It's hard to fathom what the Holocaust means now, used for political leverage and simplified into totemic symbols that short-circuit thought. The Holocaust was the defining fact of my childhood and adolescence, but it wasn't called the Holocaust then. It was the war. The war encompassed a lot of things: my sister/cousin's arrival to live with us in London at the age of seven, her parents having been shot by the Nazis; the deaths of unknown and uncounted cousins, aunts and uncles as well as all four grandparents; my refugee mother's years-long struggle to keep us fed and clothed; my father's inexplicable and almost constant absence. Rationing. The bombed-out church at the end of our road. And when we reached eleven or twelve, my school friends and I whispering and giggling about unspeakable torture and deprivation -- things that we couldn't look at directly or ask our parents about because they got too upset, but that engaged huge chunks of our attention.
I didn't want to see Bent. I've seen it before, and I knew what it was about. I didn't want to explore that thing again, that image of ragged clothes, discarded shoes, hanks of hair, rotting flesh, that great stinking black mound of history towering over and defining the twentieth century. Particularly in a political atmosphere as charged and threatening as the one in which we're currently living, with the threat of unending wars overseas and the undercurrents of racism, homophobia and repression at home.
When Martin Sherman's play first opened in London in 1979, the fact that Hitler had murdered hundreds of thousands of homosexuals wasn't widely known. It was too difficult a point for many survivors to admit. Sherman threw open the door, exposing the suffering of Germany's gay population to the cleansing light. In addition, the play was lauded for affirming the sanctity of love, including physical love, and its redemptive power in the face of evil.
Bent opens in a Berlin apartment, where a gay couple is bickering. Max, the son of a rich manufacturer, lives for booze, cocaine and easy sex. His lover, Rudy, a dancer, tends to him, reproaches him and wanders around the place talking to his little potted plants. Max can't remember exactly what he did the night before, but it turns out to have involved a storm trooper by the name of Wolf, who now enters naked. Wolf seems to be a threatening character, but we soon learn he's the one most immediately threatened. He's a member of Ernst Roehm's Sturmabteilung (SA), and the night just past was June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives -- when Hitler had the openly homosexual Roehm murdered and began his liquidation of the SA.
Max and Rudy are apolitical, self-involved hedonists, but through their flight, we encounter two figures who illuminate something about the time. There's Greta, the female impersonator who owns the club where Rudy has been working. Through him, we glimpse the Berlin immortalized in Cabaret. We learn that it's Greta who betrayed the couple, but he also retains a vestigial, contemptuous sliver of kindness.
Max has a conversation with his Uncle Freddie (R. Matthew Deans), a closeted "fluff" who's managed to acquire papers and a train ticket for him. But Max refuses to leave the country without Rudy, even though, he says, he does not love him. Throughout this encounter, Uncle Freddie is smirking at a man on the corner in mingled desire and fear because there's no way of knowing if the man is a fellow homosexual or an informer. "They can arrest you for having fluff thoughts," he says.
We understand more of Max and Rudy's relationship as they hide in the forest -- Max the jaded parent, Rudy the charming, manipulative child. In a bit of foreshadowing, they share a small fantasy sequence involving the new life they'll build in Copenhagen, where Rudy will have new glasses, plants to talk to and "a Dutch dog."
But the couple is captured and put on a train to Dachau. And, bitterly, ironically, it's Rudy's glasses that betray him. The scene that follows is harrowing -- nothing that comes later, even the scenes in Dachau, touch this level of horror.
Realism on stage differs from realism in the movies. Lacking the special effects possible on film, actors can communicate unspeakable events only with their minds and bodies, and you remain very aware that what you're watching isn't really happening. Even so, the scene on the train seems to go on forever, and you find yourself resisting, trying to focus on something outside the frame.
In the second act, Max is in Dachau, moving rocks from one pile to another and back again in a pointless, mind-numbing exercise designed to break prisoners. Through an act of bestiality, he has convinced the guards to classify him as a Jew rather than a homosexual. Even in hell, apparently, some circles are more agonizing than others, and Jews are treated marginally better at this beginning and experimental stage of mass extermination than are gays. Still a wheeler-dealer, Max has also arranged for Horst, a fellow inmate who saved his life on the train, to join him at his labors. There are moments when this act bogs down in the repetitive back-and-forth movement, the men walking endlessly between the rockpiles, selecting stones, smaller, larger, moving them again and again. Periodically, a bell rings and they are allowed a three-minute "rest," but they must spend it standing rigidly at attention. Time passes. The men's relationship evolves and deepens. They joke and argue. They find a way to make love without touching. And Max achieves his moment of redemption.
Jeremy Cole's is a thoughtful, heartfelt production, devastating at moments. William Hahn is as good a Max as I can imagine. I like his caustic quality, his cynicism; it protects against sentimentality even as you sense Max fighting to hold on to his sanity, crumbling. I thought for a few minutes at the play's beginning that I wasn't going to like Dennis Crowder as Rudy. There was something about his speech patterns that struck me as off. But after a few scenes, I loved the character for his gentle, boyish quality, the loving way he buzzed around Max. Joseph Norton acts well as Horst, but his performance is not as soul deep as Hahn's. Which is probably a good thing: If it were, this production would be almost impossible to watch. There's a nice turn by G. Scott Campbell as Greta, crescents of white buttock peering through his black leather girdle; and I liked David Harms's enigmatic Wolf.
The only way to approach the Holocaust in art and story is through particularity. You take one life or one event and document it, as Stephen Spielberg did with Schindler's List. And there's an almost inviolable rule: The hero or heroine has to be saved -- if not in body, then at least in spirit. But I'm not sure these stories do the job. What of the daily lives of the torturers, the politicians, the guards and doctors at the camps? What causes a human being to give himself or herself over to evil? How do we deal with the old newsreel images showing bodies piled like cordwood? Each one of these ghoulish objects was an individual human being once -- perhaps a woman who loved sour pickles, a man who was mean with his money, a budding artist, a bratty hyperactive child or a sweet one. Among them are those who acquired some insight before they died, those who made sacrifices to help others, those who clawed their way to the top of the carrion heap before succumbing and those who stumbled into death uncomprehending. None of it mattered. Nothing about them was recorded. That's part of the horror, the sheer mindless scale of the atrocity. So while part of you rejoices that Max, in the grimmest of circumstances, could find his soul, another part of you mutters that this means nothing, nothing at all.
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