism has been building to a full crescendo on the London and New York stages over the past year, it’s only fitting that a revival of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret is running on the West End. This oft-revived 1966 hit seems to embody all the cumulative passion, energy, and urgency being expressed by the others. Director Rebecca Frecknall has gone all out to sensationalize the depravity of pre-Nazi Berlin in 1929-1930 as the Nazis begin their ascent to power, beginning with the reconfiguration of the West End’s Playhouse Theatre into the infamous Kit Kat Klub (a metaphor for the Weimar Republic) where the action takes place. Audience members are guided through a back door, as customers would presumably have entered the club at the time, then through basement corridors into a front lobby where lewdly costumed singers and dancers are already deep into the “in-your-face” entertainment (the dazzling choreography is by Julia Cheng). The inside of the theatre auditorium has been reconfigured into the round by designer Tom Scott, with a superb orchestra on either balcony. As a louche Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub (Callum Scott Howells, following Eddie Redmayne in the role) emerges from the theatre floor, he rotates around the stage on a turnstile along with the writhing dancers in a frenzy of hedonism. It’s an unforgettable spectacle of a society at its lowest point of debauchery and degradation, about to reemerge as a monstrous Nazi phoenix from the ashes.
As the story unfolds of an odd assortment of souls thrown together by history, Cabaret offers a frightening vision of the dark future that lies ahead for Germany—and the world. You leave the theatre with the terrifying “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” still ringing in your ears.
What the theatre is telling us, loud and clear, is that tomorrow is today. Said David Cromer, director of both Prayer for the French Republic and Camp Siegfried: “I’ve been exposed to antisemitism all my life. I grew up in Skokie, Ill., in the 1970s, and remember that the American Nazi Party tried to march there. But as it turned out, there was a pathetic turnout of only 100 demonstrators, met by 1,000 counter-protestors. So I’ve spent the rest of my life saying, it’s going to be fine, we’re protected, we’re safe. But when I read Prayer for the French Republic, that’s when I felt true panic for the first time…I’m wondering whether I need to leave.”
Cromer spoke to me not long after it was reported that a former American president dined with an infamously outspoken Jew hater and an open neo-Nazi. “There’s something in the air,” Cromer said. “Everyone can feel it.”
Carol Rocamora (she/her) is an educator, translator, playwright and critic.
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