Saturday, November 26, 2011

Captors at the Huntington

I didn't think it was possible to write a boring play about Adolf Eichmann.

Nevertheless, fledgling playwright Evan M. Wiener has managed to do it, and the Huntington has staged it with all the trimmings, under the guidance of artistic director Peter DuBois.  If you doubt me as to its tedium, go ahead and sit through Captors (through Dec. 11) - but seriously, you're better off staying home and reading Hannah Arendt, on whose work Weiner's derivative ramblings are merely a thin theatrical gloss.

Does that sound harsh?  I think I'm actually going easy on Wiener; he practically obscures Arendt, I'd argue.  But then the real source of Captors is not the great Eichmann in Jerusalem but rather the lesser Eichmann in My Hands, a first-hand account of the fugitive war criminal's 1960 capture in Argentina by Peter Z. Malkin ("as told to" Harry Stein).  Malkin was on the Israeli team that nabbed the Nazi, and his book essentially covers the ten days during which the kidnappers hunkered down in their safe house, to devise both an exit strategy and a disguise for their captive - all while simultaneously attempting to cajole (or threaten) him into signing a paper agreeing to his extradition and trial.

The eventual bestowal of that signature is one of the script's two small-scaled, but genuine, dramatic coups (the other occurs when Eichmann answers his guilt in the killing of children with the horrifying line - straight from Malkin's book - "But they were Jewish, weren't they?").  To some, these small shudders - created almost entirely by Michael Cristofer, in a striking performance as Eichmann (below) - may be enough to justify the evening, but all I can say is they're a long time coming; both occur about two hours into the play, and neither counts as a revelation.  And I think it's worth noting that Malkin's (and Stein's, and Wiener's) account of how that key signature was obtained is widely contested.  In Captors, Eichmann's pride seduces him into signing his own death warrant; but while one reading of his character lends some support to this idea, more worldly-wise historians think Eichmann only signed on the dotted line once a gun (or its equivalent) had been held to his head.  (For tellingly, despite that signature, Eichmann had to be sedated to the edge of consciousness before he could be hustled out of the country.)

So Captors is probably suspect as history; it's certainly suspect as art.  Wiener is an inexperienced dramatist - he has spent most of his relatively short career developing screenplays.  But even most Hollywood hacks, I think, would have avoided the obvious mistakes he makes here.  The playwright gives us not only extraneous scenes between Malkin and co-author Stein, for instance, but also gives Stein (a non-character if ever there was one) solo voice-overs, delivered straight to the audience.  Even this might have worked if Wiener's writing was sharp, or tightly bound to personality and situation; but instead his characters hold forth on hypothetical questions of guilt and disguise and memory - re-iterating cliches from other, better plays - and their occasional "conflicts" feel forced.  To make matters worse, the script hops back and forth between time frames, and Wiener never builds any sense of the claustrophobia or desperation that must have weighed on his characters (and which is generally the kind of thing at which first-hand accounts excel).  Indeed, the entire first hour of the play lacks all shape or focus, and despite the looming historical and moral context, literally nothing seems to be at stake; the phrase that Arendt famously attached to Eichmann, "the banality of evil," hangs in the air - but surprisingly, so does another kind of banality.

Michael Cristofer as Eichmann.
Eventually, in the second act, Wiener does attempt to limn the familiar, but fascinating, question of Eichmann's guilt - or (as there was never any doubt as to his actions) perhaps the better phrase would be his moral standing against the enormity of the crimes he committed.  Or should we say "participated in"?  For Eichmann's supposed lack of autonomy was essentially his defense - he was "only following orders" in leading the huge transportation efforts that brought some six million Jews to their doom.  It was the orders themselves that were guilty, while Eichmann argued he was merely a normal man doing his best to get ahead in a society gone mad.

And it seemed he was "normal" by every account.  Psychiatrists found no evidence in Eichmann of mental derangement, and, strange as it may sound, most observers agreed he was not even anti-Semitic.  Indeed, early in his career Eichmann worked with Zionists to deport the Jewish population from Germany (even traveling to Haifa, in an effort to relocate them to Palestine - a bizarre irony right there); the so-called "Final Solution" was certainly not his idea. Yet he carried it out assiduously - even as the Reich was falling apart in 1945, and the Holocaust was "called off" by Himmler, Eichmann kept the trains rolling.

But why?

Hannah Arendt's answer, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was to re-interpret not Eichmann but evil itself, which she came to see as ordinary, commonplace - the true meaning of her resonant phrase, "the banality of evil."  Not that Arendt felt Eichmann shouldn't swing (he was indeed hanged in 1962 in Israel), nor did she buy his vain defense, with its discombobulated refs to Kant; Eichmann always knew what he was doing, Arendt argued.  Her deep insight was that we're all a bit like Eichmann; we all accommodate the evil forces running through society, and even advance ourselves with their help.  When PBS or Lincoln Center accepts money from David Koch, for instance, they're acting a bit like Eichmann.  When Americans torture out of their fear of terrorism, they're acting a bit like Eichmann (indeed, John Yoo's and Dick Cheney's "theory of the unitary executive" was basically a gloss on Hitler's Führerprinzip). Even when you or I turn a blind eye to Apple's factories in China, we're acting a bit like Eichmann.  The Nazis' best bureaucrat took such participation to an extreme, it's true; still, there's no clear dividing line between us and him; in the end, he was less an amoral demon (instead, Arendt likened him at times to a clown), than the most horrifyingly ruthless of Human Resource Directors.

Was he a war criminal too?
This doesn't mean that a dramatist owes Eichmann any sympathy - but it does mean that the questions surrounding his capture and execution demand fresh and genuine exploration.  To be fair, playwright Wiener seems aware of this responsibility - at one point, in fact, he has a character declare:  "This is not your father's Jewish revenge tale!"  But alas, I'm afraid it is, beneath all its pseudo-intellectual trappings, and that troubles me a bit. For on the one hand, by the time Quentin Tarantino gets around to an artistic trope, you know it's artistically and politically exhausted, and should be kept to the multiplex.

And on the other hand, the tale of Eichmann's capture should still resonate uncomfortably with its political, if not moral, quandaries; for all the questions of how, when and why to avenge wrongdoing in a corrupt world are still very much with us.  No one could begrudge the great Jewish tradition its revenge on the evil men who tried to destroy it; nor should we ever forget the terrible facts of the Holocaust.  Still, at this late date, with Jewish culture firmly ensconced at the heart of theatrical life, perhaps we can afford to consider the questions of Israeli exceptionalism that Captors celebrates.  For it's a tale of undercover operatives invading a sovereign nation and plucking one of its citizens from the streets - which made we wonder, would we feel the same way about Eichmann if he had been kidnapped from the streets of America?  For just btw, wasn't Wernher von Braun (at right) a member of the SS (and weren't his rockets assembled in concentration camps)?  And isn't the Catholic Church, which spirited Eichmann (along with many other Nazis) to Argentina, still a global force - indeed, wasn't its current leader a member of the Hitler Youth?  Pope Benedict has argued that his membership was a matter of financial necessity - but, ummm - is that so very far from Eichmann's argument?

The play in the glass booth. Production photos - T. Charles Erickson.

So questions of guilt and innocence are rarely pure and never simple, even when it comes to Nazi war criminals.  Indeed, watching Captors, I couldn't help but remember Robert Shaw's play The Man in the Glass Booth, a rather woozy existential identity-puzzler from the 60's, in which Israeli abductors nabbed the wrong man - or did they??? (Part of the reason I couldn't forget it was the large glass booth DuBois and designer Beowulf Boritt had erected around the set at the Huntington, in a nod to Eichmann's famous containment during his trial.) Now I'm in no rush to see the pretentious Glass Booth again, but I have to admit it actually had ambitions that Captors can't match - and that's too bad. For I'm not sure the Huntington's audience is truly served by this kind of production.  It has clearly been pulled together as a nod to the 50th anniversary of Eichmann's trial - which makes it, weird as it may sound, a kind of nostalgia piece.

But don't we already get enough nostalgia from the Huntington?  And while we should never forget the Holocaust, must we always remember it the same way?  (Isn't a living memory all about its context?)  The Huntington's Jewish audience is facing what could be a sea-change in its identity; the Middle East is morphing around Israel, there is increased awareness that America's best interest may not align with that of the "Jewish lobby," and sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians is on the rise.  Cries of anti-Semitism won't easily stop this ferment - so couldn't the Huntington's "Jewish play" be about that?  I know people often smile at this theatre's "diversity" programming - which sometimes seems to dole out productions like presents to the various segments of its audience.  I actually don't find anything wrong with that policy - as long as the productions engage with how we live now.  But you couldn't make that claim about Captors - just as you couldn't make it about the Huntington's last effort, Before I Leave You.  Both were in different ways essentially sentimental, and neither, to be blunt, was ready for a professional production; you could argue they were chosen for their marketing merits rather than their artistic ones.  Which is why I worry that there's something broken over at the Huntington right now, and I'm hoping that one way or another, it's soon fixed.


  1. Thanks for this. My own reaction to Captors was much the same, and I appreciate the depth you've gone to back up your positions. Certainly, what is learned in Captors could be conveyed in about a half hour of tight writing; the balance that is in your commentary, would justify more, but seems to have been left on the playwriting "floor".

  2. How would you categorize/contextualize a film like "The Debt," which gives a twist on the Eichmann capture tale? It seemed to resonate locally... lord knows it played at the Kendall Sq Cinema for ages.

  3. Indeed, early in his career Eichmann worked with Zionists to deport the Jewish population from Germany

    A bit simplistic and far too easily manipulated for dubious purposes when stated in such a simplistic manner.

    The Reich's anti-Semitic policies evolved over many years, beginning simply with reinstatement of laws segregating Jews and gentiles: banning Jews from certain neighborhoods, professions like medicine, law, academia, the military, politics, and business, then charging huge fines to those Jews who did leave Germany for countries with less discriminatory policies. Consequently, by 1938 and Kristallnacht, the only Jews left inside the Reich were the Jews who were too poor to pay fines for quitting the country.

    To the extent that Zionist organizations "cooperated" it was chiefly a matter of paying ransoms for the release of poor Jews.

    So yes, until war broke out and the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) were unleashed, Eichmann, as the SS officer charged with making Großdeutschland Judenfrei, would have been the top guy for extorting ransom money from Zionists.

    Unfortunately, this history is frequently misrepresented by the "anti-Zionist" crowd who really have little interest in historical facts.

  4. To John - I haven't seen "The Pledge" - actually, friends have warned me away from it, for reasons I can't recall! I may try to check it out based on your recommendation (or at least mention).

    To Ian - Sorry if you feel that statement can be "easily manipulated;" BUT it's not so far from the following, in Wikipedia, which roughly concurs with what I recall from my earlier reading on the subject -

    "In 1937, Eichmann was sent to the British Mandate of Palestine with his superior Herbert Hagen to assess the possibilities of massive Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine. They landed in Haifa but could obtain only a transit visa so they went on to Cairo. There they met Feival Polkes, an agent of the Haganah, who discussed with them the plans of the Zionists and tried to enlist their assistance in facilitating Jewish emigration from Europe. According to an answer Eichmann gave at his trial, he had also planned to meet Arab leaders in Palestine, but this never happened because entry to Palestine was refused by the British authorities."

    Btw, I have no doubt, as you state, that the Nazis were dedicated to turning their persecution of the Jews into a revenue source - all criminal minds think of that sooner or later, don't they.

    As for Eichmann - the Haifa trip, and his work around the deportation plans, however they may have been entwined with ransoms and bribes, do back up the general impression that until late in the game he was a follower, not a driver, of the "Final Solution." As I said, however, he did eventually become one of the most avid administrators of mass murder in history.

  5. There they met Feival Polkes, an agent of the Haganah, who discussed with [Eichmann and company] the plans of the Zionists and tried to enlist their assistance in facilitating Jewish emigration from Europe.

    It's a bit more like the Haganah was attempting to get German Jews out of a situation where they were being persecuted and Eichmann was simply the man with whom they had to speak. Eichmann also reportedly met with Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al Husseini on the same trip and Husseini was quite public with his desire to render the middle east Judenfrei as well (the two would apparently become great friends one Husseini became a guest of the German government and was made a colonel in the SS.)

    I should also point out that recent historical work, like that of Lipstadt and Cesarani, has discredited many of Arendt's claims about Eichmann's character, most notably that he was not himself anti-Semitic, but merely a bureaucrat. Arendt had a habit of adjusting the facts to fit her theories-- we only have to note the way she dismissed Heidegger's involvement with Naziism as the momentary naïvité of an otherwise apolitical thinker despite the fact that he had been involved with fascist and ultra-nationalist politics during the whole time she was studying and sleeping with him.

    As to Joseph Ratzinger: his utter malfeasance regarding the clerical sex abuse scandal is well deserving of your moral condemnation, however, I'm not so sure there is much scandal regarding SSHJ membership: it was mandatory for Aryan boys of the time period, he didn't commit any war crimes we know of, and he appears to have deserted his post at earliest opportunity. There are Popes who were complicit with Naziism and Fascism in their official capacities: most notably Pius XI and XII.

    [Side note: I have seen The Debt and found it to be a competent middle-brow espionage thriller with only slightly more moral complexity than is typical of the genre. I haven't seen the Israeli film of which it is a remake.]

  6. Thanks for the extra data, Ian. I'm not sure that the new info on the Haifa visit changes much, though. And I'm aware of Lipstadt and Cesarani's critique, btw, but I'm not sure they've convinced everyone of the inaccuracy of Arendt's claims. And as far as I know, there's no evidence of Eichmann ever lobbying for the actual "Final Solution." So I still lean toward something like Arendt's interpretation of his horrifying career. Don't get me wrong; the only thing I regret about his execution was that he couldn't be hanged six million times. Yet I still feel as a figure of cultural interest he's far more intriguing in Arendt's interpretation than in Wiener's and Malkin's - whatever that may be! For I could sense in Captors a kind of half-desire to replace Arendt's version with some new edition of Eichmann - only that new vision never materialized.

  7. The difference is that the new analyses of the Eichmann trial are based on evidence: transcripts of conversations, correspondance, personal records, while Arendt's is based on a theory.

    Personally, I think Arendt's portraits of both Eichmann and Heidegger is really just designed to appeal to bourgeoisie (like herself) who want to enjoy their German philosophy, German literature, German music, and German Kultur without considering for a moment how these cultural products might be connected with fascistic or genocidal ideologies. "I think deeply about art and philosophy! I can't possibly have anything in common with those unthinking automatons and thugs!"

    Sure, it's an attractive theory, because it tells students of political theory that the very act of studying the history political theory makes them politically enlightened and humane-- and it tells academics and scholars that they are the great bulwark against authoritarianism and demagoguery (How's that working out for you, folks?)

    Personally, I find it far more disturbing that fascism actually has robust intellectual roots than Arendt's claim that it is the blind servatude the unthinking hoi polloi.

  8. Ok, slow down, Ian. Your outrage is appropriate to Heidegger's case - but this play isn't about Heidegger. There's scant evidence supporting the claim that Eichmann embodies German "Kultur" - he was, by all historic accounts, a borderline incompetent in his early life who knocked around sans direction until he received his marching orders from the Nazi party. Perhaps we need another play about Heidegger? How about it?

  9. Ok, slow down, Ian.

    I always drop articles when I get excited.

    Actually, as we speak I am writing an essay about a play that is about Heidegger and Arendt.

    No, not as we speak-- as we speak, I'm about to run off and do some commedia dell'arte.

    However, given the historical evidence, I'm inclined to view Arendt's view of Eichmann as an ideologically-unengaged bureaucrat whose evil was of the banal sort, was simply symptomatic of a Heidegger-shaped blind spot that plagued her throughout her career. One that Heidegger's other major students (who were ironically, less political in their writings) saw far more clearly.

    Of course, this is quite separate from whether or not Captors is a good play.

  10. Content, History and ideology aside momentarily, this review of Captors summaries the general feel and embodiment of the work "as a piece of theatre".

    The action, dialogue, set pieces, lighting and sound design all combined with the writing (and of course acting) illustrate a show which is very much a work in process (whether it is self described as this or not).

    From a audience experience it felt more like a "run through" rather than a fully baked theatre piece, ready for audiences in Bosotn and beyond.

    I too agree with much of the reviewers assessment.

    There was so much contrite, overblown, extraneous or over produced that what is left to interpretation becomes less significant than it should be.

    The concept of the play (illustrated by the reality of events) is simple and compelling enough not to need "extra" characters, musical interludes, eerie and odd sounds or insignificant "significant" lighting.

    It is the capture of a well known Naiz war criminal and the dual challenges to secretively remove him from Argentina to Israel and get his consent to stand trial.

    Drawing an audience into the intricacies of that dialogue, bringing us nearer to understanding what Eichmann and Malkin were thinking and feeling is interesting enough. Creating so much dialogue and debate (and set pieces) for Malkin and his "alter ego editor"/writer shifts our focus away from the core of the story and tension. Extra dialgoue and characters dilute the key story elements. It shifted the direction from emphasizing the significant moments in their discourse. It made those moments less powerful. Most importantly it made the play longer and boring.

    This play seems to have the "bones" to be very needs a serious rewriting and editing and LESS of everything that doesn't advance the story.

  11. Ian - just btw, I wanted to get back to Ratzinger and the Nazis for a second. There are conflicting reports about Ratzinger and the Hitler Youth - some people disagree that membership was "mandatory" at his age - but sure, I'll cut him some slack on that account, just as I will over the fact that he served in the Nazi army (he was drafted). It's also known that his father publicly criticized the Nazi regime, and Ratzinger has claimed that he "deserted" the German army (only this occurred in April 1945, a bit late to count as "desertion"!).

    But just btw, the Ratzingers never joined the German Resistance - which was quite active in their hometown. And while in the military, it has been established that Ratzinger watched as Jews were rounded up and loaded onto trains to the death camps.

    But ok, even given all that, Ratzinger was no worse than the average German. The difference is that he became POPE.

    And what's really troubling about him is that he seems to have drawn entirely the wrong moral lessons from his experience with the Nazis. He recently has begun insinuating that the Nazis were "atheists," for example - when of course Hitler was Catholic; in fact in 1941 he declared "I am as before a Catholic and will always remain so." Hence the close ties between the Nazi regime and the Vatican.

    Then there's the excruciating irony of Ratzinger's teachings on Catholic doctrine. Ratzinger repeats over and over again that Catholics must obey the dictates of the Vatican - only of course if they had done so in 1941, they would have been in bed with the Nazis! The Catholics who hung onto their moral dignity during the Third Reich were the ones who RESISTED the Vatican, not those who obeyed it. This essentially fascistic attitude - which, of course, is also in play in the Church's endless pedophilia scandals - is what makes Ratzinger truly creepy and worthy of moral condemnation.

  12. Fair enough. I don't think Ratzinger is a remotely heroic individual; indeed he's arguably a far more banal figure than Eichmann. It seems to me that his membership in the SSHJ should not be our primary concern given his very modern malfeasances.

    Certainly given the Vatican's endorsements (under Pius XI and papal nuncio Eugene Pacelli, the future Pius XII) in the 1930s of most aspects of both Germany's and Italy's anti-Jewish laws (the one bone of contention was that Germany insisted on defining "Jew" racially, while the Church insisted on defining "Jew" in exclusively religious terms) and these laws did pave the way for genocide in the following decade, Ratzinger should be more forthcoming about the history of both his nation and his institution.

  13. Thanks so much for this review. I felt rather guilty about walking out on this play, which I found very boring. I knew it was in trouble when they performed the de rigeur flatulence scene the true mark of a vulgar amateur. But I also found the set extremely annoying since it was so distractingly reflective. Not that a better set could have saved this play. It just made me want to go out and rent The House on Garibaldi Street.

  14. I saw the play on Sunday (12/11) afternoon---the last performance. It wasn't action-packed like a video game, yet I felt it was riveting--especially the second act.

    As I learned recently at the recent production of A Doll House (Ibsen), some people can see a play and love it,even as others think it is abysmal.

    So, I can't say that anyone who didn't like Captors is wrong. I can only say that I and three others with me all liked it very much.