“The German Refugee,” originally published in 1963 under the title “The Refugee,” is one of my favorite stories by Bernard Malamud. Set in New York in 1939, it’s told through the eyes of Martin Goldberg, a “poor student” who tutors German refugees. Among Goldberg’s pupils is Oskar Gassner, “the Berlin critic and journalist,” who arrives in America one month before Kristallnacht. Back in Germany Gassner leaves a non-Jewish wife of 27 years, whose mother, he says, is a “dreadful anti-Semite”; he intimates that his wife did not wish to leave and they parted, “amicably.” Goldberg spends much of the summer of 1939 trying to help his charge overcome writer’s block, and Gassner finally manages to compose a lecture in September 1939, after Germany invades Poland. He successfully delivers it at the Institute for Public Studies, and two days later he commits suicide, leaving his possessions to his tutor. Goldberg finds a “thin packet of letters from [Gassner’s] wife and an airmail letter of recent date from his mother-in-law.” The mother-in-law writes that her daughter, after Oskar Gassner “abandons her,” was “converted to Judaism by a fervent rabbi.” Gassner’s wife was subsequently taken “together with the other Jews” and driven in a truck to a border town in recently occupied Poland. “There,” reads the letter from Stettin forming the last line of Malamud’s story, “it is rumored, [the wife] is shot in the head and topples into an open ditch with the naked Jewish men, their wives and children, some Polish soldiers, and a handful of Gypsies.”
The ending of Malamud’s story was the first thing that leapt to mind when I recently learned, while preparing to teach Arthur Miller to a predominantly Catholic student audience, about the 50th anniversary of the first production of his Incident at Vichy. On May 7, 1965, the play closed after 32 performances, spread out over six months, at ANTA Washington Square Theater. Staged by Harold Clurman for the Lincoln Center, Incident at Vichy was not a great critical or commercial success.
Miller’s remarkable one-act play features a detention center in Vichy, in 1942, and a group of characters snatched up from the streets by the French police and awaiting an interview with one “Professor Hoffman,” a Nazi expert who is being logistically assisted by a morally deracinated Wehrmacht major. The purpose of the interview, we soon understand, is to ascertain the Jewishness of the detainees. They come from many walks of life and showcase different beliefs, from a fervent, deluding Marxism of the electrician Bayard to a complete surrender to fate by the silent old Orthodox Jew who clutches a pillow, to be disemboweled later in the play. Of all the detainees only two are apparently not Jews: a Romani man (“Gypsy”) and an expatriate Austrian Prince, “von Berg,” who was picked up because he speaks French with a Germanic accent. Von Berg, whose characterization and background suggest he is gay, soon finds himself debating Nazism and paradigms of persecution with the play’s other characters, notably with Dr. Leduc, a Jewish doctor who shed blood for France in World War I. (There’s double irony in the choice of names: Austrian prince of origin versus Jewish duke of spirit.) Leduc harbors no illusions about the impending lot of the Jewish detainees, and he pushes von Berg to reflect on the role of personal sacrifice in preventing catastrophe—or at least in diminishing its proportions. I know very few other American plays where embers of European romanticism crack as loudly—and flames of the Russian novel of ideas burn as brightly—as they do in Miller’s Incident at Vichy.
Cultural history hasn’t been kind to Incident at Vichy, either at home or abroad, and the more recent revivals have yet to undo decades of neglect. Prior to the start of a French national awakening to the truth about the country’s complicity in the murder of European Jews, Incident at Vichy had had a perilous time getting staged in France, despite Miller’s great popularity. The play’s international production history, especially in the former Eastern Bloc, wasn’t helped by Miller’s portrayal of its proletarian character Bayard, a French Jewish Communist. As Prince von Berg polemicizes with the electrician Bayard’s class-bound view of history, he states that “ninety-nine percent of the Nazis are working-class people!”
Incident at Vichy is usually considered a lesser play, lacking the power and dynamism of Death of a Salesman and The Price, Miller’s iconic American plays with central characters who are often played as Jews or are Jews. It’s often discussed in the context of Miller’s response to the Eichmann trial and its coverage by Hannah Arendt. One third into the play, von Berg says to Leduc: “Well, don’t you think Nazism … whatever else it may be … is an outburst of vulgarity? An ocean of vulgarity?” The play’s stage history and critical reception are indeed riddled with Miller’s reactive engagement with Arendt’s Eichmann book, at the height of its controversy in the middle to late 1960s. In the words of Shoah theater historian Gene A. Plunka, “Miller, like Arendt, was accused of removing the Germans from the burden of their Holocaust crimes.” In the middle of the play von Berg suggests that “[t]hey do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age—the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.” Yet Miller didn’t merely cast onto his play the shadows of Arendt’s discourse on the “banality of evil.” The dynamics of Incident at Vichy—especially of von Berg’s transition from a guilt-tormented bystander to an incidental rescuer—dramatically complicate Arendt’s thesis. While the play alleges that Nazi evil has its own banal music and its own cardboard operatic complexity, it shows that personal sacrifice as a response to evil can never be banal. It can be simple, ordinary, unoriginal—but not banal. If every person of conscience were to make one act of personal sacrifice, how many victims of genocide might have been saved? To have said it, loud and clear, in 1965 was no small feat for any American playwright, Jewish or not Jewish.
After years of teaching and thinking about Shoah literature, I have come to value this play above all of Arthur Miller’s, including Death of a Salesman. For me Incident at Vichy is about the price of rescuing a victim and also about solidarity among members of the victimized minority groups. The events of the play push the Austrian prince to do a great deal of mental and emotional work, and this in turn leads him to offer to his counterpart in the play, the Jew Leduc, a ticket to survival. But I wouldn’t be writing this tribute today were it not for the profound impression the play had made on me when I first saw it in the spring of 1987 in Moscow, my native city. When I saw it then, I was a 19-year-old refusenik finally preparing to leave Russia. While I had experienced firsthand both the banality and the complexity of evil, I hadn’t heard of Arendt and was, in some sense, a perfect tabula rasa to take Miller’s play on its own terms.
In May 1987, as my family finally prepared to take leave after many years of hoping and waiting, I tried to say goodbye to friends, most of whom believed they would never see me again, or I them. I wasn’t just emigrating, going abroad, I was relocating to a different universe. I wanted to spend at least some time alone with each of my friends, doing something memorable. We visited art museums, went to concerts, or just strolled through the Moscow boulevards in blossom. One evening in May I took my friend Zina D. to see a play. Zina was studying violin at the college affiliated with the Moscow Conservatory of Music. Zina was half-Czech, half-Russian, with long strands of wheat-colored hair and bright blue eyes, and she always seemed to have her violin case with her. She never asked questions she suspected I wouldn’t be comfortable answering.
Sovremennik (Contemporary), where Zina and I went to see Incident at Vichy, was one of the best theaters in town, having broken off, in the 1960s, from the Moscow Art Theater. By May 1987 I had only seen a production of Miller’s The Price. But this much I did know about Miller: He was one of American theater’s greats, he was Jewish, he had been married to Marilyn Monroe, he had spoken out against the repression of artistic freedom in the USSR. And his plays had been virtually banned there since 1970. In fact, Incident at Vichy had been originally produced in Moscow in 1967, my birth year, by Marlen Khutsiev, a legendary film director of the Soviet New Wave, the maker of Ilyich’s Gate (1964) and July Rain (1966). Soviet authorities shelved Khutsiev’s production for 20 years. It finally had its premiere in the spring of 1987, when the director Igor Kvasha managed to get it restored and finally released. In a city where procuring tickets to any half-decent theater was an ordeal, Incident at Vichy was one of the hottest productions of the 1986-87 theatrical season.
The cast of that Moscow production was phenomenal, and I had the feeling that the actors played as though this could be their last show. Kvasha, the director, also starred as Leduc, the play’s voice of conscience. Gennady Frolov played the German Wehrmacht major who executes death orders, although not without some stirring of guilt. And Valentin Nikulin, son of a Jewish mother and Russian father, was brilliant as von Berg, a lover of music and of young Jewish musicians, now living in the south of France. To this day I remember von Berg—no, imagine von Berg—as having Nikulin’s long, slight frame, refined features, and languorous speech. I don’t know what my friend Zina, a musician and a Slav, was thinking as she watched the event unraveling on stage, but I remember turning her way to see tears in her eyes at the end of the play, after Prince von Berg had offered his pass to the Jewish doctor, himself choosing to remain in the antechamber of the Nazi interrogation room. In this play about rounding up Jews and Roma in Vichy France, so much spoke to me about our condition as refuseniks and as Soviet Jews. Miller’s play was about the Shoah, about denial and self-denial, about resistance, collaboration, and complicity. How perfectly intoned were the words and body language of von Berg directed at the Nazi “professor” of racial anthropology: “Hände weg!” (“Hands off!” or “Ruki proch’!” in Russian). Don’t touch me, I’m not one of you. I was sitting in the audience and thinking: How many Russian aristocrats of origin or spirit would say “Hands off!” to Soviet professors of anti-Semitism? I still think about it, 28 years later, and I thank Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy for everything it revealed to me on that May evening in Moscow.
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